Religious liberty is under siege in America. These attacks stem from an increasingly hostile attitude in mainstream culture towards religion in general—and the Catholic Church’s teachings on life, sex, and marriage, in particular. But perhaps they also stem from an increasing indifference towards faith, or lack of conviction in faith, on the part of those who wish to remain in the category of the “religious” rather than the “unaffiliated”—atheists, agnostics, and those who are nothing in particular.
The truth is, if faith matters to us, it will matter to our institutions, and they will act to protect it. We need a revival, a strengthening of faith in those who consider themselves to have it and a return to faith for those who have lost it. Where might we find a starting point, a common ground, for this revival?
All of us (or at least those who have lost the innocence and wonder of childhood) are familiar with a certain feeling of ennui, a notion of going through the motions and allowing our actions to become somewhat mechanical or routine. No one is enriched or fulfilled by living in this mechanical way. We know that there is more to it. Catholic author Walker Percy refers to this awareness as the beginnings of the search. “The search,” Percy writes, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
Being awakened out of the slumbers of the everydayness of our lives, we can, and might, experience a recalibration—a shift in perspective—leading to an awareness of our dependence—our status as creatures. Near the conclusion of Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, a principal character indicates the result of her search: “What I want is to believe in someone completely and then do what he wants me to do.” If we allow that “someone” to be God and not another human being, we find here the kernel of personal vocation.
Personal vocation remains an underappreciated aspect of the teaching and living out of faith. We all, believers and non-believers alike, are searching for something, and some may be convinced that the object of that search can be attained in this world. The truth is that we are not—none of us—at home in this world. Our experience of time itself suggests as much: we are always harried by time and long for timeless moments. We have an appetite for eternity, an appetite that must have been given to us, indicating the reality of a giver. The proper response to this giver of life is to believe in him completely and do what he wants us to do—to make a sincere gift of ourselves, which is the only way to fully find ourselves. To do anything else would be rank ingratitude.
Recognizing that the search will not end during this life, we should embrace the idea of personal vocation. Here I speak not of the general vocation to be a Christian or the call to a particular state of life such as priesthood, consecrated life, marriage, and single life, but of the absolutely unique and unrepeatable role that God gives each of us in carrying out his divine plan.
Discerning and embracing our personal vocation requires a struggle to find and conform to God’s will in every single aspect of our lives—in the context of our unique gifts, talents, responsibilities, commitments, relationships, and struggles. God calls us again and again and again throughout our lives, calling us uniquely at every moment, as a way of drawing us forward and upward: of perfecting us. C.S. Lewis refers to this call as God’s unceasing invitation to us to go “further up and further in.”
Fostering this idea of personal vocation could lead to a revitalization of faith in the lives of those who have become indifferent or feel lost. But what about those who embrace their unique, personal vocation and yet are discouraged—by recent attacks on religious liberty, for example—and struggle to see how any of it matters? Perhaps a better understanding of the virtue of humility can be of assistance.
Humility is traditionally understood as a virtue of restraint, holding us back from overconfidence and pride, but perhaps could better be understood as a gift that allows us to overcome discouragement. John Finnis defines humility as that “particular gift which enables one to orientate oneself, choose, and act in harmony with one’s awareness that every good thing one has and does and achieves is a sheer gift.” When Saint Paul asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” the expected, and correct, answer is, “Nothing.” (1 Cor. 4:7)
This awareness of our need for God’s gifts is connected to personal vocation for this reason: that very awareness allows us to overcome the debilitating assumption that our choices and actions cannot yield any good fruit that really matters or will truly last. To many people, Jesus’ death on the Cross must have looked like quite the defeat. And yet “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). What appears to be folly, but in truth is wisdom, is this: belief that fidelity to our personal vocations can, with God’s grace, yield a rich harvest, even when it appears that nothing we have done or can do will bring about any visible improvement in our worldly situation.
Knowing that we each have been given the gift of a unique personal vocation, and humbly recognizing that we have nothing that we did not receive, we should make faith the integral principle of our life. With faith as our organizing principle, our self-determining, free choices carry a new weight, as we understand that in each significant choice we have an opportunity to respond to God’s call—to go further up and further in—and that our choices, sometimes even seemingly insignificant ones, matter greatly for ourselves and others, as fidelity to personal vocation “prepares the material of the heavenly kingdom” (Gaudium et Spes).
And even when faith continues to struggle, and attacks upon religious liberty continue, we can remain eternally optimistic that God will fold all into his divine plan, always calling us and leading us—if we permit it—further up and further in, by what Walker Percy calls “some dim dazzling trick of grace.”
Timmy Bradley is a senior living off campus. He scavenges for nutrients in uncommon places, rarely frequenting the dining hall but instead “borrowing” food from friends. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.