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New book offers historical perspective on lay vocational discernment

Callings and Consequences: The Making of Catholic Vocational Culture in Early Modern France, by Christopher J. Lane, “analyzes the origins, growth, and influence of a culture of vocation that became a central component of the Catholic Reformation”.

Detail from "Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" (1889) by Heinrich Hofmann (WikiCommons)

I have never been a fan of emphasizing “vocation” for the laity. My dissent is rooted in two places, I think.

First, quite honestly, my personality type, which is all about preparing, but averse to planning. Some might call this “reactive,” I prefer to think of it as responding to the Spirit.

Better, yes?

Of course God calls and leads us. But it seems to me, from Scripture and the example of the saints, that this calling is mostly about the particular moment we are in and the people and circumstances that surround us. This can certainly have long-term effects and might put us on a path that lasts the rest of our lives on earth, but the emphasis is not on any sense of: this thing that God is calling me to do for the rest of my life but rather for the rest of my life I will respond to what God calls me to in any given moment.

It also strikes me that intense discernment of “vocation” in the world is a luxury good, an expression of privilege. And in the modern world of self-fulfillment, quite often twisted into a baptized version of privileged “life journey,” and a way to avoid serving and meeting the needs of those right in front of us, right now.

There is, I think, a spiritually healthy way of talking about lay vocation in the world, but it’s not a way that centers on personal fulfillment. It challenges us to ask: “What does the world need? What do the people in this world need? How can I help? How must I help?”

But you’ve heard all of that before. This is all an introduction to a brief discussion of a book I read last week, Callings and Consequences: The Making of Catholic Vocational Culture in Early Modern France (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021) by Christopher J. Lane, who is associate professor of history at Christendom College.

Exciting! Well, it was interesting. From the book’s description:

The concept of vocation in an early modern setting calls to mind the priesthood or religious life in a monastery or cloister; to be “called” by God meant to leave the concerns of the world behind. Beginning in the mid-seventeenth century, French Catholic clergy began to promote the innovative idea that everyone, even an ordinary layperson, was called to a vocation or “state of life” and that discerning this call correctly had implications for one’s happiness and salvation, and for the social good.

In Callings and Consequences Christopher Lane analyzes the origins, growth, and influence of a culture of vocation that became a central component of the Catholic Reformation and its legacy in France. The reformers’ new vision of the choice of a state of life was marked by four characteristics: urgency (the realization that one’s soul was at stake), inclusiveness (the belief that everyone, including lay people, was called by God), method (the use of proven discernment practices), and liberty (the belief that this choice must be free from coercion, especially by parents). No mere passing phenomena, these vocational reforms engendered enduring beliefs and practices within the repertoire of global Catholic modernity, even to the present day.

The book is not just about the laity, but about how discourse—and processes—related to religious vocations as well, shifted during this period. What was at play was that early Modern tension between the importance of the individual and authority, including parental authority.

Two points I want to share in this space:

First, these reformers sense, as Lane puts it, of the urgency of a proper attitude towards vocational discernment (and remember we are including the laity here, which these writers did)—reflecting the problems that result from people following vocations to which they were not actually called—think individuals entering religious life because of family expectations or pressure or worldly gain, resulting in a church weighted by corruption.

Secondly, related to the individual, was the conviction that God would call one to a vocation that made it “easier” in a sense, to attain salvation, and to discern wrongly—or be manipulated or coerced into the wrong vocation—would put one’s soul at risk.

Vocation, in this rigorist context, became the means by which God determined the graces particularly needed by each person. Choosing the wrong vocation would be to reject the graces needed for one’s salvation.

… Since those who had chosen wrongly would not be equipped to fulfill the duties of their respective states of life, the needs of others would be unmet. As Clugny, for example, explained in Pauline terms, good vocational choices enacted God’s providential plan for a church composed of various members: “The diversity of states and the variety of kinds of life make the church subsist and give it its beauty. If a body had nothing but eyes or feet, it would be monstrous. we are all members of a Body, of which Jesus Christ is the Head.”. When Christians failed to follow God’s call, they were rebellious members of Christ’s body, like a foot trying to be an eye. Especially worrisome in the post-Tridentine era of clerical reform was entrance into the priesthood without a vocation. Hence Claude ply’s catechism warned that parents who forced their sons to be clerics would have to “answer before God for the scandal that their children give to the whole Church..”‘

Right vocational choices were therefore no private matter, between God and the individual. Rigorist vocational reformers hoped not only that more individuals might be saved, but that the body of the church might be healed. Bad priests led Christians into sin more readily than anyone else. Bad religious and laity were no help, either. If no priest, religious, or lay person could be good without the grace of vocation, then ongoing Catholic reform demanded that young Catholics learn to discern rightly God’s will for their lives. Catholic vocational culture in France needed to be remade.

Rigorist vocational reformers therefore sought to normalize vocational discernment, and one of the biggest challenges in doing so was the effort to Instill the idea that each person was called to a state of life, including all laymen and women. vocational rigorists sought to leave no space for a mediocre laity, and so they offered an inclusive framework for lay vocation…

You can see where this comes from in the post-Protestant Reformation era, an era of now Catholic self-examination and reformation—also an era (in terms of the laity) of slightly more choice—for males of a certain social and economic level, at least.

But into the anxiety steps our friend Francis de Sales, who has a slightly different view. He assumes vocation, of course, and the importance of discernment—but then cautions against stressing out about it. Even with something as serious as vocational discernment, “excessive discernment was harmful and the will of Go could not be found simply ‘by force of examination and subtlety of discourse,’ that is, by an unending and convoluted interior search, relying exclusively on one’s own mind.” (33)

Jane de Chantal reflects this mindset—not surprisingly—as she consistently reminds us to stop thinking so much about ourselves: Anyone can see that all this is simply self-love seeking its satisfaction.

De Sales recommends a simpler process involving prayer and taking counsel—and then going forward. Also of importance is de Sale’s assertion that even when a “wrong” decision is made, God can bring good fruit: “Yet more surprisingly, a good vocation might come out of bad motives….In short, a sincere will to continue living in this state would render moot any imperfections in choosing to enter it.” (34). Lane writes of de Sales:

He emphasized the simplicity of the decision and the abundance of God’s grace, even if one ended up in a state of life for the wrong reasons. The choice of a state was thus a serious choice, but not the hinge on which all one’s life and eternity depended; perfection was possible in every state, and God was generous to all who turned to him. (34)

Yes, each and every one of us called by God—today. Right now. And more than likely, it’s a call related to the people sitting in the next room or at the next cubicle. Any big steps we take begin here.

As de Sales says in another context:

My God ! dear daughter, do not examine whether what you do is little or much, good or ill, provided it is not sin, and that in good faith you will to do it for God. As much as you can, do perfectly what you do, but when it is done, think of it no more ; rather think of what is to be done quite simply in the way of God, and do not torment your spirit.

(Editor’s note: This essay was first posted on May 7, 2022, on the author’s blog, Charlotte was Both, and is published here in slightly different form with her permission.)


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About Amy Welborn 25 Articles
Amy Welborn is a writer currently living in Birmingham, Alabama. She is the author of over twenty books on spirituality, saints and history., including the recently released Loyola Kids Book of Catholic Signs and Symbols: An Illustrated Guide to Their History and Meaning. Her website is www.amywelborn.com.

6 Comments

  1. I believe one of the Catholics greatly influenced by the movement described by the book, is Blessed Frederic Ozanam. His life speaks of it and also his inspiration in founding the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which gave him to name it after the apostle of charity. St. Vincent in his time was not able to construct a lay men’s charity; and some 200 years later Ozanam had it to accomplish for him and our Lord Jesus Christ. I am always looking for bright literature for insightful reading and I am going to get Lane’s work, because of this review. Thank you Amy Welborn. I feel it will help to round out my interest in and knowledge of Bld. Ozanam and St. Vincent de Paul. Your 2 points can be discovered very easily in Ozanam’s witness; but it’s not often referenced.

  2. Thank you dear Amy; you open such a crucially important topic and provide insightful and evocative thoughts.

    You are right: the Carpenter knows full well what He is going to do with each piece of timber, far beyond what any piece of timber is able to imagine.

    When we sincerely put our lives into the nail-pierced, carpenter’s hands of King Jesus and profess our faith in Him (who is the Eternal Living Word of Father God and the Royal Anointer with The Holy Spirit) He takes us seriously and will most assuredly be constantly at work in our lives, from that moment and until we are taken to be part of His heavenly household in glory.

    As the decades pass, we learn to be attentive, and start to recognize the numerous miracles He has effected, year by year, in our lives. As age and experience grind down our worldly pride and self-centeredness, we will become more able to converse with the One in whose hands we rest. The small still voice of our Lord Jesus Christ will be clearer, as our trust grows and our hubbub finally begins to subside.

    Few are His words but each is infinitely precious and well able to show us how He has enabled each of us to serve a unique purpose, even when we had no idea what we were doing. He will show us how He has long been shaping and connecting our circumstances so we can contribute to His work of redemption and destruction of the works of the devil, with increasing obedience to God’s commands, and deeper and deeper immersion in His New Testament of Love & Peace.

    As Jesus told Martha: “Only One thing is needed.” Everything else follows . . .

    Always in the grace & mercy of King Jesus; love & blessings from marty

  3. “It also strikes me that intense discernment of “vocation” in the world is a luxury good, an expression of privilege.” And, oh, my, we must not succumb to the siren song of “privilege.” That would be bad, bad, bad.

    But what if, indeed, some are privilege by their Maker as distinct from what their society does for them. Are they then to scorn their privileges out of guilt induced by
    commentators, some of whom are privileged themselves?

    And what if a young man–many young men–out of this guilt were to reject the call to priesthood because of a fear of exercising “privilge”? What then?

    One result, of course, would be still fewer priests. On and on and on.

  4. Hi, dear Thomas,

    Certainly, there is a very profitable industry based on writing, lecturing & counselling wealthy, privileged people who are agonizing over ‘their’ vocation.

    Yet, King Jesus invested most of His time with poor and marginalized (unprivileged) folk. The artwork on the cover of Lane’s book, that Amy reviews in this article, says much. The dismissive expression on the face of the rich, young ruler is revealing!

    Mammon had him by the throat. Dives was unable to give away his wealthy privilege so as to obey & follow The Lord of all lords. Dives’ priorities are made plain.

    What a true privilege: if WE are graced to follow Jesus’ commands: 1. to carry our cross daily and follow Him; 2. to produce godly fruit in proportion to our blessings; 3. to sincerely serve all others in proportion to our ambitions for greatness. 4. to do everything with the lowly-hearted humility and self-giving love of Christ.

    Impossible, it seems! Yet, nothing is impossible for God, who promises to shepherd us who trust Him. Any holiness we acquire derives from Him. Hence the manifest peace and joy of those who are walking with Jesus. It is all a matter of faith.

    Ever in the merciful grace of Jesus Christ; love & blessings from marty

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