Lifeline: A Reflection on Vocation

In the early 1990s, the popular avant-garde performance artist Laurie Anderson climbed the Himalayas. She was accompanied by about a dozen other climbers, eight sherpas (Tibetan guides), and a number of yaks. They were on a journey to view a lake high in the mountains where, it was said, the next Dalai Lama’s name is written in a secret language on the surface of the water.

At 22 000 feet, Anderson began to suffer from altitude sickness and quickly worsened, with a temperature of 104 degrees, hallucinations and severe headache. The party decided to take her back down. Anderson was zipped into a body bag, put on the back of a donkey, and led down by another American mountain climber who was in the group.

She was not expected to survive.

I heard Laurie Anderson tell this harrowing story in a performance in Montreal years ago. The young man who accompanied her down the mountain was a shy, quiet person. He had barely said a word the entire time. The whole way down, the taciturn man led the donkey along the steep pathways, while this ostensibly dying woman weaved in and out of consciousness.

Anderson asked him to talk, to keep talking as they made their way. Which he did. He told her to look at the stars, to look at the rocks.

“By giving me some little thing to hold on to and concentrate on,” she said later, “he saved my life.”  It wasn’t merely the things he got her to pay attention to that saved her life, but his voice. Focusing on his calm voice, reassuring by its presence. His voice was like a rope, Anderson says, which she clung to, a rope that guided her. It was, as she says in one of her songs, a “tightrope made of sound/This long line made of my own blood…/This long thin line./ … This tightrope.”

I imagine what it might be like, in a chaotic world of searing, blinding pain and swirling hallucinations. The steady, sturdy guide, something sure to hold on to, a constant, calm voice holding me as much as I hold on to it. A voice, like a rope pulling me out of the depths.

The word “vocation” has its root in the word for voice. Many people who enter the ministry, who enter a profession, often speak in terms of vocation. It is as if there is a voice, calling you forward, calling to you, summoning you, and to which you must respond. Sometimes it even might be a rope made of sound, a long thin line, a lifeline.

Discernment of vocation can be a matter of hearing the voice, listening for it. Focusing on it.

During a minister’s formation, discernment is an essential pursuit. There is a decision to be made about whether or not to pursue ordained ministry, or what kind of ministry to pursue, but discernment is greater than decision-making.

It’s more of a threshing, as when a farmer separates grain from plant. A potential minister sifts through her gifts and desires, strengths and weaknesses, her history and spirituality. And in that threshing, something emerges. The seed, the grain, separated from the chaff, surfaces. An interest in religious traditions, a love for spiritual practice, a devotion to one’s faith community, a passion for social justice. The desire to make a difference in the lives of others. That seed which becomes apparent are kernels of a future life in ministry, that will germinate over time, grow roots and reach toward the light.

James Hillman, the great depth psychologist, speaks of the “acorn” in his book The Souls Code. The future oak tree, its potential, is present in the acorn. In the same way, within each of us is the potential of what and who we are becoming. We have within us the seed of what we are meant to be. We come into this world with the inner information we need to become most fully ourselves. The task of discernment, for all of us, is to uncover our inborn acorn. Our mission in life is to answer its imperatives, to say yes to its full flourishing.

Children do, it turns out, come into the world with their own personalities, their own characteristics.

What is innate and unique in you?

How would you characterize your traits? your gifts? your strengths?

A life in ministry, a life launched by responding to the voice, unfolds over time and as seasoned ministers will attest, you find yourself (or lose yourself) in a flurry of details, tasks that pull at you in differing, simultaneous directions, unmet needs of those you serve that gnaw at you, all folded into the achievements, and hard work, and happy occasions. That original voice loses its volume. That saving voice is increasingly lost to the chaos and clamour that is everyday life.

Whatever idea that got planted in one’s mind, in one’s soul, that original voice that beckoned and invited and summoned, need not fade into the background noise of daily life. Return to it often. Whatever is most true, most genuine, most compelling for you, return to that. Remember that.

There are times in our lives, aren’t there, when we experience a kind of dislocation in the middle of our perfectly good enough life. It’s as if the inner self or the soul is estranged from the self the world sees. The inner self, the soul, is alienated, apart from, the self that the world knows, different from what is presented to the world. You look around and go, What am I doing here? Is this my life? 

These experiences of drift, of nothingness, of emptiness are what mystics name the dark night of the soul. The conventional lives we have been given, or the lives we have made for ourselves, suddenly seem inadequate or inauthentic. The script given to act out no longer make any sense, and our lives ring hollow with our deepest sense of ourselves, grate against the skin of our living. This isn’t me, an inner voice can be heard to say. This life is not my own. And then if this isn’t me, what is me? Who am I?

In such times, we have drifted away from that inward guide, the voice. Listen for it. Discern where the thread is, find it, and allow it to suggest a new pattern. At whatever age we are or stage in life, in whatever profession we work, finding that call and being true to it is a life’s work.

Do you remember the voice that first whispered in your ear: I’m good at this. Here is work to which I could see myself dedicating my life. This speaks to me.

This speaks to me.

Remember. Make every effort to remember when the going gets tough, when the days are long, and the burdens heavy. Hold on to it. Hold on to the long thin line, the rope made of sound, made of the voice to which you said, Yes.

Keep saying yes.

For all of us spiritual beings having a human experience, we need to be centred, I believe, centred in the best of who we are. In our inward guide, the acorn of our possibilities. Our innate gifts and capacities, and what living them out might imply. A power deeper and wider than ourselves. An original sense of who we are meant to be, grounded in the native soil of our own soul.

Because we all have a vocation, a calling.

Laurie Anderson survived her trip to the Himalayas. She wrote a couple of pieces about it, about her brush with death, and dedicated one to the young man who talked the whole way down, saving her life.

Listen for the voice that calls you to your best self.

It might just save your life.

This post was a homily given at the ordination of the Rev. Nicoline Guerrier at the Unitarian Church of Montreal on 14 May 2015. It was also shared with the staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association at the UUA weekly chapel service on 19 May 2015, during the week of the first year ministers seminar. 

Nurtured by a Living Tradition

I love when the young people at church complete their “coming of age” year and stand in front of the congregation sharing where they are in their spiritual journeys. Most often, this includes a faith statement, a credo. I am never unmoved by their insight, brilliance and humor.

And I love it when they say things they think or hope the congregation will find shocking. You know, like “I don’t believe in God,” or “I think church is for losers.”

At one coming of age worship service, a young man got into the pulpit and began talking about original sin. This youth had been born and raised in this Unitarian Universalist congregation, so I’m not at all sure where he had encountered the concept, but it soon became clear that it was his understanding that it was a widely held notion.

In our congregation.

In our Unitarian Universalist congregation.

We were being excoriated by a youth of the church for our purported belief in the fallen nature of an inherently depraved humanity.

We don’t have our children and youth in our buildings for very long if you think about it. They come to Religious Education and youth fellowship for maybe an hour or two a week. The rest of the time they are immersed in a culture that is full of all kinds of religious, moral, and spiritual ideas, stereotypes and half-truths. When trying to convey the historic testimonies of Unitarianism and Universalism, there’s only so much that is going to stick in the tiny amount of time we’re allotted in their busy lives.

So I understand that his formation as a Unitarian Universalist was both incomplete and ongoing, as it is with all of us. Yet somehow one of the most essential of our most basic theological and philosophical testimonies, what distinguished us from other religious traditions, had not been communicated to or remembered by him. After a year of intentional study of such questions, no less.

There was a time, thankfully a time that has passed, when a young person’s religious education in a UU congregation barely touched on Unitarian Universalist history, identity, and religious ideas. A friend my age (we’re Gen Xers), who was brought up UU, reports that his religious education consisted in learning about a variety of world religions. Other religions. The idea seemed to be that Unitarian Universalists presented their children and youth with a menu of options and the freedom to choose from them when they were grown up. And Unitarian Universalism was not on the menu! My friend’s siblings all became something else as adults

We are much better now at presenting Unitarian, Universalist and UU personages and their stories for all ages. Newcomers and new members are treated to encapsulated treatments of the stories of the traditions’ forebears (though—and this is my pet peeve—Emerson, Clara Barton, Hosea Ballou, and others are frequently and anachronistically referred to as “UUs”).

How deep do we go with knowing the stories of these foremothers and forefathers? Does the gathered congregation impart to children, youth, newcomers and others what compelled these people, what the nature of their faith was? Tell the story of our movement, its heroines and heroes, and the shape of our faith and testimonies—our theology—becomes clearer.

In their 2005 report, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, the Commission on Appraisal of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations observed:

In the process of data collection, we noted that few laypersons, when asked about influential teachers in their lives, mentioned Unitarians or Universalists beyond their own families and ministers. Instead, they turned to Eastern-influenced popular writers and popular psychology. Beyond Emerson and Thoreau, UUs do not know our own exemplars and what they thought about theological questions.

As I say, I believe this is changing, but I wonder how many Unitarian Universalist congregations present themselves to their children, youth, and newcomers as a freeform religious open space in which you are free to search for truth and meaning without any reference to our history, historic testimonies, to any of the dignitaries of our illustrious past. Do we say, “We are not united by doctrine,” and then leave it at that, without pointing to the theological and philosophical affirmations that have been constant in our movement, and that shape our present context?

We institutionalize narcissism in our congregations when all we do is hold up a mirror and ask them to gaze deeply into their own eyes and call that a “search for truth and meaning.”  What do you think about humanity? What do you think about God? As if the journey ends there. Experience is but one aspect of a disciplined search for truth and meaning. And tradition is another.

What about our rich, vibrant living tradition? Including, of course, our historic rejection of Calvinism and its belief in the inherent depravity of human beings. This is our story—and a central, animating theological affirmation among us.

Unitarian Universalists would do well in remembering who we are. Not searching frantically for a “center,” but rather acknowledge the basic testimonies that we have born witness to all along and to which we continue to bear witness. The DNA of our liberal religious movement continues to express itself, sometimes in new ways. It continues to be, I believe, a basic message that can transform lives and save the world.

Our movement continues to evolve and as we move forward, new insights illumine our way. The basic materials, however, we have inherited, and change only insomuch as we reinvent and reinterpret them for a new generation.

And then actually offer them to a new generation.