On (A)vocation

Today’s post from Jenelle D’Alessandro is part of Hinneh: a blog series on vocation and calling. If you’d rather read all the posts from the series in a short ebook, the writers have generously made it available for free. You can download a PDF copy here, or downloads in Epub (most tablets/e-readers) and Mobi (Kindle) formats are available as well. To receive the rest of the series in your inbox, sign up here


To be honest, I don’t have the hots for the word “calling,” these days. Neither do I for its more chic Latinate sister, “vocation,” from vocare—to call. 

We have trouble with these words, because we’ve tended to toss them around like the well-worn bocce balls in my Uncle Anthony’s backyard.  We don’t get any nearer to the meaning, because we’re so often tossing the idea of “calling” so closely alongside hefty, confusing, bouldering facts.  You may call these facts / life.

Consider this familiar self-talk formula:

<a> Invariably I must pay bills / debts / provide for my family / et cetera.

<b> My identity is so closely intertwined by this thing I do to accomplish <a>.

<c> Yet, AM I NOT MORE than just the sum of my doings? Ergo, I will pursue that THING I’m MEANT to do!*

And then we are so often met with a formidable feedback loop that returns us back to the ruckus of responsibility in <a>.

*Side commentary for another day: Millennials are more likely to pursue <c> with reckless abandon, perhaps with a certain purity that we all love to hate.

The issue for most of us, I think, is more one of avocation.

When I was a sophomore at UMBC, a brilliant nun named Sister Kathleen Feeley guest-lectured a 300-level course in our English department. She was in her 70s. She had long been president of the College of Notre Dame in Maryland, and we were more honored than we knew to receive her. 

She stood at a lectern and rewarded us with accidental aphorisms, recited poetry and inspired a life lived closely to excellent books. 

The bit I remember most from her course was when she said this:

“There is vocation. And then, there is avocation.”

I don’t quite remember all that she taught us about avocation, but I do know that she led me out on a search-party.  That was 1998.  I am still feeling the stone-questions ahead of me with my bare hands, and she helped invite me in to the mystery.

Avocation, etymologically-speaking, is a calling-away from somewhere.  Let me urge you to overlook the terrible, terrible word the dictionary will tell you it means—a hobby, or a side-gig.

An avocation is not so pedestrian to be a side-thought to your vocation. No.

The beauty of avocation is that this is THE THING we give license to call us away to experience things fresh. An avocation forces us to learn to see again.

Do you have something that you pursue that gives you permission to pause and truly look at your inner life?  I do not mean to scroll the Instagram feed of your thoughts, as we mindlessly do between other things.

Do you have something that causes you look within yourself and stretch out, to ask more expansive questions? Something urging you to see connections with the world, with the cosmos, with your horribly-moody neighbor/mother-in-law/sister/brother?

…Something urging you to make deeper connections, to be present, to love more heavy.

For Annie Dillard, it was writing. (She uses words better than most of us, so I defer to her speaking of these things in terms of a “calling”).  Dillard pleads with us that once we find that thing – we must pursue it with a sort of violent love:

“Stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way…locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting…

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles” (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk).

At the turn of the 20th century, Rilke wrote a series of letters to an aspiring poet that gives similar wisdom. Yet any of us could strike-through the word artist below, and ask what that thing is for our selves:

“I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question…Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside” (Rainer Maria Rilke Letters to a Young Poet, book 1, trans. Stephen Mitchell).

If I can humbly insert myself into the community of Dillard and Rilke for a moment, it seems to me the most pressing issue for most of us is to make a commitment.  What is that THING we long to do, the DOING that allows us to see different layers of our selves and our world—perhaps even of God?

Once we find the answer, we should allow it to call us away for a time.  Even just for a period of thirty minutes, get called away from your smart phone and your TV. Get called away from the anxiety so rampant in our overly-fed American lives.

May you be a person of fierce avocation.

**Post-script: As of this writing, Sister Feeley, now 85, has left Baltimore to moonlight as a teacher at a university in Ghana. It seems she’s been called away to something beyond herself: http://archives.explorebaltimorecounty.com/news/99478/80-she-still-answers-her-calling/

Jenelle D’Alessandro is a Writer-Producer-Ninja in Los Angeles with Radar Creative (http://radarla.com). She blogs about poetry and theology at http://jenelle.ninja and tweets at @freshgreenbeans. She is currently perfecting her olive mozzarella omelette.