An Essay On Vocation

How do I know if I’m called to be an Anglican Priest?

One of the most famous stories in the Bible tells of the “call” of the prophet Samuel.  The young boy, sleeping in a religious shrine, hears someone calling his name.  He assumes that it is the priest, Eli, for whom he works, and he runs to see what the old fellow wants.  But it wasn’t Eli.  This happens a couple of times until Eli figures it out, and tells the boy to stay still and listen in case the voice calls again, because it is actually God’s voice, not a human one.

Another story, almost as well known, concerns the call of the prophet Isaiah.  While attending a ceremony in the temple, he has a glorious vision of God, mighty and huge, surrounded by wonderful angelic creatures.  God says, “Whom shall I send?  Who will go for us?” and Isaiah, with his mouth cleansed by a hot coal from God’s altar, volunteers.

When we think of God calling to Moses out of a burning bush, or the voice of God telling Noah to build a giant boat, or the angel Gabriel telling Mary that she would become pregnant with Jesus, or the bright light and voice of the risen Jesus calling the apostle Paul into his lifelong mission, we can get the impression that God’s call is generally a pretty dramatic thing.

But it isn’t always dramatic, even in the Bible.  Think of King David, probably the greatest figure of the Hebrew Scriptures after Moses: his call came simply through being picked by a religious leader from among his brothers.  And Nehemiah, who began the rebuilding of Jerusalem after it had been destroyed in war, merely made a choice to do this difficult work after being at prayer.

Think, too, about the call of the twelve Apostles as described in the Gospels: on the one hand, you could’t get more dramatic than Jesus, the Son of God, coming right up to you and saying “Follow me.”  And yet, Jesus called those people before he became famous.  There was no big flashing electric sign over his head saying, “THIS MAN IS THE SON OF GOD!  DO WHAT HE SAYS!”  Put yourself in the shoes of those first apostles: would you really quit your job and take a course in “fishing for people” from this Nazareth carpenter?  Perhaps you had heard that he did a bit of preaching in the synagogue last Saturday, but other than that...?

We should never forget that the people of Jesus’ day did not automatically recognize his divine identity.  Some of his neighbours thought that he was far too big for his boots.  Some thought that he was off his rocker.  Some thought that he had evil powers.  Why would any sensible person quit their job and follow a guy like that?

The decision to follow Jesus must have been based on some pretty subtle inner processes on the part of Peter, James, John and the others.  Something deep within must have alerted them.  Their eyes took in what Jesus looked like, the tone of his voice, the words he used, but it had to have been inside, in their hearts, that they realized they were in the presence of something way more significant than what appeared on the surface.  Their inner selves, touched by the finger of God, said “yes” to a man who otherwise had few visible credentials.

I am convinced that God’s call usually comes like that: subtle, ordinary-looking, capable of being taken more than one way.  Maybe it’s a “call,” maybe no.  Hard to tell.  Of course in rare cases it comes more dramatically, like the audible voice that the boy Samuel heard, but most often it is an ambiguous thing that needs to be examined, and thought about, and prayed about.

I’m also convinced that God calls absolutely everybody... to something.  I believe that before we are even born God has a plan and purpose for each one of us, and it is our most important duty in life to find out what that is, and then to become it and to do it.

Occasionally one person or another is called to be a priest.  But because I believe that everyone is called to something, the fact that you have a sense of God’s calling does not automatically mean that it is a call to priesthood.  It might be a call to become a person of prayer, it might be a call to go into public life and make the world a better place, it might simply be a call to be just a little nicer to your husband or your wife.  When we begin to sense that God has a purpose for us, it is just the beginning of a process of discernment.  God calls everyone, now we need to find out what it is that God wants from us.

Admittedly, this is an essay about God’s call to the priesthood.  If I tried to cover all the ways that God can call people, the resulting work in printed form would be fatter than the New York telephone directory.  So from here on, I will assume that you can’t shake off the idea that your call is a call to priesthood.  That is what we’re now going to try to figure out.

Components of a Priestly Calling

There are four components of a priestly calling: (1) The Inner Voice; (2) External Cues; (3) Aptitude and Interest; and (4) The Voice of the Church.  When you have all four pointing in the same direction, the chances are that you have a genuine calling.

The Inner Voice

You probably would not be reading this unless you’ve already sensed some sort of internal prompting.  Deep within the heart, the idea forms: “I wonder if I’m called to be a priest?”

If it comes, then goes away, it’s probably of no consequence.  However, if it becomes persistent, you should try to notice the context in which the thought occurs.  For instance, does the idea become more noticeable when you’re at prayer? or when you are reading the Bible? or when you are attending a church service?  This sort of context would reinforce the idea that perhaps God is the source of the thought.

Everyone has a kind of receptor that God uses to contact and guide us.  Most commonly it is called the “conscience.”  Many people think that the conscience is just an inner moral traffic light – ie: this is good, so go! this is bad, so stop! – but it is much more than that.  For example, when you pray, and you begin to feel a sweet sense of inner peace, this is the conscience-receptor at work.  God has used this almost physical faculty to communicate something like, “Thank you for taking the time to pray.  It is good to be with you.”

The conscience is connected in some way with our emotional system: “I feel good about that,” or “I feel at peace;” or “I feel ashamed,” are very often signs that God has communicated with us.  As St. Paul puts it, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control” are all the effect – or the “fruit,” as he calls it – of God’s Holy Spirit.  You can see how many of Paul’s words refer to emotions.

So the idea forms inside you that you ought to be a priest, and if it is more intense or distinct when you are engaged in Christian activities, and if it is accompanied with a warmth, a peace, a sense of rightness, then it might very well be a message from God.

But be careful.  The conscience is a part of our physical makeup, just like our sense of smell, or our emotional system.  And, just as some people are hearing-impaired, or vision-impaired, and some have imperfect tastebuds, so some people’s emotions, and their very receptors for God’s messages don’t work correctly, and are misleading.8  That is why the Inner Voice alone is not a guarantee that one is called to the priesthood.

External Cues

Suppose you’re in school and audition for the school play, and someone says, “You’d be good in the role of the priest!” – that’s an external cue: someone who, without knowing much about you, just “happens” to say that you look like clergy material to them.  God is quite capable of setting cues like this in your path.

If the people who do know you and love you – parents, siblings, good friends – think that you ought to become a priest, so much the better.

Then there is your spouse.  If you are married, or engaged, the attitude of the person who is walking down life’s road with you is one of your most important external cues.  If nothing else, your calling is going to be in some ways their calling too.  If they are decidedly not called to be the partner of a priest, it may be that priesthood is not your vocation!  Their opinion and voice counts incredibly when you are trying to discern what God wants you to do.

Aptitude and Interest

Elsewhere in this website I published a chart of the things that all parish priests must be able to do.  Read it, and ask yourself, “Am I naturally good at any of this?  Is there a chance that I would be really bad at some of it?”  A person who is not a good public speaker, or who is afraid of hospitals, really ought to think twice about becoming a priest!

In my part of the church, many people have felt called to the priesthood because they are naturally kind and caring souls.  This is an admirable trait, but in my opinion it is not an indication that one should be ordained!  Visiting the sick and caring for the distressed can by done by many Christians; the role of the priest is to preside at the table of the Lord, so an ability to conduct worship, an ability to lead others, an ability to help people work together, and an ability to inspire – these are central to the priestly vocation – far more than is pastoral care – and we ignore them to our peril.

Are you fascinated by liturgy, and care for having it done well?  If you are at a congregational meeting, do you find yourself considering how the mechanics of the meeting might be improved?  Do you long to call the congregation to some great act of Christian service?... these are all good indicators that God has formed you for the priesthood.

Having a thick skin isn’t a bad idea, either.  Christians can sometimes be very hard on their clergy, and with good reason: a poor priest and preacher can often wreck an otherwise healthy congregation.  And, since you’re not going to please all of the people all of the time, how will you feel when Mrs. Witherspoon is overheard saying that your sermons are dreadful?  Will you be able to love her, and minister to her anyway?

Which brings us to the fourth and most important component of a priestly calling:

The Voice of the Church

Priesthood – indeed any form of ordained ministry – is a designated position within the organized Christian church.  You cannot be a priest by yourself and alone; a priest has very specific functions that only exist within the fellowship of Christians.  So your call, if it is genuine, sooner or later has to emerge from within the church and be ratified by the Church.  Indeed the act of ordination is a ceremonial way in which the Church, believing itself to be guided in the matter by the Hand of God, says publicly, “We confirm and announce and enact that God has called you to be a leader and presider in our midst.”

So right at the outset, you ought to find hints of your vocation from within the fellowship of the faithful.  If God is calling you, sooner or later at least one member of the congregation where you worship will tell you, “I think you should become a priest; you’d be good at it.”

In time you will have to ask the Church to say so officially, but at the beginning little hints to your vocation should keep cropping up from both clergy and parishioners.

Eventually the next and greatest test will be to declare yourself to the Church and see what happens.

Again, I have described elsewhere the almost bureaucratic processes that candidates for ordination must go through.  If you come out of those processes with a “yes,” and your Inner Voice, plus the External Cues around you, plus your Aptitude and Interests all say “yes,” then it is pretty much a certainty that God has called you to this work and ministry.

If only it were always that simple

What if that Inner Voice says that you’re called to be a priest, your friends and family all agree, and you have all kinds of aptitude for it, but the church throws up a roadblock?  A number of people with a clear sense of calling have come out of the church’s screening processes with a “No.”

That “No” must be taken seriously – prayed about, and discussed with family and with other deeply spiritual Christians.  You may discover within yourself an aspect of your personality that would be destructive to yourself and to the Church if you were a parish priest.

But maybe the sense of vocation only grows stronger with such a rejection.

I know a priest who was born into a clergy family.  When he was little, parishioners would say to him, “Are you going to grow up to be a priest like your daddy?” and he – when he entered normal teenage rebelliousness – decided in his heart that this was the last thing he’d ever do.

But the inner Voice wouldn’t go away.  He tried running from it, like Jonah in the Bible, but everything he attempted to do with his life just didn’t feel right.  Finally – now an adult and married – he bit the bullet and applied.  And was rejected by a church screening committee.  All those other career paths he had tried were thrown back at him, for (said the committee) they must indicate an inconstancy and a dilletante personality that wouldn’t be able to stick at ordained ministry.  There is also a chance that church politics (yes they exist!) played a role: people who didn’t like his father may have been on that committee, and came disposed to dislike the son.  Or maybe there were people on that committee who had simply got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning (yes, the church has those, too!).  Whatever the reason, the screening committee rejected his candidacy.

But he went out of there more convinced than ever that his call was genuine.  His wife encouraged him (remember? the spouse is one of the most important “external cues”).  She agreed that he could apply in a different diocese, one that was far away, even though it meant a move and a change of jobs for her.

So that is what he did.  And despite being rejected in his home diocese, he was snapped up by the new one, and sought after by even more.

He completed seminary, was ordained, and has never looked back.

That all took place nearly twenty years ago.  Today he is the Rector of a large parish, a Regional Dean and a Canon.  His vocation is unfolding as it should.

An old saying has it that the church is “a hospital for sinners, not a rest home for saints.”  We humans are sometimes quite a sorry lot, but we’re all that Jesus has to work with in building the Kingdom of Heaven.  And so, to its shame, the Church has internal politics, and it has plenty of people who get out of bed on the wrong side.  A priest’s vocation is to live and work among God’s difficult children.  In the end, sometimes the bumps and hurdles that come in the process of being screened for ordination are God’s way of saying to you, “Can you handle this?  There is plenty more where that comes from!”

Still, you can’t get ordained unless the church says you can, so that fourth component, “The Voice of the Church,” is essential, and required.

The ‘Inner Voice’ may simply be a call to prayer

Since God very seldom speaks to us in actual visions, or in spoken words, it is possible to mistake what God is trying to say.

Many people think that because they derive great joy from prayer, and from Bible study, and from the church’s worship services, that this indicates a call to priesthood.  It could just as easily be a simple call to be a person of prayer.  All of us must practice prayer daily, but there are some for whom this is a particular gift; a particular ministry.  They pray readily and well and often.  They are, arguably, Christianity’s greatest hidden asset.  So, if you almost always sense the presence of God in your prayers; if an hour of prayer can go by and you hardly notice... then perhaps prayer in itself is your vocation.

Parish priests have intense interaction with people; they have to be concerned with budgets, and interpersonal tensions, and organizational issues.  A person who is a true contemplative would find such pressures distracting, and, as a result, might not make a very effective priest.

A priest must be a person of prayer, but a person of prayer need not necessarily be a priest.

In some cases, particularly if you are single, and comfortable in your singleness, you may be called to become a monk or a nun.  There are Anglican monastic orders for men, and there are Anglican monastic orders for women.  In North America I am aware of The Sisters of St. John the Divine and the Sisters of the Church (women’s orders); the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and the Order of Holy Cross (men’s orders).  There are Anglican Franciscans, as well, I believe.

Keeping the conscience in good working order

Our capacity to listen for the Inner Voice, if not exercised regularly, can get out of shape.  Just as an athlete who stops working out can become quite flabby, so the conscience can lose its abilities.

If you think God is calling you, but in fact have not recently spent much time in prayer or Bible study; worse, if you have disobeyed a clear signal from your conscience and have “done those things that you ought not to have done” (without repenting and making amends); then quite possibly God’s message will be muted, or distorted, or heard incorrectly.

How does one keep the conscience in good working condition?  There is a very simple prayer that runs, “Oh Lord, help me to understand that nothing is going to happen to me today that You and I can’t handle.”  Can you go through a day where you check for the Inner Voice in all your decisions, large or small?  Questions such as, “Should I take a coffee break now or later?” or “Should I phone or email that person I’ve been concerned about?” or even something as banal as, “What should I make for dinner?” are all questions that are worth putting to the Inner Voice.  Pray the question, then “listen” intently for any sort of emotion or thought that might be God’s response.  There will be one, it’s just a matter of “hearing” it.  And, as your ability to hear it improves – particularly if you try to follow the advice that you seem to be getting – in time you’ll hear the Inner Voice even without asking for it: “Don’t you think you should call your friend who was worried about her father’s health?”

Even lifetime Christians can fall into sin, or simply drift away from the regular practice of prayer, and then their ability to hear the Inner Voice begins to diminish.  But, if the “what shall we do together today, O Lord?” habit is resumed, it slowly strengthens again.

A spiritual director or mentor

An important tool in learning to understand what God is saying to us is a spiritual guide or companion: someone who you believe has walked a fair distance down the road of faith, someone who appears to be a person of deep and regular prayer.  Approach this person, and see if they would be willing to examine with you your sense of calling.  If he or she agrees to do it, then trust this person; don’t hold back; tell him or her everything that’s on your mind.  A spiritual mentor’s responses can definitely be God’s way of guiding and directing you.  In some ways such a person comprises a little bit of the “External Cue” and a little bit of the “Voice of the Church” components of discerning vocation that I mentioned above.


So there you have it: if the Inner Voice seems to be calling you into ordained ministry; if the people you care about, particularly your spouse, suggest that this may be so; if you have an aptitude for leadership, or speaking, or teaching, or management, or compassionate caring, and a bit of a thick skin; and if the various voices of the Church, both individual and structural, confirm the call, then very likely yours is a call to the work of a priest.

Be careful to keep your Inner Voice receptor, the conscience, in good working order; make sure you are not simply being called to more deeply committed Christian living, or a more intense and intentional life of prayer.  And, if your sense of priestly vocation is really strong, be prepared to put up with the slings and arrows of God’s sinful children.  And may your life and ministry be a blessing to the Body of Christ.

Two brief sayings to finish this off:
“If you can do anything else besides be in ordained ministry, then do that, because the commitment level and obligations of priestly vocation are that serious and intense.” (edited; an Internet correspondent sent the gist of this to me in an email about vocation).
“If you are not called to ordained ministry, then being ordained will be painful and distressing beyond belief; but if you are called to it, then nothing else will ever satisfy.” (this is my own saying)

(The Rev’d Canon) Tony Harwood-Jones
July 18, 2012

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© 2012, Tony Harwood-Jones
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1  The story of the call of Samuel can be found in the Bible at I Samuel 3:1-21.
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2  See Isaiah 6:1-8.
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3  Bible references:
Moses and the burning bush: Exodus 3:1-10.  Noah’s Ark: Genesis 6:11-14.  The angel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary: Luke 1:26-38.  The call of the apostle Paul: Acts 9:1-8.
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4  The call of King David: I Samuel 16:1-13.  Note that while Samuel certainly seems to be hearing God’s words, all David gets is Samuel’s choice and an anointing.
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5  Nehemiah 1:1-11.  Nehemiah had a position at the court of King Artaxerxes of Persia, but in prayer and fasting decided to seek a leave of absence from this position so that he could go to Israel and arrange for the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, which were in ruins.
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6  There is an account of Jesus’ call of the first apostles in all the Gospels; I’m following Matthew and Mark here, which is arguably the most familiar version (see Matthew 3:17-22, and Mark 1:14-20).  In Luke, Peter is fairly well acquainted with Jesus prior to being invited to become a follower (see Luke 4:36-38, and Luke 5:1-11).  In John, we read that the best-known disciples had previously been disciples of John the Baptist, but people like Philip and Nathaniel are called, as it were, out of the blue (see John 1:35-51).
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7  For “big for his boots,” see Mark 6:2-3.  For “off his rocker,” see Mark 3:21.  For “evil powers,” see Mark 3:22.  John 10:20 combines “off his rocker,” and “evil powers.”
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8  Although I am quite certain that Samuel and the other Biblical figures really did hear God speak, and that people in our own day can have genuine divine revelations, it is also true that mental illness frequently manifests itself in messages from angels, devils, and even God.  All too commonly schizophrenia and other psychoses attack the emotional system and the conscience.  So, when someone tells me that they have experienced God’s voice, I take it very seriously; but I do not rule out the possibility that they ought to be discussing the matter with a psychiatrist.  The possibility of mental illness is one of the reasons why the other three components of Vocation – external cues, aptitude, and the voice of the Church – are so essential.
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9  See the sermon on the ordination of priests elsewhere in this website.
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10  For the definition of “Rector,” “Regional Dean,” and “Canon,” see the Glossary of Anglican Clergy Titles elsewhere in this website.
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11  The worldwide Anglican Communion maintains a list of Anglican religious orders at  As of July 2012, it seems to be a couple of years out of date, but much of the information is probably still valid.
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12  This phrase is, of course, from the general confession in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which begins: “Almighty and most merciful Father, We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep, We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, We have offended against thy holy laws, We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us....”
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There were a couple of things Cristina knew for sure. She did not know which path her life would take, but she knew that either she would get married and establish a family or she would lead a (lay) consecrated life devoted to God: 

There is that clarity that I started to have when I had the encounter with Christ. Around me society is full of people who don't have a definite form of life, right? So many people who are not married, for a thousand reasons, who are not married but also not consecrated. [Before,] this wasn't clear to me. I thought yes, everybody could do what they wanted to. But on the contrary: no, it isn't like that. And that made me happy. That is a truth that I have discovered when encountering Christ, and that made me happy, because I said: “So much the better, there are two paths, and so much the better that no other paths exist, that there are no other possibilities.”

Cristina acquired this knowledge through her involvement with the Italian Catholic movement Comunione e Liberazione (CL), or through following the charisma of Father Luigi Guissani, as members of the movement often put it. Father Guissani began his work of “restoring a Christian presence” in 1954, in a high school in Milan, working within the structure of the established Catholic youth movement Azione Catolica, and in particular its female section, Gioventu Studentesca (GS). The movement was reconfigured during the 1960s and began using the name Comunione e Liberazione, first in publications and then at an inaugural conference in 1971. The movement's reconfiguration was in response to critical events of the time, the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the student revolts of 1968. The reconfiguration also signaled the maturation of the movement, as young followers grew up and sought to pursue the religious, social and cultural experiences of GS in ways that were better suited to their adult lives. This led to the emergence of a (lay) consecrated pattern of life within the movement, known first as the “adult groups” and later as Memores Domini. Memores Domini take a number of vows, including the vow of chastity and obedience, and live together in same-sex houses. This manner of living is characterized by both a contemplative, monastic dimension, including daily hours of silence, and an emphasis on being “in the world,” which is expressed through a strong commitment to work, and hence to a professional life, as the context par excellence for keeping alive “the memory of Christ.”

I first met Cristina in 2000 in Milan, where I was doing ethnographic work on female piety and religious agency. Cristina was a visitor to the CL female student house where I was living at the time, and which resembled very much the house she lived in during her own student years within CL university community structures. Cristina had recently graduated in architecture, and she was approaching the moment when the contours of her life path would become clear. Her attraction to the life of Memores Domini was evident in our conversations, and this was not unusual: I regularly encountered such attraction among students connected to CL, particularly among women, who constituted the majority of Memores Domini.

Memores Domini follow a vocation. Within CL, following either a familial or a consecrated life is considered to be a vocation, yet the vocation of Memores Domini is more readily recognized as a religious vocation, as understood within the Catholic tradition, and includes not only a divine calling but also its subsequent verification with a spiritual counselor. Vocation was on Cristina's mind when we met, and it became an important part of all our conversations, including an in-depth interview. When I later analyzed these interactions, I discerned a subtle but undeniable tension between my reliance on the language of choice when asking about the course of her life, and Cristina's steering away from that language. Her uneasiness with the vocabulary of choice became most explicit when we touched on the question of work-life balance and the ways in which this is a particular challenge for women:

Yesterday I was speaking to a colleague of mine who said that the family is a vocation, just like work is, and that one has to choose: “either family or work.” This horrified me. As if I can choose family as a vocation! Already here the sentence doesn't work: I choose the family as my vocation.

Vocation, Cristina insisted, belongs to a different realm than choice: one does not simply “choose” vocations. One might receive a vocation or discover it, be able to hear it calling or understand it, either slowly or in a split-second, willingly or unwillingly. One might accept it or fight it, but one does not choose it.

A young sociologist at the time, I was not yet specifically trained to account for Cristina's understanding of vocation in a social scientific manner. Or rather, her understanding of vocation stood in sharp contrast to common social scientific approaches that frame vocation as a “personal choice.” The latter, of course, adequately reflects how many people today understand vocation. The Young and Vocation, a recent study on contemporary ideas of vocation among a representative sample of young people (between the ages of 16 and 29) in Italy, shows that the term “vocation” generally evokes the idea of self-realization rather than imposition (79% to 8%, respectively), and a sense of satisfaction rather than renunciation (71% to 13%).1 Moreover, when Italian youth do connect vocation to its religious dimension, the religious call is interpreted as “a personal option that makes it possible to aim at a satisfactory self-realization.”2 These results must be understood, Luigi Berzano argues, in the light of postmodern society, where each individual is impelled to create her own biography.3

Studies like these effectively document significant and indisputable societal tendencies in how individuals conceive of their life course. My concern, however, lies in the way in which the design of such studies is based on assumptions that are part and parcel of the tendencies they seek to document. This becomes clearer when a rational choice perspective—well established within the sociological study of religion—is used. In their study of the decline of religious vocations within Catholicism in six countries during the period 1965 to 1995, Rodney Stark and Roger Finke argue that the costs of Catholic consecrated religious choices have diminished only marginally, while their benefits have diminished significantly.4 Thus, vocations are in decline as a consequence of modifications in the advantages and opportunities of religious life—modifications that Stark and Finke associate with the Second Vatican Council. Within this framework, they suggest, the “vocation crisis” in the Roman Catholic Church might be addressed in two ways: either by reducing the costly aspects of these religious choices, or by reinstating the benefits. Stark and Finke show the cost-benefit logic at work in religious life, but they assume at the outset of their inquiry the universal nature of this logic.

Cristina's claim that “the sentence doesn't work” stretches beyond the words of her colleague and implies that, from her point of view, the paradigm of “vocation as choice” does not hold. Considering Cristina's claim brings us to the long-standing question of how sociological categories, of both empirical inquiry and analysis, relate to the categories and meanings respondents use to make sense of their world. By taking Cristina's refutation of “vocation as a choice” seriously, I do not mean to suggest that social scientific analyses should be confined to the categorical distinctions that respondents make. Such a conflation of two distinct levels of social reality and analysis would indeed deprive sociology of its own logic, language, and level of theorizing and analysis, and hence its raison d'être. At the same time, it is widely accepted that empirical inquiries, in order to be methodologically sound, should engage categories that are meaningful to respondents and in which respondents might be able to situate themselves. This is where the problem lies: while Cristina did not consider vocation in terms of “self-realization,” as most respondents in The Young and Vocation survey did, the contrasting term used in the survey—”imposition”—also failed to adequately capture what she means. (It should be noted that about 13% of the respondents did not select either of these two terms.) What Cristina and others like her might understand by vocation gets “lost in social scientific translation,” since it does not fit smoothly into the survey questions and categories. This poses problems, not because Cristina represents a majority point of view on the matter; she does not. But it is important to ensure that minority views inform the ways in which empirical inquiries and analyses are set up, for a whole slew of reasons, and there's one reason that stands out in this case. The Young and Vocation study documents the process of secularization, and the concomitant sacralization of personal life choices, given that the respondents seem to extend an idea of the sacred to the search for authentic existence.5 But its design struggles to adequately incorporate those experiences that are not based on a secular understanding of vocation. The secularization that the survey ends up revealing is, in other words, already at least partially predisposed by the survey's design.

In sum, Cristina's understanding of vocation cannot be reduced to a biographical choice, and neither is it simply the result of a cost-benefit analysis. This is not to deny that such analytical frameworks can highlight important dimensions of the social reality of vocation. But they do seem to miss, by design, the crux of what vocation entails for people like Cristina. What does it mean to approach vocation as an individual choice, we might ask, when the actor herself insists that her vocation cannot be adequately accounted for in such terms?

Vocation and Sociology

The significance of vocation within sociology greatly exceeds the empirical studies on the matter.6 Vocation has intrigued sociology, Giuseppe Giordan argues,7 and this is related to its pivotal role in Max Weber's thinking. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism—Weber's critical engagement with Marx in which he explores the importance of culture and the production of meaning in the formation of society—vocation is a protagonist in two ways. First, it plays a crucial role in accounting for how individual action relates to social transformation. Weber's argument is well known: the Reformation, and in particular Lutheranism, brought about a modern understanding of vocation. Vocation, or calling, continued to be perceived as a divine ordinance, a task set by God, but it also came to include a positive valuation of the fulfillment of duty in worldly affairs. Thus, everyday activities gained religious significance, as ascetic conduct was highly valued, particularly in the Puritan traditions, and labor became an ascetic technique par excellence. As a result, Puritan communities accumulated material wealth—the fruit of their labors—that in turn created a new social formation favorable to the development of capitalism. In other words, asceticism, “carried out of monastic cells into everyday life,” as Weber's well-known wording puts it, played its part in building the modern economic order. Along the way, however, the meaning of vocation continues to shift.

This brings us to the second role vocation plays in Weber's theory, i.e., as a crucial context in which to elucidate his understanding of secularization. Weber traces the development of an “inner-worldly asceticism,” which is central to both a religious and a secular understanding of vocation. While, for the Puritan, asceticism is born out of a relation with God, the asceticism of the modern secular subject is removed from such a relationship and focuses instead on worldly aims. Vocation became secularized, to refer to a profession, an occupation for which an individual is particularly well suited, trained, or qualified.

What does this semantic shift in meaning of vocation, from divine calling to professional occupation, tell us about secularization? The relocation of vocation, or “calling,” to within the subject—as an inner inclination that might be uncovered and actualized—resonates strongly with Talal Asad's discussion of the secular recrafting of “inspiration.”8 As the Bible went from “the letter of divine inspiration” to a system of human significance, Asad argues, the methods of the German Higher Biblical Criticism “rendered the materiality of scriptural sounds” and writings into something akin to a spiritual poem. Previously, the divine word was necessarily also material, and the inspired words were objects of reverence, which entailed that pious bodies were taught “to listen, to recite, to move, to be still, to be silent, engaged with the acoustics” of those words.9 The methods of Higher Biblical Criticism, in contrast, relocated the effect of words inside the subject, thus representing a move toward inner spiritual states independent of the senses. As a result, inspiration was no longer thought of as direct divine communication. This, Asad insists, involved a twofold shift: “all causation from outside the world of material bodies [is brought] entirely into that world,” and at the same time this “inside” was progressively reshaped.10 Vocation is recrafted in a similar manner, as it becomes an inner inclination or inspiration that might be discovered, and joins the universe of authenticity and the rhetoric of sincerity, in which the idea of being true to oneself is conceived as a moral duty.11

The Turn to Agency

My interest in vocation stems from my interest in the conceptualization of agency, particularly in relation to gender and religion. Agency, in sociological parlance, is commonly understood in terms of choice, or rather, choice is central to the conceptual architecture of agency. Cristina's refusal to consider vocation in terms of choice does not, however, imply that she is prepared to relinquish her sense of agency. Cristina's notion of vocation is in fact ingrained in an understanding of her own capacity to act, which includes the deliberate attempt to make herself receptive to a divine calling, as well as the effort to prepare herself to respond adequately to what such a call might require of her. This could suggest that Cristina's religious conception of vocation might also point to a different understanding of agency than the common one that hinges on the notion of choice.

Within established sociological reasoning, it might be argued that Cristina lacks agency to some extent. Cristina does not claim to be able to choose between what she considers the two fundamental patterns a life can follow; on the contrary, she refutes that choice. It could be argued that she is relatively alienated from her own agency and thus relates to the unfolding of her life course in a rather passive and docile way. One way of framing her outlook might be in terms of “false consciousness,” which implies that the material conditions and choices in her life remain obscured to her. Instead, she ascribes crucial moments in, and conditions of, her life to a source outside of her own will, consciousness, and power. Such accounts stressing the lack of agency have in fact been influential in the case of pious subjects, and of female pious subjects in particular. In sum, the capacity to act, as Cristina conceives, narrates, and represents it, is likely to be found lacking in agency, according to established sociological understandings of agency—and, this lack of agency is particularly gendered.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Cristina is exercising her free choice. The fact that she might be deliberating and narrating that choice through “vocation” could be seen as a strategy of authorization or justification, particularly in a situation where her social environment or her family might oppose such choice. This way of ascribing agency is related to a foundational impulse of feminist theory and women's studies, which insists on valuing women's voices and perspectives and affirming their agency. Feminist theory has indeed made women's lives central to its analysis and is predicated on validating women's perceptions of their own situation. This leads to a feminist insistence on women's agency, which coincides with a new prominence of “agency” in social theory at large,12 to the extent that we can speak of a “turn to agency” in the last couple of decades. In many ways, this turn to agency remains vital for countering those accounts that deny (pious) women's capacity to act. Yet this insistence on agency also brings its own set of questions and problems. Amy Hollywood has captured the critical conceptual problem in the following question: “how to take seriously the agency of the other . . . when the other seems intent on ascribing her agency to God?”13 What does it mean to fall back on an established sociological understanding of agency to make sense of a subject, when the subject herself relies on a very different variety of language to speak of her capacity to act? To keep insisting on her agency, while glossing over the difference she points to, replicates, in an uncanny way, the structure of the “false consciousness” argument: her alienation lies in thinking she is not exercising her choice, while in fact she is.14 And, both ways of accounting for pious women's agency suffer from the fact that they rely on an already established meaning and sense of agency, fixed in advance, rather than on letting agency emerge through the analysis of the particular concepts that enable specific modes of being and acting.15

One particularly productive way to approach this conundrum is found in Saba Mahmood's Politics of Piety. In exploring some of the conceptual challenges that women's involvement in Islamic piety movements poses to feminist theory in particular, and to secular-liberal thought in general, Mahmood looks carefully at conceptions of the self and moral agency that undergird the practices of this nonliberal movement.16 The theoretical stakes in this approach lie in unpacking a set of normative liberal assumptions about human nature, notably through making her empirical material speak back to them. These include a conceptual critique of both common social scientific and feminist understandings of agency. Mahmood's ethnography—as she considers the worlds and livelihoods of women involved in the piety movement in Egypt—prompts her to question the assumption that human agency consists primarily of acts that challenge social norms and therefore express some kind of resistance to social norms. Not only those acts that resist norms require agential activity, Mahmood argues; the capacity to act is itself to be found in the ways in which one inhabits norms. In order to theorize this agency in a way that renders visible the capacity of a subject who deliberately seeks to uphold certain norms to act, Mahmood turns to the realm of ethics and ethical self-fashioning, and to embodiment, which she approaches through the work of Michel Foucault and an Aristotelian understanding of habitus.

This provides a more adequate approach to Cristina's understanding of vocation and, relatedly, her sense of agency. The desire that shapes Cristina as a subject is not one of self-realization, but, rather, is a desire to lead a life that pleases God. This desire includes acquiring an understanding of God's will, which leads Cristina not only to study important texts as they are presented within CL (which also serves as an interpretative community for those texts), but also to shape her embodied self in a certain way. In order to receive a vocation, one must make oneself receptive, which Cristina does through prayer and regular moments of keeping silence, and through participation in the spiritual exercises of the movement. After receiving a vocation, moreover, as my current research shows, more complex agential activities take place. A calling can be accepted and embraced but also struggled with intensively. It needs to be “verified” with a spiritual counselor; that is, it is interpreted and bestowed with meaning in a context of social interaction and subsequently acted upon in various ways. Religious vocation, in other words, points to a particular shaping of the body and the senses that differs, we could argue, from what Charles Hirschkind has called the “secular body”17 and the secular sensory cultures through which it is constituted. In order to receive a vocation, one needs to be able to feel and hear or see in particular ways that are not necessarily recognized as secular. This underscores the point that established understandings of agency mobilize particular, secular understandings of the embodied subject.

To conclude: I have used the story of Cristina, who, more than ten years ago, was a young graduate at an important point in her life, to pose an epistemological question about the gap between established sociological concepts, such as agency, and a spectrum of pious livelihoods. During my time as a research associate in the Women's Studies in Religion Program and as a resident of the Center for the Study of World Religions, I have been investigating this question further. In concrete terms, this means I have returned to doing fieldwork within CL, focusing this time on the lives of Memores Domini who took their vows. In theoretical terms, my work explores further the conflicted relationship of sociology to religion and piety, as well as to gender, and makes use of Mahmood's rethinking of agency in terms of ethics and embodiment to unpack some of these tensions and to offer an alternative account of female pious livelihoods. It is not so much that such livelihoods need their own sociological accounts, I believe, but rather that sociology is in need of analytical tools and concepts, in addition to the sociological imagination, that are able to account adequately for more subjects and social realities than it currently does, especially when it comes to gender and religion.

—by Sarah Bracke

This article appears in the Spring 2014 edition of CSWR Today.


  1. Franco Garelli, 'Italian Youth and Ideas of Vocation,' in Vocation and Social Context, ed. Giuseppe Giordan (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 38.
  2. Ibid., 39.
  3. Luigi Berzana, 'Vocation as Personal Choice,' in Vocation and Social Context, ed. Giuseppe Giordan (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  4. Rodney Stark and Roger Finke, 'Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival,' Review of Religious Research 42, no. 2 (2000): 125–45.
  5. Garelli, 'Italian Youth and Ideas of Vocation.'
  6. See, e.g., Albert Dilanni, 'Vocations and the Laicization of Religion Life,' America 14 (1987): 207–11; M. Marcelinne Falk, 'Vocations: Identity and Commitment,' Review for Religious 39 (1980): 357–65; Chiamata a scegliere: I giovani italiani di fronte alla vocazione, ed. Franco Garelli (Milano: San Paola, 2006); Roger Finke, 'An Orderly Return to Tradition: Explaining Membership Recruitment to Catholic Religious Orders,' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 36, no. 2 (1997): 218–30; Helen Rose Ebaugh, Jon Lorence, and Janet Saltzman Chafetz, 'The Growth and Decline of the Population of Catholic Nuns Cross-Nationally, 1960–1990: A Case of Secularization as Social Structural Change,' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35, no. 2 (1996): 171–83.
  7. Vocation and Social Context, ed. Giuseppe Giordan (Leiden: Brill, 2007).
  8. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 37–56.
  9. Ibid., 37.
  10. Ibid., 46.
  11. Ibid., 52.
  12. See, e.g., Lois McNay, Gender and Agency: Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).
  13. Amy Hollywood, 'Gender, Agency, and the Divine in Religious Historiography,' The Journal of Religion 84, no. 4 (2004): 524.
  14. Sarah Bracke, 'Conjugating the Modern/Religious, Conceptualizing Female Religious Agency: Contours of a 'Post-Secular' Conjuncture,' Theory, Culture and Society 25, no. 6 (2008): 51–67.
  15. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).
  16. Ibid., 5.
  17. Charles Hirschkind, 'Is There a Secular Body?' Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011): 633–47.


Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.

Bracke, Sarah. 'Conjugating the Modern/Religious, Conceptualizing Female Religious Agency: Contours of a 'Post-Secular' Conjuncture.' Theory, Culture and Society 25, no. 6 (2008): 51–67.

Berzano, Luigi. 'Vocation as Personal Choice.' In Vocation and Social Context, edited by Giuseppe Giordan. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Garelli, Franco. 'Italian Youth and Ideas of Vocation.' In Vocation and Social Context, edited by Giuseppe Giordan. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Giordan, Giuseppe, ed. Vocation and Social Context. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

Hirschkind, Charles. 'Is There a Secular Body?' Cultural Anthropology 26, no. 4 (2011): 633–47.

Hollywood, Amy. 'Gender, Agency, and the Divine in Religious Historiography.' The Journal of Religion 84, no. 4 (2004): 514–25.

Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

McNay, Lois. Gender and Agency: Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.

Stark, Rodney, and Roger Finke. 'Catholic Religious Vocations: Decline and Revival.' Review of Religious Research 42, no. 2 (2000): 125–45.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 2001.

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