My great-nephew Aidan is five. He knows what he wants to do when he grows up. ‘I’m going to be a floor-layer,’ he says. I made a suggestion about a hobby he might enjoy. ‘No,’ he replied, with determined seriousness, ‘I’ve got to be a floor-layer, like my dad.’ He adores his father, and he has learnt from him that laying floors is an important business – a task which should be done with skill and care and precision, which gives other people pleasure and satisfaction, and in which you can take rightful pride. Not that his dad needed to say all this to him in words. Aidan has seen it from the way he goes about his work. As someone said to me recently, ‘You may say your children don’t listen to you, but they are watching you all the time.’
I don’t know if Aidan will in fact become a floor-layer, though I’d bet that he does something involving craftsmanship. But whatever he does, he has already absorbed a crucial lesson, that good work has something compelling and personal about it: ‘I’ve got to be a floor-layer.’
We can think of our work as a job, as a career or as a vocation. The difference is motivation. If it is just a job, we are doing to make a living. If it’s a career, we are doing it to get on in life. In other words, jobs or careers aren’t for their own sake, but for something external – money or status or power. At their best though, jobs too are more than just jobs, careers about more than ambition and promotion. Work becomes vocational when you see it as worth doing well for its own sake, as using and fulfilling your talents and personality, and as providing a valuable service for other people. To quote the Second Vatican Council: ‘Those who engage in human work … should perfect themselves through it, help their fellow-citizens, and promote the betterment of the whole of human society and the whole of creation; … they should imitate Christ who plied his hands with carpenter’s tools and is always working with the Father for the salvation of all; and they should rise to a higher sanctity, truly apostolic, by their everyday work itself.’ (Lumen Gentium, 41).
This is powerful stuff. Do we, as Catholics, act as if we believe it? What do we think of as a good future for our children? What do we count praise in our schools and our families? What do we admire in our past pupils? High grades, big salaries, professional achievements, even fame? Or is it the real value of the work they do and they way they do it? Do parents, grandparents and teachers talk of success, or of service? Do they offer careers advice, or discernment for vocations? Our language, as always, betrays our deeper beliefs.
In the next couple of weekends, I’m going to be talking on this theme in two different places, at the Clear Voices Theology Festival at Buckfast Abbey in Dorset (http://formation.plymouth-diocese.org.uk/events/clear-voices-2014) and then from 4th-6th July at the Invocation Weekend at St Mary’s College, Oscott in Birmingham (http://www.invocation.org.uk/about.html). Some of you may be at one of these. If you are thinking about what to do with your life, don’t make the mistake of asking, ‘Have I got a vocation?’ Ask yourself instead, ‘What kind of vocation have I got?’ To quote Cardinal Newman, ‘God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another.’ As young Aidan, with his uncluttered five-year-old mind, already knows, there’s something out there you’ve got to do, and whatever it is, it’s worth doing well.