I have written this article in honor of Douglas Schuurman (1955-2020), a colleague and friend of the Collegeville Institute. Doug participated in the Collegeville Institute Seminar on Faith and Vocation in the Professions and is my co-editor of the book, Calling in Today’s World: Voices from Eight Faith Perspectives (Eerdmans, 2016). He was Professor of Religion at Saint Olaf College for 34 years.
– Kathleen A. Cahalan
Purpose language is everywhere these days. On March 23, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker warned about an impending loss of purpose in the face of the growing pandemic. Pressing his audience on the necessity to stay at home, he rallied on: “Purpose is what drives us. Purpose is what feeds our souls. Many feel lost and I can see why. We all have a role, we all have purpose as we battle this disease and protecting one another from Covid-19 is profoundly purposeful.”
Living under the fear of the pandemic and the constraints on our lives, some leaders direct our attention to a common purpose. And not just those who are on the front lines in hospitals and grocery stores, but me, by staying at home, I have a purpose. It’s a purpose we share together, which draws us into the greater community when we feel torn away from it. It’s a reassuring and hopeful message, but why is it so hard to embrace?
Perhaps it has to do with the language itself. Purpose echoes the Christian terms of calling and vocation but it also has largely replaced it. If you enter these terms into Google Ngram Viewer, which tabulates the frequency of words in about five million books, we see that terms such as “purpose” and “meaning” have grown considerably in usage since the 1900s, whereas “calling” has increased some and “vocation” has gained little ground. The language of “purpose” and “meaning” have become our secular vocabulary for “calling” and “vocation,” one that many Christians share.
Take for example, The Purpose Driven Life. In the 2002 best-selling book, evangelical pastor Rick Warren prefers the language of “purpose” to drive home his message about the Christian life. He mentions “calling” once in the 300+ page book. Warren must have known that term would not sell today.
Consider a secular take on calling. In Diane Dreher’s book, Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling, Dreher defines calling as the “dynamic voyage of self-discovery central to the Renaissance, and it is our journey, yours and mine, as we seek to live with greater joy and purpose, becoming more deeply, more authentically ourselves” (emphasis mine). As you read her book you will find yourself happier, more energetic, more deeply yourself; more inner directed, focused, and confident; more relaxed, playful, and open to new possibilities; able to recognize and reject what drains you; able to embrace what energizes and inspires you.
But what if one’s journey demands a sacrifice, something that does not make you happier? What if your purpose during this pandemic includes canceling plans, or closing a small business?
There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice
The late Protestant theologian, Douglas Schuurman, pointed out that popular notions of calling, such as self-actualization or self-fulfillment, stand in stark contrast to biblical and Christian understandings. In fact, “one’s calling brings self-denial and self-sacrifice… the heart of one’s callings is to meet the needs of one’s neighbors, even if doing so involves work that is tedious, routine, and distasteful.” Echoing Martin Luther, Schuurman argues that it is in our callings that we can experience the cross in all its despair, and it is from that place that we search for God to make good and holy what we cannot.
Nowhere in the language of purpose do I hear much talk of sacrifice. Perhaps leaders are hesitant to mention that word given what happened to President Jimmy Carter after he delivered what is known as “the malaise speech” in the summer of 1979 regarding energy consumption. Carter told the American people, “There is simply no way to avoid sacrifice.” In a resounding defeat, the people shouted back to him: “No way!”
Isn’t it necessary, at some point, to speak the language of sacrifice and to highlight it as essential to our individual and common purpose? What if talk about purpose included the message that we are not to avoid sacrifice but to embrace it?
Schuurman points out that few of us are called to make a sacrifice as Jesus did, but that there comes a time in each of our lives where we will hear a call to give of ourselves that demands sacrifice. “Few have callings that will require such suffering, but all callings involve difficult times of yielding one’s own interests to the well-being of others, self-denial, and discipline.”
Jim Foley, a photojournalist who told stories of those suffering from war by taking pictures of people’s faces, covered the wars in Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. In 2014 he returned to Syria and was captured and tortured by ISIS. And he died. Jim’s mother reported that she had tried to talk him out of going back to Syria after a trip home and he told her: “But Mom, I’ve found my passion, I’ve found my vocation.”
You will find that the language of passion reverberates across the language of purpose. A calling draws together a person’s gifts, values, and passions, which means what you care most about. Christian notions of calling echo a similar refrain, but here passion points to not only what I prize above all else but to the Latin meaning of passion, “to suffer, bear, endure.”
Our first purpose is love
But that’s the irony of self-sacrifice. It requires a tremendous sense of purpose, passion, and identity. At some point a calling emerges as something one cannot not do. Calling stories, especially those that entail tremendous sacrifice, point to the inextricable link between self-denial and authenticity. In fact, one finds self-fulfillment in such an act, Schuurman acknowledges. “Self-fulfillment is like happiness: you fail to experience it if you aim directly at it. It is a byproduct of giving your life in service to others…. The freedom that comes from a life of faith brings genuine fulfillment of the deepest desires of human hearts.”
Christian callings don’t aim directly at self-fulfillment or self-sacrifice. They aim at love, love for the other and for God, and that love may at times demand a tremendous sacrifice, on the front lines as well as for those staying at home.
It is through such love, through losing yourself, even your life, that one then experiences joy, freedom, and peace. In Terrence Malick’s film, A Hidden Life, someone asks Franz Jägerstätter (1907-1943), who is in prison as a conscientious objector, “Why don’t you just sign the paper and you can be free?” Franz responds, “But I am already free.”
Such freedom is the fruit that grows from bearing one’s cross daily and knowing when and where to offer your life as a living sacrifice. The language of purpose will only take us so far; we need something more to embrace the sacrifices we cannot avoid at this time.