Vocation and Spirituality

  • Jack Heppner, Author
  • Retired Educator

For most of my life I have considered spirituality to be a state of communion with God apart from my vocation defined as what I do for a living. That meant I was most spiritual when I was consciously “doing my devotions,” that is reading the Bible, mediating and consciously praying. When life’s demands precluded such activity on any given day I had a sense that my spirituality was beginning to slip. But even on those days when I had faithfully done my “quiet time,” there often was a sense that the affairs of the day wore down any sense of spiritual dynamic I had mustered earlier in the day.

In his classic book, A Spirituality for the Road, David J. Boesch addresses this conundrum. (I was dismayed to discover this wonderful book has escaped my library. So I will refer to his thoughts from memory without direct quotations.) Boesch compares the spirituality I have described above with the image of a hand pump which you use to draw water from a deep well. As long as you are working the pump lever, fresh water keeps emerging from the well. The moment you stop pumping you must live with what you have brought to the surface. The problem, of course, is that during the day that water can evaporate, spill or even be taken away from you by the demands of life. Of course, then you will need to return to the pump to draw up another supply of spiritual vitality.

Boesch proposes to imagine instead an artesian well in your soul. The water of spiritual life is continually overflowing in your soul – providing on-going spiritual vitality, even when you are “on the road of life.” Of course, artesian wells can be capped and, he notes, that this is what often happens in our lives, either consciously or unconsciously. What Boesch is reaching for is a model of spirituality that doesn’t wear down when confronted with the strains and stresses of daily life. I found this image helpful but too often I have returned to the hand pump model. The question that still confronts me is how to make the transition to the artesian well model more permanent.

More recently, Parker Palmer and Richard Rohr are helping me reflect on this issue by focusing my attention on how vocation and spirituality intertwine. They suggest that we err when we think of our vocation in terms of what we do for a living. Our true vocation, they suggest, is to discover and grow into our True Selves. Of course, this only works if we acknowledge that we are all uniquely endowed with the image and likeness of God. With this understanding I can say that my true vocation transcends and outlasts my working world or my career.

In other words, I am most “spiritual” when I am living out my True Self which God has implanted within me. More than thinking spiritual thoughts our consciously praying, spirituality is finding myself to have “come alive” to who I truly am and being in the process of giving expression to that “image and likeness of God” in the world in which I live. If I am in the process of “letting my life speak,” as the old Quaker saying goes, it might be fair to say that I have uncapped the artesian well of spiritual life that is seeking to well up from within.

That is not to downplay the need for regular disciplines of prayer, Bible reading, contemplation and quietness. But it is saying that these disciplines are not an end in themselves. They are not the sum total of my spiritual life that keeps being drained by the activities and stresses of life. Spiritual disciplines are but a part of a “whole-life” response to God and the needs we find in the world all around us. A spirituality that is rooted in the discovery of our True Selves is not of the order that keeps being depleted by the rigors of life but rather flourishes along life’s way. As Boesch would say, it is “a spirituality of the road.”

This awareness is both freeing and challenging at the same time. I am freed from the need to constantly keep assessing the state of my spiritual life on the basis of how “other-worldly” my spiritual disciplines were this morning – as wonderful as such experiences might be. And I am challenged constantly to live out of my True Self in an organic and holistic way that embodies my true vocation. True spirituality, it seems to me, embodies both of these dimensions of life.

While studying Spanish in about 1975 I met an aspiring missionary who told me that he would get up early every day to spend time with God – that is practice his spirituality. And then, by the time the kids got up and life took over, he told me, it was all downhill from there. I think there is something seriously flawed with this approach to spirituality. I am beginning to see that a healthier way to envision spirituality is to interlock our understandings of vocation and spirituality, especially if we find that vocation responding in authentic service in a world of need. In his book, Wishful Thinking; A Seeker’s ABC (1993), Frederich Buechner speaks of vocation as “…the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need” (119). When this happens, it seems to me, a sense of deep spirituality will alight gently on your shoulder or sneak quietly into the crevices of your soul.

While I have so much to learn about spirituality, I find this perspective which meshes traditional spiritual disciplines with quietly living out your true vocation helpful. It is not all about ecstatic experiences nor about ego-driven activity. It is all about consciously being who you really are. Perhaps that explains the quiet peace in my soul I told Ruth about recently even while fully engaged in creating an inter-cultural community garden here in Altona.