Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In the Garden of Spirituality - Parker Palmer


“We are not on earth to guard a museum,
but to cultivate a flowering garden of life.”

- Pope John XXIII


I’ve been praying lately for clarity around my vocation, my calling, my path through this life. I shared this prayer with my good friend Joan last night and, as always, she offered encouragement and affirmation. She also shared with me Parker J. Palmer’s 2000 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. I’m finding it very helpful, and so thought I’d share an excerpt from it for this latest installment of The Wild Reed’s ongoing series of reflections on religion and spirituality.

______________________________________


I first learned about vocation growing up in church. I value much about the religious tradition in which I was raised: its humility about its own convictions, its respect for the world’s diversity, its concern for justice. But the idea of “vocation” I picked up in those circles created distortion until I grew strong enough to discard it. I mean the idea that vocation, or calling, comes 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 made me feel inadequate to the task of living my own life, creating guilt about the distance between who I was and who I was supposed to be, leaving me exhausted as I labored to close the gap.

Today I understand vocation quite differently – 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 something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.

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! I have sometimes responded to that demand by ignoring the gift, or hiding it, or fleeing from it, or squandering it – and I think I am not alone. 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, 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.

. . . We find our callings by claiming authentic selfhood, by being who we are, by swelling 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?”

. . . 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 when he defines vocation as “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture, this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. The Quaker teacher Douglas Steele 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 of 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 relationships 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 neighbor and myself.


Others highlighted in The Wild Reed’s “In the Garden of Spirituality” series include:
Zainab Salbi
, Daniel Helminiak, Rod Cameron, Paul Collins, Joan Chittister, Toby Johnson, Joan Timmerman, Uta Ranke-Heinemanm, Caroline Jones, Ron Rolheiser, James C. Howell, Paul Coelho, Doris Lessing, Michael Morwood, Kenneth Stokes, Dody Donnelly, Adrian Smith , Henri Nouwen, Diarmuid Ó Murchú, Patrick Carroll, Jesse Lava, Geoffrey Robinson, Joyce Rupp, Debbie Blue, Rosanne Cash, Elizabeth Johnson, Eckhart Tolle, James B. Nelson, Jeanette Blonigen Clancy, and Mark Hathaway

Opening image: Michael J. Bayly.

4 comments:

Ross Lonergan said...

Michael: Thank you for posting this wonderful piece on vocation that absolutely rings with truth. I am frankly surprised that you are praying about your vocation. It appears to me, as I am sure it does to many others, that you already have and are fulfilling a sacred vocation as a writer and Catholic reformer. Of course, we know ourselves best.

Bob said...

Michael, thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree wholeheartedly that we cannot forget the "self" when discerning vocation. One must indeed come to a clear awareness of "know thyself" if s/he is to be any good to others relationally speaking.

My concern lies in the semi-platonic idea of "birth-right gifts," and the system of forgetting such gifts at an early childhood age (either naturally or through oppressive social systems) and then only later learning to remember what they were. This kind of thought process can easily lead to a sense of extreme individualism, i.e. depending solely on the self when discerning one's gifts. Moreover, it does not take into account the importance of community and the liturgical lifestyle of the church organic (i.e. the local baptized) in helping to foster one's gifts of the Spirit in a positve and meaningful way.

Further, the "self" is indeed important, but not as a means in itself. In as much as the other cannot exist apart from the "I" without becoming wholly objectified as an "it". Meaning, I believe human beings are by nature relational, and the self is only part of who we are as "persons".

Here I allude to Buber's philosophy of personhood: I & Thou. Knowing one's self is important only if it can authentically relate to the other as "thou" as a relational reflection of you.

So what does all this mean? Knowing some of Palmer's other works, I would like to read this latest book of his b/c he is surely not an "individualist." Rather, Palmer truly believes in the importance of community combined with a proper and healthy awareness of one's self within such a community.

I will have to add this book to my ever-increasing summer reading list!

Peace, Bob

Michael J. Bayly said...

You're right, Bob, when you say that Palmer is surely not an "individualist."

Later in the chapter I quote from in this post, he writes:

"Contrary to the conventions of our thinly moralistic culture, this emphasis on gladness and selfhood is not selfish. The Quaker teacher Douglas Steele 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 of 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 relationships 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 neighbor and myself."

I see now that this part of the chapter should've been included in my excerpt. In fact, I think I'll add it to this post. Thanks for raising the questions you did, Bob, and thus facilitating a clarifying revision of this post.

Peace,

Michael

GrantJM said...

Michael- would enjoy a 'vocation/life work' talk over coffee sometime. I was heavy into it for many years and have taken a break to get to know myself without any of the 'tools' or helping hands of authors. I'm back into reading the same and incorporating a fuller, maybe more organic application to my life and what in the world 'work' looks like.

Thanks for sharing...Grant