“How is a man the better for it, if he gains the whole world at the expense of losing his own soul? For a man’s soul, what price can be high enough?” (Mk. 36-38 – Msgr. Ronald Knox Latin Vulgate Translation).
This passage from the Bible is often quoted when discussing the price we pay to gain earthly riches; but our Lord is referring to more than material objects and wealth. He is also speaking about vocation and the purpose of our lives – whether we will follow Him or choose the ways of the world. For the majority of people, the purpose in life boils down to choosing a career. However, a solid career, although a virtuous undertaking, is not our life’s purpose or vocation. A career is a tool to be used for other means, not an end or the ultimate goal of one’s life. A career can incorporate a vocation and even help you live it out successfully, but it is not a vocation in and of itself. Furthermore, it should never be made or sought after at the expense of your vocation.
The Difference between a Career and Vocation
There is a big difference between career and vocation, although the two are oftentimes confused and even used synonymously. A career can lead you closer to Heaven, but it’s not your life’s purpose, nor should it be. Vocation is most often and traditionally associated with the religious or consecrated life; but more generally, vocation is simply God’s call.
Pope St. John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio that there are two main vocations – marriage and celibacy. These vocations are the two specific ways that lead the human person to the entirety of love and is “an actuation of the most profound truth of man, of his being ‘created in the image of God’ ” (Familiaris Consortio, #11). Living out either of these vocations in their truest forms will lead to pure joy. It’s easy to say, but hard to do and oftentimes comes with sacrifices and crosses to bear. For example, part of living out the vocation of marriage means partaking in procreation and being open to life. In particular, this often means giving up a career to fulfill the duty of motherhood to its fullest extent or putting parenthood above career aspirations.
In fact, the prevention of life through any means – whether through moral means like Natural Family Planning or immoral means like oral contraception – for career aspirations is reneging on vocational duty. Similarly, giving up on one’s vow of chastity for physical pleasure or vow of poverty for worldly treasures is also disregarding the vocational call. We grow up with dreams of having a career and “having it all”; but having it all and ignoring our vocation is what our Lord means when he posits gaining the world at the expense of our soul. When we set out to “gain the whole world,” it may bring us temporary happiness and pleasure, but not joy or fulfillment. God wants us to answer His call, not put it on hold for fleeting desires. Of course, this does not mean the complete and utter rejection of any career or temporal desires; it simply means that vocation should not be put on hold for selfish reasons or for earthly success – no matter how good it may seem.
God’s Gift of Free Will means we have a Choice – Divine Will or Your Will?
Because of the gift of free will, everyone has a choice as to how they want to live their lives. Are you putting a career before your vocation? Are you following your will or Divine Will?
Throughout our lives, each of us must answer these questions. Of course, if you’ve already chosen married life or religious life the answer is simple, but the choice is hard. You’ve chosen your vocation already so it’s up to you on how you live it out – whether you will put a career or other temporal desires above your vocational duty or if you will gracefully and joyfully embrace the cross of sacrifice that often accompanies vocation. It means choosing marriage and family over career, or the vow of chastity over the possibility of a family. But the joy this choice brings you by accepting God’s call far outweighs any sacrifice made in order to follow the path God has set before you. We make these choices in faith and each decision we make either brings us joy or takes it away.
“See, I have set before thee this day a choice between life and death, between good fortune and ill. Thou art to…follow the path he has chosen for thee…if thou wouldst live and thrive and prosper…Wilt thou not choose life, long life for thyself and for those that come after thee?” (Dt. 30:15-20 – Msgr. Ronald Knox Latin Vulgate Translation).
Vocation is Christ’s Call to Follow Him
Christ called each of His Apostles to follow Him and each one left their careers, even their families to answer that vocational call. He called sinners and some of them followed Him: “Then he went out, and caught sight of a publican, called Levi, sitting at work in the customs house, and said to him, Follow me. And he rose up, and left all behind, and followed him.” (Lk. 5:27-29 – Msgr. Ronald Knox Latin Vulgate Translation).
Time and time again Christ asks us to follow Him. Of course, this doesn’t mean doing things as drastic as giving up all material items or even our livelihoods. Yes, some of us are called to do that, but for the vast majority of us it means giving of ourselves in different ways. Sometimes we must sacrifice those career aspirations if it takes away from a vocation, for example putting children on hold to chase down a career if you can live by other means. It takes prayer and careful consideration. Discernment is not done on a whim, whether discerning marriage or celibacy or whether discerning choices within married or religious life.
Taking the time to contemplate your vocation, quiet your mind and listen to God’s call is important to finding joy in life. The following prayer by Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman is a great way to not only contemplate on your vocation in life, but also remind you of your life’s purpose:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
If you follow the path God has chosen for you, your life will be full of joy and every challenge, every cross you embrace along the way will be for the overall good of your soul. How will you follow Christ? Will you say yes to sacrifice and joy, or will you choose to “gain the whole world at the expense of your soul”?