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Life’s Vocation

Notes from an address of Luigi Giussani to a meeting of university students, Bologna, October 1971

If there is a Christian definition of existence, it is that indicated in the word “vocation.” This term can be perceived, in its deepest meaning, only in the ambit of the Hebrew-Christian religious tradition, that is to say, in a religious tradition totally shaped by a vocal relationship with God. God, in revealing Himself, invests the whole of man’s life, giving him the exact meaning of the relationship with Him, with others and with man’s own self.

The first factor to consider
What is the fundamental category on which Christianity sets the basis for evaluating the motive, the merit–in other words, the efficiency of our action?
The concept of merit could make us think of heaven, but this would be wrong, because in the Christian conception, heaven is a projection of this world. The root of the problem is therefore the stature of this world. So the fundamental category to which we have to refer our action, in its origin and in judging its efficiency, cannot be anything but the concept of “Kingdom of God.”
The Kingdom of God is reality in as much as it is God’s plan and has as its ultimate image what St. Paul said, “To bring all things together under Christ as head” (cf. Eph 1:7-10).
For Christians, the value of an action lies in its proportion, in its function as regards the Kingdom of God–what use is my action to the Kingdom of God?
The only value that our friendship can have is that of reminding us continually to act in view of this, and the meaning of Christian communion is precisely this continuous recovery, by means of the presence that one constitutes for the other, in view of this goal. And since we are already, as it were, destined to incoherence by the original situation of our existence, at least as a starting point, the concept of truth must be safeguarded.
So, it’s a question of having a criterion to inspire us in our commitment in deciding the direction of the whole trajectory of all our future actions.
The problem of the “choice” of vocation can certainly be understood as an aspect of the vocation itself, but in practice it recuperates the whole question, because the problem remains even in someone who is thirty years old and already married.
So the criterion for the choice of vocation cannot be anything else but how I, with all I am, spiritually or intellectually, with my temperament, my upbringing, and my physical condition, can be most useful for the Kingdom of God.
At this point, there is a question we could usefully ask. Who has ever been told, even once, when speaking of what he should do in life–the criterion with which to choose his life’s companion (man or woman); the criterion for the choice of studies, job or profession; whether to stay at home or to go abroad; to do this or that–that the ultimate criterion to keep in mind is the relationship between himself and the Kingdom of God–in other words, the presence of good in the world, of the Christian good in the world, the good of the Church or the good of the Christian community? So no wonder such a proposal creates difficulty, or ends up being felt as abstract. (Although the fact that a proposal is felt as abstract doesn’t mean that it is to be discarded; it could mean that our life needs conversion!)
We all know by now, at least as an initial experience, that Christian life has such a logic, such a deeply organic logic, that to chop it up so as to live it in pieces is impossible. If a person is alive, then you can run alongside him, but if you chop him into pieces and carry one of the pieces, then you find it heavy! So, in a friendship like ours, in dealing with such a capital problem as that of vocation, life as vocation, it wouldn’t be right not to put the word “Christian” decisively at the beginning.
To tackle this problem means to tackle the question of happiness, which is to say, the quantity and quality of taste and intensity of life in this world, because if all things are directed and in function of the mystery of the Kingdom of God, then they are lived and realized in so far as they are aimed at their goal. So the problem is that of our self-realization.

A) Vocation as the choice of a state of life
This answer can be given concretely at various levels. The first is that of the choice of a state of life. In this case, a person is called to choose between two roads:
1) The usual, natural choice, of relating with God through the mediation of another person, a man or a woman.
Note: These choices must not be simply a question of personal preference. They are choices that must coincide with adhering to the will of God as we acknowledge it, because none of us has chosen our place in an autonomous way; our choice is an “acceptance,” even though, in practice, it is the person who makes his or her own choice.
From the genetic, original point of view, therefore, the first road is the usual one. After all, it means following the great law that links man to God by means of a worldly reality.
In the Christian ambit, this state is the fundamental one, because it is through this state that the Kingdom of God is able to penetrate into this world.
2) There is another state of life, that of virginity, which also constitutes a basic function and which will appear clearer if we recover the ultimate, exhaustive motive for which one offers himself to God: in order to imitate Christ.
The imitation of Christ is the law of all Christians, though, in the choice of this state of life, it objectively reaches its summit, because it is the imitation of Christ’s own state of life in its fullness.
Christ’s state of life in its fullness was a relationship with the Father who, from one point of view, as a person, was not mediated by anything.
We shall understand the question better if we observe what Christ’s virginity truly consists in (and the marriage state too, for that matter). It is a way of relating with Being; it is a way of possessing Being, of possessing reality. Marriage is one way of possessing reality, and is not in fact limited merely to the man-woman relationship; it affects one’s whole way of relating with or possessing reality as a whole. In the long run, if they are lived with full awareness, these choices become the dimensions that penetrate all life’s relationships.
The way in which Christ possessed reality was a pre-announcement of how man would possess things at the end of time.
So the man-woman relationship is not just a big or interesting problem, but a crucial problem for understanding man’s attitude before God and before things as a whole.
In His virginity, Jesus Christ was not castrated. So the concept of renouncement, if it is meant as the psychological echo that life generates in that case, from the point of view of value, from the ontological point of view, is not renouncing something, but the beginning of a deeper and more final possession of things. Christ’s virginity was a deeper way of possessing a woman, a deeper way of possessing things. This found its fulfillment, as it were, in the fact of the Resurrection, through which Christ possesses everything as we shall possess them at the end of the world.
In this sense, virginity, in the ambit of the Christian community, is the paradigmatic situation, the ideal exemplification to which all must refer. If a man and a woman do not have this as their ideal, then they don’t truly love each other. Now, for a married couple, the idea of virginity does not mean not sleeping together; it means a dimension of the relationship that identifies the physical relationship with the function to which God calls it.
Suppose a man truly loves his wife, and suppose the wife is ill for several months. I believe that the physical sacrifice of the relationship, from the point of view of practical experience, will give a man in his senses a feeling of deepening the relationship of unity with his wife, so as to make him feel free as regards himself and, at the same time, to make him understand her more clearly, to have a clearer veneration of her mystery which brings out what we can rightly call an attitude of “adoration.”
So, in the Church’s life, virginity has a supreme function, so much so that Church history has pointed out two forms of witness as supreme–virginity and martyrdom.
In the ambit of the Christian community, virginity is in function of and witness of life’s final purpose. This is why where a Christian community is truly alive, those dedicated to virginity and those who are married feel bound together in an affection, in “com-penetration,” in a profound companionship, because they are not two separate things, but two functions of the same reality.
Here we need to pay attention, because this is the most important point. It is precisely the clarity with which you face the problem of choosing your state of life that provides all the agility and freedom needed for tackling life in a Christian way.
What we did in past years, and what we still do in the university, is still a game; it is a good game, because it is through games that man educates himself, but from now on, Christian life, in its consistency and its density, will be at an adult level, which means at its definitive level. The attitude we will take up before our destiny, before God, is at this definitive level.
There is nothing more worthwhile trying to obtain, through prayer and some reminders, than to be able to take up a correct attitude regarding this problem.
Which of the two roads is it to be, then? The first or the second? The choice cannot be a “creation” of our own, but must be an “acknowledgment” we make. We have to recognize something we have been destined for. It must not be a decision of ours in the sense that it is our will that sets our attitude, but in the sense that our freedom adheres to the indications that mark out our road.
The way to see what road to take is obedience, an obedience that does not necessarily imply feeling a directive in a dream like St. Joseph, but an obedience that is lived out through attention to the assortment of signs that God never fails to give us.
We can summarize these signs in three points:
1) Our own series of natural inclinations.
2) The whole series of signs dictated by inevitable situations. For example, suppose you are in love with a woman who is already married. The fact that she is married is an inevitable condition.
Another inevitable condition, for example, is a history of an affective relationship. If you began a relationship of this kind at the age of fourteen, and at the age of twenty you realize that the affection is cooling, then you pose the problem of a non-excessive fascination for the other person compared with the more obscure and mysterious one of Brazil, say, and you decide to dedicate yourself to God. You cannot evaluate this decision as if you had not lived six years in an affective relationship. A change like this is quite possible, but there is an unavoidable factor that must be taken into consideration when you have to reach a judgment.
3) Social needs, the needs of the world, the needs of the Christian community. From this point of view, there may be time or a situation in which the need for total dedication to God is stronger than in others. There can also be a time when facing and tackling the reality of the world is made in a life of Christian community, and in which it is judged more prudent to be supported by others rather than being alone.
The judgment must arise from this series of factors considered together.
But this brings with it another consideration. Without reflection and without a comparison–in dialogue–with the community in its typical function, that is, with the one guiding the community, your way of doing things is inevitably instinctive and mechanical. We reflect over everything, but when it comes to this moment, on which depends the whole structure of our life in its personal value, we automatically follow what we feel inside us.
We need to reflect, and to reflect means to measure oneself against your own destiny, your own end, with God, with the aim of life, with being useful for the Kingdom of God. If you haven’t yet settled the problem, you must feel the duty to recover these criteria immediately, and even those who have unavoidable factors behind them must recover the same criteria, though for them it will be a bit different.
In other words, the argument holds at all levels.
A particular application of “marriage-virginity” as different functions is given by the fact that the Church requires virginity of those who lead her communities, or are dedicated to certain functions, like, for example, for the priesthood. Precisely this case clarifies perfectly how virginity constitutes a supreme function in the Church. This has such a profound convenience. The Christian people feel this convenience, and the Church still subscribes to it.
This argument leads us to the problem of the different function that the lay person has in the Christian community with respect to the “religious.”
The Vatican Council says that the lay person has the duty of translating Christian values into temporal reality, whereas the man dedicated to God has the function of reminding the lay person, who is committed in temporal realities, of the ultimate aim of his action, that is, the end of time. In this sense, the man dedicated to God and the people dedicated to work in the world must establish a mutual tension, because Christian action in the world is carried out by both.
In the Christian community, then, any separation between the lay person, understood as a Christian who manipulates the things of this world, and the religious man, understood as one dedicated to God who, as his function, lives meditation and witness and the immediate reminder of the ultimate values, means the death of both of them–of the laymen because he will compromise with worldly sensitivity; and of the religious man because he will become abstract and… a eunuch.
Christian activity in the world is made up of this dialectic between the person consecrated to God and those who set themselves to manipulate things. So the new thing that has to happen is a profound recovery of esteem for virginity. This is the supreme sign of faith and of the centering of religious sensitivity. This is the most powerful instrument, the best means for deepening married life, too, for conceiving it correctly and for living it intensely as an experience.
If you meditate and discover these words, then you truly experience a revolution of your Christian attitude. It is a discovery of the final aim, because we have an idea of heaven at the end of the road, whereas heaven is a dimension of what is already present; and the resurrection will be the revelation of something that is already present in us and that in the man Jesus Christ has already begun in time and space.

B) Vocation as a choice of profession
The criterion proposed at the beginning is valid for the second level of choice, that of a particular profession. Very often, for this, too, the great criteria for a decision are only personal profit and desire. These should form part of the question, but not everything.
In the choice of a job or a profession, one should keep in mind the third category we mentioned, the needs of society. For the Christian, however, these cannot be a criterion isolated from a deeper concept, the needs of the Christian community, because the needs of society are nothing else but an aspect of the needs of the Christian community, the needs of the Church in every era.
What kind of Christian community are we living if this great question of the decision of the road that will define the practical shape of our person for the whole of life, or for the greater part of it, is made individualistically? Does our communion not reach the point of questioning our choice of profession or job?
This criterion must at least give us some inspiration! And this means that the choice of profession or job must be discussed, as far as possible.
What does being open to God mean, if not this readiness, this availability for vocation?
To conclude, we had as well remember that vocation is not mathematics, something that comes into your head. It is always a possibility, and it must be a concrete possibility for me, just as I am; for that matter, on a day-to-day level, we have to answer the problem of vocation as a request for new action, hour by hour, by looking at the concrete possibilities.