In the fall of 2008 I was going through a vocational crisis. One of the ways I used to deal with it was to go on an week-long solitary retreat. I booked time at a retreat center that offered a hermitage, and began preparing myself. I got a lot of advice from friends about how to spend my time, some of it helpful, some not so much, but all were well-meant.
Perhaps the best advice I was given was from a friend who just handed me a book, with the words “I think you might find this helpful.” Truer words were never spoken. The book was “Let Your Life Speak,” by Parker J. Palmer. Over my time on retreat, I read and re-read this little book, devouring and meditating on every word. I wrote to Parker afterwards, thanking him for the book, and telling him that it might just have saved my life — at least in the vocational sense!
More than ten years have passed. The crisis came and went over the ensuing year or so, and in due time I retired. Retirement poses its own vocational issues, some of which I have written about previously on this blog. I have come to a place where I seem to have things more or less in place for a decently comfortable and engaging retirement. I like to tell people that “I am as busy as I want to be,” adding that sometimes I really don’t want to be busy. That’s really quite OK — for the most part I find myself content with life as it is now.
I decided recently to re-read Palmer’s book on vocation, for reasons that are not immediately apparent to me. I’m reading it slowly this time, perhaps because there’s not such a sense of crisis, and I’m finding things I either didn’t notice then or had forgotten. This morning this passage struck me:
Making pottery … involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hand, telling her what it can and cannot do–and if she fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly.Let Your Life Speak, p. 16
The point he’s making here has to do with vocation being more a response to our true inborn nature than to an external call. If we are clay, we are called to be as “clayish” as we can be. What struck me today was the role of the potter, allowing the clay to live into its true nature, working with what is available, and not cursing the clay for not being something else.
I’ve been on both sides of the table in dealing with vocational issues. I’ve wrestled with my own sense of calling, and I’ve walked with others in the same process. I recall one young man seeking ordination who responded to the question “Why do you want to be a priest?” by saying “Everyone says I should be.” Well and good–he had great gifts. But he was unable to say with any clarity how he experienced this supposed call in terms of his own self-perception. When we asked him “What else could you do?” he came to life, describing some of the academic work he had been doing, and the possibility of a doctoral dissertation coming out of it. It was very clear where his “clayness” lay. As the potter in this situation, my colleagues and I had to try to point the candidate towards his true being, and to encourage him to live into it.
I have worked with more than one superior who had very clear ideas about what constituted a good subordinate. I found these relationships difficult, because sometimes I found myself devalued for not quite being what they wanted, and also for having gifts that they did not seem to value. To use the clay metaphor, I sometimes felt like a piece of wood that refused to become a pot.
As a retired priest, I am less accountable for my time and work than before. Even so, I hold my current license as an honorary assistant at the pleasure of both the parish Rector and my Bishop. There is more freedom in this situation to live into my own unique clayness than I experienced when in stipendiary ministry. I wish for all my colleagues in ministry, as well as for all people dealing with vocational questions, that they may find similar freedom in their life and work.