Rediscovering your true self

Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to become what I am not. It comes from a voice calling me to be the person I was born to be.

By Fr Michael Smith SJ

Here is another way to understand the idea of Identity —> Vocation —> Mission = Name of Grace. In an article titled Now I become myself, Parker Palmer says that it can take a long time to become the person one has always been.

In the article, written more than 20 years ago, he wrote: “Often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. There can be much dissolving and shaking of ego to endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being that is the seed of authentic vocation. We hear a lot about vocation in the Church. Vocation, or calling, is sometimes seen as coming from a voice external to ourselves, a voice of moral demand that asks us to become someone we are not yet — someone different, someone better, someone just beyond our reach.

“That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be ‘selfish’ unless corrected by external forces of virtue. It is a notion that can make us feel inadequate to the task of living our own lives, creating guilt about the distance between who we are and who we are supposed to be, leaving us exhausted as we labour to close the gap.

“But there is another way of looking at vocation — not as a goal to be achieved but as a gift to be received. Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become what I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here'”” calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

The birthright gift

“It is a strange gift, this birthright gift of self. Accepting it turns out to be even more demanding than attempting to become someone else. We sometimes respond to that demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or even squandering it. There is a Hasidic tale that reveals, with amazing brevity, both the universal tendency to want to be someone else and the ultimate importance of becoming one’s self. Rabbi Zusya, when he was an old man, said, ‘In the coming world, they will not ask me: Why were you not Moses? They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya?’

“We arrive in this world with birthright gifts — then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, workplaces and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others. We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then — if we are awake, aware and able to admit our loss — we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.

Wearing other people’s faces

“When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts. From the beginning, our lives lay down clues to selfhood and vocation, though the clues may be hard to decode. But trying to interpret them is profoundly worthwhile — especially when we are in our forties or fifties, feeling profoundly lost, having wandered, or been dragged, far away from our birthright gifts.

“Those clues are helpful in counteracting the conventional concept of vocation, which insists that our lives must be driven by ‘oughts’. As noble as that may sound, we do not find our callings by conforming ourselves to some abstract moral code. We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are, by dwelling in the world as Zusya rather than straining to be Moses. The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’

“Everything in the universe has a nature, which means limits as well as potentials, a truth well known by people who work daily with the things of the world. Making pottery, for example, involves more than telling the clay what to become. The clay presses back on the potter’s hands, telling him or her what it can and cannot do — and if the potter fails to listen, the outcome will be both frail and ungainly. Engineering involves more than telling materials what they must do. If the engineer does not honour the nature of the steel or the wood or the stone, his or her failure will go well beyond aesthetics: the bridge or the building will collapse and put human life in peril.

“The human self also has a nature, limits as well as potentials. If you seek vocation without understanding the material you are working with, what you build with your life will be ungainly and may well put lives in peril, your own and some of those around you. ‘Faking it’ in the service of high values is no virtue and has nothing to do with vocation. It is an ignorant, sometimes arrogant, attempt to override one’s nature, and it will always fail.

Photo courtesy of Fr Michael Smith SJ.

Joining self and service

“Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks — we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” True vocation joins self and service, as Frederick Buechner asserts:

By and large a good rule for finding out is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. … The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. [1]

“Buechner’s definition starts with the self and moves toward the needs of the world: it begins, wisely, where vocation begins — not in what the world needs (which is everything), but in the nature of the human self, in what brings the self joy, the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.

“Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture, this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. The Quaker teacher, Douglas Steere, was fond of saying that the ancient human question ‘Who am I?’ leads inevitably to the equally important question ‘Whose am I?’ — for there is no selfhood outside relationship. We must ask the question of selfhood and answer it as honestly as we can, no matter where it takes us. Only as we do so can we discover the community of our lives.

“As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted — the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbour and myself.”

There are at least two ways to understand the link between selfhood and service. One is offered by the 13th-century poet Rumi in his piercing observation: “If you are here unfaithfully with us, you’re causing terrible damage.” If we are unfaithful to true self, we will extract a price from others. We will make promises we cannot keep, build houses from flimsy stuff, conjure dreams that devolve into nightmares, and other people will suffer — if we are unfaithful to our true self.

Herbert Alphonso SJ writes: “The single greatest grace of my life is that I discerned my truest and deepest ‘self’, the unrepeatable uniqueness God has given to me in ‘calling me by name’… My own personal experience and my ministry of the Spirit have taught me that the deepest transformation in any person’s life takes place in the actual living out of this very ‘personal vocation’. [2]

Alphonso believes that the experience of one’s ‘fundamental consolation’, one’s ‘God-given uniqueness’, which he calls one’s ‘personal vocation’ [3] is not only the ground of one’s relationship with God, but is foundational in any process of discernment.”

Dermot Mansfield SJ speaks of one’s ‘primordial experience’: “It is vital for any spirituality, or way of prayer, or process of spiritual accompaniment, to attend to that primordial experience, when I know that I have been called into existence to be uniquely who I am and to be sustained by that look of love.” [4]

Alphonso argues that one’s personal vocation “becomes the criterion for discernment for every decision in life, even for the daily details of decision-making.” [5] He supports his argument reflecting on Jesus’ personal vocation, “captured in but one single word: ‘Abba’.” [6] Based on his personal experience, Thomas Merton makes a similar claim: “I have my own special peculiar destiny which no one else ever has had or ever will have … Because my own individual destiny is a meeting, an encounter with God, that God has destined for me alone … it is a gift of God to me which God has never given to anyone else and never will.” [7] 

Click here to see the original version of this article by Fr Michael Smith SJ

The referenced article by Parker Palmer can be seen here.

On arrival at Manresa at the conclusion of The Ignatian Camino. Photo courtesy of Fr Michael Smith SJ.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, HarperOne, 1993, 118-119. 

[2] Herbert Alphonso, The Personal Vocation (Rome: Centrum Ignatianum Spiritualitatis, 1990), 14. Alphonso (1930-2012) was an Indian Jesuit priest, director of the Ignatian Spirituality Centre and professor of Spiritual Theology at the Gregorian University in Rome. 

[3] Alphonso, The Personal Vocation, 14.

[4] Dermot Mansfield, “Spiritual Accompaniment and Discernment,” The Way 47, no. 1&2 (2008): 159. 

[5] Ibid., 58. 

[6] Ibid., 31-2.

[7] Thomas Merton in a letter to Mark van Doren, March 30, 1948. see Robert E. Daggy, ed. The Road to Joy: Letters of Thomas Merton to New and Old Friends (New York: Farrer, Straus, Giroux, 1989), 22.

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