A vocation is not a job. From the Latin vocare, meaning to call, we assume Someone is on the other end of the line. Of course, it could be your mother’s voice you hear, or your coach’s, or your preacher’s.

So how to discern between being divinely called or humanly driven?

Two classic models of calling come to mind. In the first, the LOVE OF DUTY is pictured in the Roman poet Virgil’s epic work, The Aeneid. After the fall of Troy, the hero Aeneas sets sail without destination. The gods shipwreck him on the shores of Carthage, where he meets the beautiful Phoenician queen, Dido. Love blooms quickly, but Aeneas’ destiny lies elsewhere. Apollo calls on him to sail for Italy to found the city of Rome.

I am the man / Whom heaven calls, Aeneas says. That heavenly bidding calls for renouncing his earthly love. Every hero knows in his bones the test of spirit versus flesh: giving up something good for something necessary. I sail for Italy, he tells Dido, not of my own free will.

Aeneas obeyed the love of duty in answering that heavenly summons. Vocation requires sacrificing love for duty.

The second model follows the DUTY OF LOVE. The self-same Virgil has been Dante’s guide in the first two books of The Divine Comedy. Dante has survived the infernos of hell and climbed the mountain of purgatory. At last Virgil deserts him, but not before delivering him into the care of Beatrice, who will lead him through paradise to the full vision of God.

The Florentine Dante had loved Beatrice in life, though we don’t know the extent of their relationship (each of them was married to others). But she held his heart and turned it by her love and beauty toward the One who is Love and Beauty itself.

When at last Dante sees the face of God, he reports: High phantasy lost power and here broke off; / Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars, / My will and my desire were turned by love, / The love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Vocation pays attention to the love we feel as a God-given guide to the One who gave it. Here, will and desire are not at war with love; they are co-conspirators. Love is the duty to which we tend.

The true God brings together sacrifice for duty’s sake and passion for love’s sake. Doing what is good should involve doing what we love, and doing what we love must involve doing what is good.

As novelist Frederick Buechner puts it: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.


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