Some of us devote our workday lives to community activism or political involvement. But the rest of us often feel ambivalent about how few of our commitments and relationships directly foster social justice. How do we share food and company with neighbors whose political commitments trouble us deeply? May we cultivate disciplines like music and scholarship without explicitly relating them to injustice?
So long as exploitation and violence are pervasive (and often invisible) practices, it can seem myopic to cultivate our talents, nurture our families, or even spend time with our neighbors. Such actions can seem complicit in a refusal to see and engage the demonic powers in the world. It's not surprising, then, that many of us feel restless when we are writing or baking or doing whatever we most love instead of attending a political meetingyet also feel restless when we contribute our time to political involvement instead of cultivating our talents or our intimate relationships.
This persistent restlessness is not a new experience. Sixteen hundred years ago, the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert noticed a similar phenomenon. When they were at work, they felt drawn to prayer; when they prayed, they felt drawn to work; when they settled in one monastery, they became convinced that true spirituality could be found only in the monastery down the road. Because such feelings struck hardest in the middle of the day, monks associated them with the "noonday demon" in Psalm 91. The monk's task was not to flee from this demon, but to stay put and wrestle with it.
Restlessness, however, is not "demonic" in the same sense as, say, the Guatemalan genocide or its denial. Sometimes restlessness is the voice of ambition or anxiety: "If I do not write the perfect lecture, I will not get tenure." "If I don't have lunch with this friend, right now, I will be alone and friendless the rest of my life." But sometimes restlessness is a voice from deep within, a sense that I will not be myself unless I do precisely thiswrite a poem, teach a class, walk in the woods. Whether they distress or inspire us, voices of restlessness cannot be ignored.
Listening to Restlessness
Our restlessness is like the mysterious stranger who wrestled all night with Jacob before blessing him with a new name, Israel. When we wrestle with that stranger, our own restlessness, God also gives us a namea vocation that pulls the energy of our lives in particular directions. God's lure on our respective lives is like a magnet, and restlessness is the lifelong aligning of our own "iron filings"the many minutes of our time, energy, and attentionto that magnet.
As St. Augustine confessed, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee," in God. Restlessness signals God's draw on our lives, and no single commitment curbs that restlessness unless it is oriented to the larger horizon of God's magnetic love. Through vocation, God turns our restlessness into rest in God, orients the times of our lives to eternity, to time marked by the presence of God. Restlessness, then, need not threaten either our commitments or our efforts to discern which commitments to make. Because God speaks through our everyday thoughts and encounters, vocation is not an alternative to restlessness, but a way of listening to restlessness.
Every specific vocation begins with disciplines that cultivate a capacity to listen to our restlessness. Whether we are parents, scholars, or carpenters, we need a space in which we can welcome the myriad voices of excitement, fear, yearning, judgment, or insight. That space is silence. Silence allows us to embrace these voices as clues to what we care about most deeply, clues to our vocational paths. We can foster silence through centering prayer, long walks, washing dishesanything that allows us to hear the quiet voices, from within and without, that are so often drowned out by the expectations of others or the cacophony of the media.
Not every voice heard in silence is an angelic messenger bringing our true vocational name. Often the silent moments expose us to the old demons of anxiety and ambitionwhich is why we are often tempted to avoid silence. The discipline of silence, however, gives us the space to treat even the demons with hospitality. As I get to know the demon better, it loses its own power over me. I can make choices in response to my desire, guilt, or sadness without allowing anxiety to rule my entire life.
When we cultivate such listening, we gain a leverage point in our souls not only for living well with ourselves but also for finding the courage to make choices that others may not understand or support. Some of us have role models and plenty of family and social support for our vocational paths; others do not. Especially if we lack vocational support, the expectations of others often feel to us like divine commands not to follow a sense of vocation. Am I selfish if I decide to be a writer instead of a mother? Will I betray my family if I come out as gay or lesbian, or if I work for little pay as a community organizer instead of pursuing law or medicine? It takes time to answer such questions. We find neither the insight nor the courage to make choices that seem to "come out of nowhere," ex nihilo, unless we attend to God's magnetic lure on our livesunless we cultivate a space of silence in which our restlessness sorts itself out into calm insights, insights with authority for our lives.
Embracing Our Vocation
At the same time, to follow our vocation draws us more deeply not only into ourselves and God, but also into the world. Vocation roots us more deeply in ourselves, as a claiming of our gifts; it also extends our sense of identification beyond ourselves to our communities. Vocation is a way of claiming our gifts and giving them to our communitieschanneling them for the good of other lives, personally and socially. To identify and pursue a vocation is thus a solitary but not a self-centered endeavor, a communal but not community-determined process. We need support from others to help us see and sustain our vocations, even if we find that support in alternative communities beyond our families or original communities. Here the practice of pursuing one's individual vocation can foster social change by making others aware of the range of vocational possibilities.
All of us can best serve the world by embracing our own vocations, because ultimately the only gift we can give the world is ourselves. No one of us has the solution to all the world's problems; what we have are the dreams, desires, and loves that well up from the deepest part of our souls. Once we have named and embraced these, it is comparatively easy to see how we might bring them to the work of social change. Like Einstein, who challenged war as a scientist, or Chile's "Mothers of the Disappeared," who challenged repression as mothers, we can speak most powerfully when we speak as ourselves.
Just at the moment when our unique vocational gifts become clear, however, we are sometimes tempted to resort to more conventional forms of service or activism. This is because vocation is hard work. Going to a political meeting involves little initiative or risk, while promoting justice as a scholar or as a friend demands the creative integration of aspects of our lives that often seem separate. And when we share the most precious parts of ourselves with the world, we may fear that we will somehow lose control of these gifts, or that the world will reject them. We may also fear that our gifts will prove inadequate to the depth of evil that surrounds us.
Bearing Witness to Trauma
Even when we discern our vocations, we still stumble on atrocities that can make our gifts and joys feel like irrelevant privileges. We can direct our energy toward making and appreciating good things in God's creationmeals, music, public and private spaces, all the elements of vibrant, sustainable communities. Yet precisely in doing so, we may eerily block out awareness of those terrifying worlds that never quite touch our sunny daytime onesworlds of child abuse, domestic violence, torture, massacre, homelessness. We are always in danger of pursuing our vocational passions oblivious to the demonic practices of deception, minimization, and denial that hide or justify crimes against othersor even ourselves. Good and evil are insidiously juxtaposed so long as we build up our communities without naming certain evils within our midst.
Yet we cannot name those evils until we have seen and heard them. We bear witness to trauma and atrocity in the same way we discern our vocationsby first listening to our restlessness. The restlessness we feel before atrocity is not like the restlessness we feel in our vocation; before evil we feel unsettled rather than inspired. But staying present to trauma is the path to addressing it. If we fail to stay present, in prayer and remembrance, we reinforce self-protective instincts to eliminate trauma from memory. When we do this, we invite another sort of demon into our midstdemonic deception and complicity.
Demonic deception is not like our "noonday demons," although we often encounter both at once when we ponder how we are spending our lives. The noonday demons that tempt us to discern our vocation have voices; it is possible to listen to and even befriend them. But the more insidious demons of duplicity are both silent and silencing. These demons would have us believe that it is not all right to say what we know about the Guatemalan genocide, or to share the harder truths of our lives with our neighbors. They would have us believe that atrocities, like massacre or child abuse, do not exist. Because these demons are silent, we must confront them directly by breaking the silence about traumatic events. But this breaking of silence becomes possible only through the steadfast discipline of listening, of bearing witness to trauma.
The call of vocation and the call to witness trauma are bound together for many Christians. They are especially bound together for those among us who ourselves have faced trauma. Survivors of trauma need art, music, literature, and good company in order to face and heal from a profound betrayal of trust in ourselves, others, and God. We need these good things in life in order to reintegrate the worlds that the demons of deception bid us hold apartthe destructive world of violence, and the nurturing world of safety, community, and meaningful work.
Bearing witness to trauma is much harder than discerning our vocations. The silencing powers of deceptionso different from the silence that enables vocational discernmentisolate us from one another and from ourselves. But by bearing witness to the reality of trauma, by staying present to persons who struggle with its long-term effects, we interrupt that isolation. We encounter companions who share the struggle to break silence and who bear their own vocational gifts. Companionship empowers us for the lifelong projects of both embracing vocation and bearing witness to trauma.
Indeed, companionship is the goal of every vocational path. The disciplines that allow us to discern our own vocations also open us to receiving the vocational gifts of others. And they open us to the grace of God which comes through our companions. When we wrestle with restlessness together, we do more than discern our individual vocations. Like Jacob, we receive the new name of Israel: those who have seen Godthe God who calls to us through the "noonday demons" and who calls upon us to break demonic silence.
Dan Buchanan taught church history and peace studies at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict in central Minnesota, and Amy Carr was a doctoral student in theology at the University of Chicago, when this article appeared.