Sunday, 3 May 2009

Good Shepherd Sunday Year B

Today is Vocation Sunday. It is usually the Sunday where we speak about vocation in particular to priestly or religious life. But, I would like to tackle the topic of vocation in general to help us understand why vocation in particular to priestly or religious life is not flourishing.

I am fascinated with what Rene Descartes, the French philosopher tried to do. He is sometimes called the father of modern Western Philosophy. The truth was he did not start to be that as he was actually trying to save a crumbling philosophical framework. It was during his time that the accepted pathway to knowledge was disintegrating to the point of “how do you know you really know”. It was an age of doubt; in an age where epistemology was a major concern, he thought that what could not be doubted was surely the mind’s process; “je pense donc que je suis”—his famous: Cogito, ergo sum or I think, therefore I am. This effort to shore up a regime ancien ushered in modern philosophy.

This “I think, therefore I am” of the modern age is very much characterised by an emphasis on “meaning”. Since we are not entirely sure about what is really “out there” [how do you know you really know?], at least, we can be sure about what is really “in here” [I think and it proves I am real and am not a fiction of any imagination]. Here one can discern how Descartes’ cogito in some way has ushered us onto this long lonely search for meaning. Meaning is often understood from the perspective of the subject, that is, from the perspective of “meaningful to me”. Now, if this does not make sense, perhaps this will. Some people (especially the young) find the way the Eucharist is being celebrated to be boring and therefore, meaningless to them. Observe how this “meaninglessness” is partly the reason why we choose hymns that appeal to our feelings etc. Note that young people will often be frustrated because they have come searching for meaning whereas the purpose of the Eucharist we celebrate is not entirely devoted to this search for meaning.

It would seem that Descartes’ cogito has condemned us to this insatiable search for meaning. Since our contact with the outside world is tenuous at best, it would seem that “meaningful to me” is the only available validation of who we are. This long lonely search for meaning is also marked by the road towards science especially technology as the tool to reorganise the world according to the simple criterion of “I, me and myself”. Descartes’ cogito is markedly analytical and as such carries the seed for an aggressive transformation of the environment according to the measure of the subject—the “I, me and myself”.

However, I am not dismissing this “I, me and myself” as simply selfishness. Instead, let’s take a look at how it impacts on vocation in general. From the perspective of this “I, me and myself in search of meaning”, there is a tendency to keep one’s option open. And the world of business offers us this whole array of careers to help us keep our option open. The “meaningful for me” that we seek is satisfied by careerism and not by vocation. But, the question to ask is if we are not sometimes paralysed simply because there are too many options. We dare not make a choice because we are afraid that we may make a wrong choice. Thus, we keep our options open. Amongst other reasons like financial security or career, I suspect keeping one’s options open is a reason why people marry older.

The truth is that meaning is not the only definition of who we are. If it were only so, why are successful movie personalities trapped in a world of drugs. They have money to go to the moon and back, enough booze to light up a July 4th fireworks and enough sex to populate an entire continent of Australia. They have everything—in other words, their lives should be meaningful—and yet they enter a world of further make-believe.

How are we to get away from this lonely search for meaning? Firstly, to define us, we need to choose. Individuation starts when we make choices in life. [1] That is why freedom is not the choices available but the ability to choose. In a boy-girl relationship, choosing a person to be our fiancé or fiancée closes our options for other. It’s as definitive as that. Thus, we are drawn to a conclusion that the funny thing about meaning is that it does not always reside in the self—the “I, me and myself”. “Meaningful to me” is a Cartesian enterprise of the lonely self; a modern gospel which is translated into self-congratulation or self-protection.

The truth about meaning is found not within the Cartesian enclosed self because the human heart is meant to be given away. Meaning is found when you choose to give yourself away, that is, when you have given your heart away to a larger enterprise, you will find meaning... So, marriage is meaningful not because of what you can get out of it: satisfaction etc... Marriage is meaningful because you choose to give of yourself to whom you pledge your life to... And that’s what vocation means.

I started out with Descartes because I think we need to understand how we are to deal with this Cartesian search for meaning before we can really talk about vocation and in particular to priesthood. When John the Baptist said, “He must increase and I must decrease”, it wasn’t the pronouncement of a person who had no self-esteem, a loser; in short, a person who has no meaning in life. It was the authoritative annunciation of a person who was an individual strong enough to allow himself to be used as how God was pleased. A true or genuine individual is never afraid of losing himself or herself because that act of letting go is the beginning of life. When meaning is paramount, you will always be afraid that there is nothing left for you... and that is why the keeping options open.

Let me invite the many young men and women here to give themselves away to an enterprise—in our case the enterprise is not “justice” but a person for meaning is to be found in the service of truth. And, we know what truth is. It is not a thing but a person—Christ—the way, the Truth and the life. Do not allow yourself to be trapped by this search for meaning. Otherwise, it is very hard to hear the call of Christ because your vocation will be a struggle to find meaning. On the contrary, I think, when we answer God’s call, we will find meaning. So, to all you young men and women out there who are keeping your options open, trying to make sense of your life, trust me, put out into the deep and there you will find that Jesus is there waiting for you. He says to those who answer the call to serve as priests or religious: “Do not be afraid for I am with you”.
[1] Not only are we afraid to choose but also our fear is compounded by a mistaken notion of freedom. Some of us may have this mistaken notion that the more choices available, the greater will our exercise of freedom be. In a conversation with altar servers I asked whom they think have greater freedom, the man with 25 different types of shampoo to choose from in a supermarket or the man with 2 different types of shampoo in 7-Eleven, inevitably, they will point to the man in the supermarket. The fact is both may be unfree as far as their faculty to choose is concerned. The man in 7-Eleven has fewer options to choose from and that makes the choosing easier but does not equate to freedom to choose.