Until I was 22, I intended to spend my adult life in a Benedictine monastery on the western North Dakota prairies. At 22 I became a teacher, then a graduate student; at 27 I became a husband, then had two children; I am now edging towards retirement after nearly 30 years at a college in the northeastern Iowa bluff country. With no Benedictine monastery anywhere in sight.
Some Catholic adults of my childhood years would have described that life path as losing my vocation. Many Protestants would say that I have followed a call to a life of service. My atheist friends think I’ve been saved from a wasted life of perverse self-denial. I believe I have walked one of the many possible paths that might have answered my calling. In other words, I don’t believe we are called to a particular life any more than I believe that there is a single person we were destined to marry. A romantic view of vocation is no more holy than a romantic view of love.
Many factors worked against my joining a Benedictine monastery in 1970. The Second Vatican Council, which I supported passionately, destabilized Roman Catholic church patterns. American social unrest—the Vietnam War, assassinations, agrarianism, feminism, hippie communalism—encouraged a young person to reconsider his choices. A junior year in Munich and a January term in Bogotá stimulated my somewhat un-Benedictine wanderlust.
As college graduation grew closer, I again began to analyze what was drawing me to the monastic life. I recognized that the central appeal was a community life grounded in the spiritual life. Another part of this particular monastery’s attraction was that I could expect to become a teacher, since the monks staffed a prep school, junior college, and seminary. I noted that some monks traveled widely for their studies and work. This monastery appealed emotionally and intellectually because three of my four brothers lived there—just four blocks from my family home—as did nearly all my favorite high school teachers. The monastery’s rural setting encouraged a vigorous outdoor work life, regular solitary and group walks, a non-consumerist, environmentally conscious lifestyle. The community’s survival depended on a flexibility of interest that matched my rather dilettantish wish to combine a rich work life with music, art, mechanical fix-ups, home repair, and whimsically changing interests. I realized that the monastery’s 1906 Romanesque red brick monastic cloister and oak-pewed church appealed both to my architectural interests and my worship preferences.
The list could go on, but the point is this: I gradually internalized that most of these appeals were not exclusive to the monastery. As I began to realize that there were some monastic elements that I was not particularly fitted for and that some of my personal qualities might be under-satisfied within the monastery, I began to imagine a possible life as a teacher at a community-focused liberal arts college. I envisioned the intimate community of a loving marriage and family, walks with family and friends, an aesthetic home and artistic outlets, travel opportunities, a (relatively) non-consumerist lifestyle, a commitment to both intellect and hands, and a rich worship life. In other words, I began to imagine a life in many ways like the one that I have lived at Luther College.
Two footnotes. My life, as blessed as it has been, is not always everything I imagined—real adults realize that no life can be. I also believe there are many other lives that would have fulfilled many of my needs and commitments. If I had become a blueberry farmer in northern Wisconsin, I might well have discovered or created a situation in which I could have satisfied my need for community, worship, art, the mechanical arts, and, perhaps, even for teaching.
Still, despite the caveats, my thesis remains: Discerning a vocation requires that you identify the discrete elements of the life you believe you wish to lead. Then it’s a matter of triangulating these elements with your gifts and the world’s needs. What you will discover is that there are many more possible, potentially satisfying paths than you had originally imagined. I don’t mean to downplay luck. I could easily have decided to teach at Luther College only to discover there was no teaching available. I also don’t mean to downplay God’s role in this discernment process. The Spirit animates our thinking and our feeling both. Imagination is a holy gift. I just don’t believe that God consciously had in mind a unique setting in which I was expected to spend my life, any more than God chose my body type. God’s world is large and our potential roles in it are as varied as the shining stars.