by Laura Kelly Fanucci
Liturgical Press, 2014, 152 pp.
In this excerpt from her book Everyday Sacrament: The Messy Grace of Parenting, Laura Kelly Fanucci challenges conventional thinking about vocation, calling, and children, and reflects on the role parents in nurturing these callings.
Laura works with the Collegeville Seminars, where The Seminar on Vocation across the Lifespan brings together theologians, social scientists, and ministers from a variety of Christian traditions to explore questions of calling from infancy to old age. The Seminar is currently working on a book exploring vocation across the lifespan and how ministers in congregations can address people’s changing vocational needs related to God’s call at different times of life.
May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment.
—Rites of Ordination
When we were waiting for each of you to be born, your father and I picked out your names. I scribbled possibilities on the back of meeting agendas; he tossed out ideas over dinner; we kept a running list on the laptop as we debated each other’s suggestions. When it finally came time to choose, we agreed on names that we loved. Names of personal significance, remembering relatives that we cherished. Names of theological meaning, echoing saints and scriptural figures we respected.
But equally important? Names that could be nicknamed.
This was no toss-away afterthought. This was a deliberate decision born of two parents whose first names were never easily shortened by classmates or coaches, nothing like the Christophers and Katherines in our classrooms growing up. Since every parent is condemned to compensate for what they feel they lacked (a mea culpa you may someday know yourselves), we were naturally drawn toward something different. Names that had multiple alternatives. Names that could change between school and home. Names that could grow from baby days into adulthood.
Samuel, Sammy, Sam. Thomas, Tommy, Tom.
Perfect, we thought, for each of you. Names full of possibility.
But then a strange thing happened. People around us started doing exactly what we’d intended—calling you by variations on a theme—and it turned out we weren’t as wild about the idea as we’d expected.
For our first, we intended to hold onto the full “Samuel,” savoring the promise of its biblical meaning—a longawaited child whose parents prayed to God for him. But after a few months, we discovered that you were simply a Sam. The nickname began in babyhood and stuck. Or so we thought. Until one side of the family still insisted on calling you “Samuel,” and the other side delighted in dubbing you “Sammy J.” And there we were, your father and I, left digging in our heels as your name slipped out of our grasp.
Turns out that we who signed your birth certificate in the hospital room weren’t in control of what you were called.
For our second, we loved “Thomas”—stately, solid, and strong as the daring disciple who questioned Christ to deepen his faith. This time the full name fit, even in the lisping mouth of your older brother. But then one branch of the family tree leaned toward “Tom” and the other was inclined to make a matching pair with “Tommy A.” As before, no one seemed too concerned with our parental preference. So we shrugged. Once again out of our control.
Lessons linger from this business of naming. About our plans and dreams and the reality they meet. About the illusion of control over the souls we help bring into this world. About the power of being called by name—through all its variations, in multiple directions, by many different people who love and need and claim us.
The truth is that who calls you, and what you are called, and where you are called, has the power to shape your life and your identity, even beyond your parents’ wildest expectations.
What does it mean to have a calling?
Perhaps you would protest the very thought of a vocation. (As is your modus operandi to protest everything in these early years.) Perhaps if you could grasp what a calling could mean, what a weight it might have on your life, you would shove it away like one-too-many kisses from a doting mother or yet another bemused glance from a patient father. Yet I can tell you each with certainty that you are called from birth by the God who created you, and you are claimed from baptism by Christ whose name you bear. Called to be and to do. Called to follow in unexpected ways.
A crazy idea? Perhaps by the world’s standards. But here is where I want to challenge conventional thinking on the subject.
Vocation is not reserved for the mature and the adult. Each of you is called from childhood, beginning as the young sparks you are. Here and now, you are sons and siblings. You are grandsons, nephews, and cousins. You are classmates, friends, and neighbors. You are on the way to becoming—something and someone more than we could ever imagine today. But you are also called as you are now. Your vocations are already and not-yet.
What you will become remains a mystery. Perhaps this is refreshingly and terrifyingly true for all of us, no matter our age. But childhood lends itself to dreaming, even by the adults around you. Each time one of you dives into a new interest or reveals another talent, those who know and love you leap to speculate on what you might become. An engineer for your fascination with cars. A lawyer with your penchant for arguing. A mathematician for your love of numbers. Whether these passions evolve into vocations, only time will tell. For now we wait and wonder.
But certain moments make us stop and take pause.
When you two were wriggling worms at two years old and two months young, we watched together in the cathedral pew as the seminarian who baptized Thomas became a priest. As I whispered in your ears to keep you quiet through the hours-long Mass, we listened to the bishop pray over the newly ordained: May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment (Rites of Ordination).
At that exact moment, Sam, you scrambled out of my reach. You lifted high above your head the hymn book you’d been flipping through, and started to carry it solemnly around our pew. The elderly couple behind us chuckled. Your dad elbowed me and grinned, rolling his eyes.
But your gesture caught me in the throat, clichéd though it may seem.
A mother’s head is always full of dreams of what her babies might become. But until that moment, with a baby teething on my shoulder and a toddler taking his procession out to the aisle, I had never actually pondered the possibility that the priesthood could be your path. Maybe you will indeed feel called to follow Christ in this way, carrying around your own Book of the Gospels to the pulpit to preach. (Or maybe you just wanted to whack your baby brother in the head with a heavy hymnal.)
But watching the two of you there in the pew at church, among a community I hoped would nurture whatever callings would be yours, I realized that for each of you there will be sacrifice and service and holiness in your vocations. Whether you become a parent or a priest, whether you pursue a profession or forge an unconventional path. Through the gifts you will be given and the needs you will be shown, you will continue to be called into life by the God who walks with each of us.
When I was pregnant for the first time, your Aunt Deirdre wrote me a letter with a few words of advice on surviving the newborn days:
The gift I most want to pass on to you cannot be giftwrapped. It is the idea of “portability.” I took my kids everywhere as babies. We spent hours in the National Gallery and Natural History Museum, hours in Starbucks, too. I took them to nearly every park in the city, wandered neighborhoods I didn’t know.
As infants, they were obviously far too young to “get” anything from these outings. But they had massive value to me as a new mother. They made me put my babies (especially my very small one) out in the world, and made me realize very early on that they were part of something much bigger than I was.
So my biggest advice is as soon as you have your sea legs, get your baby out. Take him to the places you love. Take him on hikes in those beautiful woods and take him to your amazing art museum. It will make you remember that you are a person, not just a parent, and that goes a long way to having a healthy, loving baby.
Take your baby out into the world. I remembered those words long after all the advice that a first-time mother hears—let him cry it out! never let him cry! wean him early! nurse him till he’s two! stay home full-time! get back to work!—finally died down.
But even as her words echoed in my ears, nudging me out the door with a newborn to the park and the playdate and the library, I still couldn’t see clearly what I know now: that hers would be the best advice I’d receive on parenting. Because she reminded me that my calling as a mother is to introduce you to the wide world and the God who created it, so that I can help each of you learn how you are called in turn.
Called to take your place, to share your gifts, to serve in the ways you will be shown.
Skeptics sometimes ask what I will do if you grow up and leave the church, or if you don’t believe in God. (This, I fear, is only one of many occupational hazards you will encounter in having a theologically minded mother.) Then won’t all of this have been a failure—all these years of trying to nurture you in the life of faith?
Not at all, I respond.
If I can raise you to know that you were created by God, loved beyond measure, and called to share your gifts with those in need, then I believe this understanding will stay buried within your bones, no matter which road you choose. Your journey may wind into church or out of church, but wherever you go, it will be within the wide embrace of God who changed the essence of existence by love. My confidence in that truth runs deeper than any parental fears.
This is why I can heed your aunt’s wise words, to take each of you out into the world and help you sniff out the beginnings of whatever trails will lead you on. Because I know that you are not mine to keep forever. You belong to God, and you belong to God’s wild world. So I can whisper these hopes with confidence—when I wake you in the morning to pull you sleepily into another day, when I drop you off at school to learn and play, when I answer your unending curious questions of why, when I tuck you in at night with songs and prayers. May God who has begun the good work in you bring it to fulfillment. This is the same prayer I hold for you, Sam, and for you, Thomas. A prayer of trust and hope and gratitude.
And this is the same prayer I cradle for you, too, the child whom I carry below my heart. The one we have been waiting and praying for. The one who will arrive with spring’s green buds and warm breezes. The one who today is kicking and fluttering and quickening into being. Our baby of new hope and second chances, of life after loss. You who will soon have your own name (nickname-able, of course) and your own callings, full of wonderful possibility. You who call me into motherhood again, beyond my fears.
To each of my children, I give thanks. For the gifts you have been from God. For the people you are and the people you will become, loved and called by many names. For the vocations you will discover and the communities you will serve. For the painful and joyful ways you birth your parents’ vocations into being. For the gifts you call forth from us and the needs in the world you open our eyes to see.
And for all the ordinary ways you make our daily life together holy—this sacred chaos, this messy grace, this everyday sacrament.