Saturday, December 03, 2011

Art, vocation and holiness

(Warning: another ridiculously long, boring post on art, writing, vocation and the Meaning of Life. Cringeworthy sharing ahead. I don't know what value all this could be to others, but for me to write about this is really just a means of thinking out loud. If you are like me and despise the sharing thing, go here.)

I think the post I did a few days ago about art, writing and vocation, has given rise to a number of erroneous assumptions on the part of several readers.

I appreciate the pep-talks and advice (particularly the ones from Steve J. and Ted and Audrey), but that wasn't what I was looking for. I suppose it may have seemed somewhat gloomy, but I don't actually feel particularly gloomy. I have my little moments when it all seems to hit me at once and I kind of freak out, and there are people around standing ready with the frying pan for such moments.

Gloomy comes and goes and I'll admit to being pretty scared by some of the prospects in front of me, but mostly what I feel is eager to get on with things. To get The Bad Scary done with so I can hurry up and get to the rest of it. However, it is extremely likely that I do have a prospect in front of me, which is itself a huge thing.

The medical things are big and serious, and it is true that there is a real chance that my life expectancy has been shortened. But it is going to carry on, at least for a while, so the crucial question becomes how best to spend it given what I've got now.

A lot of the time, we're tempted to think that we'll start doing whatever thing we're supposed to be doing once all the proper pieces are lined up, when all the resources are in place and things are properly prepared. But I've realised recently that for a lot of us, there isn't going to be any more auspicious a situation. What I've got now is all I'm going to have to work with, and the time has come to move forward.

And that was the point of that post. I'm not in despair, and I'm don't think my life up to this point has been a waste. Not sure how people got that idea, but it ain't so.

But I have definitely been thinking Big Life Thoughts: work, vocation, the pursuit of God's will in the here and now. Cancer, and I suppose other big life-threatening health crises, has a way of making you focus your attention inward. It makes you do a lot of re-evaluating, and re-examining. In general, the results of this have been positive. I feel I'm in the right place, am going the right way, generally pointing in the right direction. Now, on with things. Do more of what I was doing. More and better, more involved work. More art. More museums. More Italy. More more more. For various reasons, I have held back. I don't want to change anything, but to grasp the things I've already got in life less timidly.

With that troublesome post, what I really wanted to do was initiate a discussion on the nature of art, whether from the point of view of the spiritual life it a thing worthy of a person's whole and undivided attention, whether it has the potential to be a sanctifying occupation. Whether it might be considered a *kind of* substitute for a particular vocation, that is, for a vowed state in life. Of course, I knew the answer when I asked the question, but I thought it worth thinking and talking about anyway.

A lot of the difficulty in talking about these things is the confusion of terms. In general colloquial English, the word 'vocation' has come to be used very loosely, as in "a thing you do that is very important to you and to which you seem naturally suited". When we talk about vocation, we really just mean a job that is terribly important, either to you personally or to the world at large.

We usually also mean for it to be something that is itself a good thing, something of benefit to others and something for which one needs a certain amount of innate talent (whatever that is) or at least for which one has a natural aptitude. It is probably most often applied in this sense to the medical professions. To some people, (and I may be among these) writing is thought of as a vocation. But to others, any work that is particularly loved is their 'vocation'.

I once asked a class of young Catholics preparing for their Confirmation what they wanted to do with their lives. Nearly all of them said they wanted to go to university. Upon further questioning, not one of these had any notion at all what he wanted to study. None of them had any particular interest in any academic subject. The goal was simply "to go to university". Only one kid said he wanted to be a plumber. I asked him why, and he said that it was what his dad did and he thought it was fun and interesting and would make him a good living. I told the class that this kid was the most likely to be happy of any of them. It could be suggested that this kid's vocation was plumbing, but only if you were using the term in its modern, secular and loosey goosey way.

But we know by this time that I don't use language that way. Precision is good. If I were talking about those subjects, it would be an error to use the term 'vocation'. Properly speaking this is 'occupation,' work, one of the three cornerstones of a balanced life (the others being family and the spiritual life).

But vocation is something very specific. A vowed state in life specifically for the pursuit of holiness in a special way following the Evangelical Counsels or withing marriage vows. A vocation is something that gives your work its context and to some degree at least, its direction. It forms the framework in which you do the work you do, whatever it is. It is very common among Christians to make the mistake of thinking that "vocation" means the same thing as "work" or occupation.

This error, the conflating of work with vocation, by the way, has been the core of the disaster in the Religious Life in the Church since the '60s. Women who wanted to do a particular work went into religious life. This helped them to mash the two things together, a vocation and the work done within it. One does not have a vocation to be a teacher or a nurse, but to the religious life, a state of perpetual celibacy under the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Technically, your marriage and your family are your vocation, the state in life to which you were called by God and for which you undertook vows. Two things by definition that can't be vocations are work and the single life: no vows for either. The "single life" that the NewChurchy types like to talk about is really no state at all, it is the condition out of which one is called.

I don't propose that God is "calling" me or anyone to painting or writing as a substitute for a genuine vocation, or as a consolation prize for a failed vocation, for having dithered too long.

I recounted the details of my medical condition and prospects merely to update readers and impress upon them that the question is no longer abstract and academic for me. I wrote below that the seriousness of cancer, the physical consequences of chemotherapy, total hysterectomy and premature menopause and its long-term treatment, are prompting me to think more pointedly about the value of what I am doing and want to do, what I am hoping to do and what I wish I could do and fear I don't have time for.

The question, "What do I want to be doing when I die?" has, until now, been totally abstract, something to be discussed with a few friends late in the evening somewhere between the after-dinner Amaro to the middle of the first bottle of grappa. Catholic spiritual writers, including many of the saints, have always exhorted their disciples to keep the awful reality of death immediately before their eyes. The question is one that all Christians are supposed to ask themselves seriously all the time. Christ Himself put it at the centre of much of His own teaching. Don't be caught napping, partying or goofing off when the Master of the house comes calling. Don't be fussing over building new grain towers to house all your bumper harvests... "Thou fool, this night..."

I want to be clear that I consider it to have been a grace to have been so forthrightly and inarguably forced to re-evaluate. I also consider it to have been Providential that I started studying art in at least a semi-serious way before the cancer thing descended. It has opened up something new and unexpected in my life.

We know there are some occupations that are more ordered towards contemplation, though of course, there is no reason to think that a plumber could not be a saint. I am also not making the mistake that artists are necessarily more holy or "spiritual" than ordinary mortals. (A quick look at this man's work and this man's life, should be enough to dispel this idea.) But there are aspects to art (and here I am using the term more broadly to include writing) that seem to point to it being naturally ordered to the contemplative life. For one thing, both painting and writing can only be pursued in solitude. You can't write when someone is nattering at you. But the visual arts of painting and drawing, I believe, are naturally and uniquely more outward-seeking than writing and it is this outward gaze that I think makes visual art more innately similar to the pursuit of God in the contemplative life.

I mean that when I'm drawing a subject, I am necessarily concentrating on something totally outside myself, something that is only useful as a subject by being completely itself and not subject to change by me. Drawing is an inherently other-oriented pursuit, much more so than writing.

It has the flavour of obedience about it. When you are drawing a subject, you are in a way giving up the pursuit of your own will and passing it over to follow a reality outside your will or desires. The thing you are drawing is itself; your goal is merely to reflect or depict it accurately for others.

Betty Edwards, of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain fame, has observed what happens to a person's brain while he is in the act of drawing an external subject. She notes, and I have observed this myself, that it is difficult to talk while you are drawing. That is, while you are actually in the process of looking at a subject and deciding where to put a mark on the paper. It is also difficult to understand what others are saying while your brain is in its drawing state. You have to stop and shake your brain a bit and ask the person to repeat what he has said.

I think that drawing and religious contemplation are related somehow, and that there might be something in the act of drawing that is perhaps even related to a state of ecstasy in which the person is swept up out of this world entirely, and out of all self-involvement for a few moments, a state of perfect, self-forgetting contemplation of the Total Other.

There is a terrible trap into which solitary people can fall, to have your life become the pursuit of personal whims, to orient it towards the self. Human beings need a social context, we need to be accountable to others. We need to have other people around to bump up against, to learn where the boundaries of self are. So of course, there is this about painting and writing that tend to cause problems.

I've had people in various venues, here and elsewhere, say "But what's wrong with what you're doing now?" and of course, the answer is, nothing whatever. But one's work is not a vocation; it can only have the scope of an occupation. No work is never going to be enough by itself to sustain a person spiritually and it cannot form the whole framework of a life.

I know that I am not capable of being a "monk in the world". In fact, the nature of what I do, the actual stuff I write about, is such that, left to itself, it can be morally and spiritually crushing.

At the risk of sounding like I'm issuing a rabbity disclaimer, I do want to say that I am tremendously fortunate. Throughout my childhood, I had assumed that I would make my living writing. My mother started teaching me the mechanics of it when she was herself still a school teacher, when I was about six. But as I got older, I began to realise that this is a difficult thing to achieve.

There really are not many people in the world who can say they make their a living at writing, nor at an occupation that is so obviously ordered towards the good. My "day job" is to work towards the restoration of all that is good, true and noble in Christian society using writing, a skill for which I've been trained since childhood. I can't imagine giving it up, it has become so much a part of who I am.

But occupation and vocation, while they overlap, are two separate issues. My work can only be part of the picture, and without a true vocation, without the greater context and framework, it has to be balanced somehow.

A vocation encompasses the entire person, including work. And it is this framework that I have found missing. I think I remember the moment when I finally decided against the religious life and for what I am doing now. This is what I mean when I suggest that mine was what was once called a "failed" vocation.

What does God offer to people who turn down His best gifts? Not marriage, it seems. So, a life lived alone, without the context of a community of others, whether family or a religious community... how to live in such a situation in a way that pleases God. This is what is exercising my mind at the moment, apart from medical concerns.

People have said to me, "You should just be happy and content with the knowledge that what you do is saving innocent lives..." But I know nothing about that and it is not for me to know. I hate to burst whatever illusion bubbles there may be about my motives, but a life isn't lived like that. One may have noble motives, but real life can't be lived on those heights. Real life is lived in the grubby, prosaic day to day.

But I also think it is a mistake to try to make such lofty ideals into the daily sustenance. If I were to try to keep them before me as a reason to do my work, I would quickly run out of juice. I've known a lot of pro-life activists who do this, but I know that I would very quickly succumb to the machinations of my ego if I were to try it. I can't afford to think of myself as anything but a writer. As a writer, I strive to tell the truth as clearly as I can on subjects that are, I believe, of universal importance. What the final result of this work might be is out of my hands, and really isn't my business anyway.

I once had a conversation with an archbishop about this work, and described it as "pushing the rock". I've been instructed to push the rock. Not to get it to the top of the hill. Whether it rolls down the hill every day and I have to start again at the bottom is no business of mine. My job is merely to push it.

I am not a crusader by nature and I find such language to be at best distracting. I did not get into the pro-life movement because I thought it was a vocation. It was simply the most obvious answer to a puzzle, a kind of mathematical equation. I only have one life, it would be a waste to do with it anything less than the most important thing I can think of. I spent many years trying to understand what was wrong with the world, and when I did, what I should do with myself simply became self-evident. It was no more dramatic than that.

So, to the friends asking, "What's wrong with what you're doing?" I respond simply that there's nothing wrong with it at all, but it is incomplete. What I need now are the other pieces of the picture. If the three cornerstones of a balanced lay life, that is the totality of one's vocation in life, are the spiritual life, work and family (as Benedict put it, ora et labora et vita communis) how can I find a substitute for the third thing in a life lived in solitude?



Anonymous said...

Gardening is an art too. It has all the consolations of painting, has been divinely ordained, produces things to contemplate, and to eat.

Teresa B. said...

I don't have an answer for your question.
(If I did it would probably include something about those old Christmas movies I just finished watching)

You are wise enough to know that there is a part of you that is incomplete.

Mark said...

Have you ever considered joining a Third Order or some pious association (to give your life that context)?

Anonymous said...

If the three cornerstones of a balanced lay life, that is the totality of one's vocation in life, are the spiritual life, work and family (as Benedict put it, ora et labora et vita communis) how can I find a substitute for the third thing in a life lived in solitude?

Who says you get to have a balanced life? I only get two of the three; there's no occupation in my life, just family and spiritual life. So you get occupation and spiritual life. Better than nothing, right? - Karen

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Maybe you're right, Karen. It has been suggested to me that not having family gives me more time to devote to the things God wants of me. Not a bad argument.

Anonymous said...

"What does God offer to people who turn down His best gifts? Not marriage, it seems."

I would have to disagree with this. I, too, turned down the invitation to religious life, not without some regret, which is something I have to live with for the rest of my life. But God has given me the gift of marriage, to someone who also threw away a possible vocation. And our relationship came late in life (for me at least) and took us both by surprise. In fact, it surprised many people.

You never know where the twists and turns of life will take you.


John Lamont said...

A vocation is actually the call from a bishop to a candidate for the priesthood, not some kind of interior impulse from God or a predetermined plan that God has for your life this was all worked out in by a Fr. Lahitton at the beginning of the 20th century. Since lay people do not get called by a bishop to do anything, they do not have a vocation, and married people in particular do not have a vocation to married life - no bishop calls them to get married. Priests have a vocation to a state of life, laymen have a state in life that does not involve a vocation. The difficulty for single laymen is that their state in life does not have the precise duties that the married state does. Now that I am married and have a child, my duties of state are pretty obvious - when I was single they were not determined for me in the same way; that's what makes the single life difficult. I think however Hilary that you are doing pretty well with your duties of state with your day job, in fact outstandingly well, and all you might worry about is keeping up the spiritual strength needed for this job.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...


this is a very limited understanding of vocation, and it is not, as far as I can tell, the opinion of the whole Church.

Anonymous said...

Some work may is a duty, but we are not called to work all the time, in fact sabbaths and sabbaticals are part of God's law. Maybe "Look at the lily of the fields" also orders us to get away from practical, useful things, and simply contemplate beauty. And whatever the product of art, the production of art involves a sustained contemplation of duty. Maybe not everyone is called to be Tubalcain or Jubalcain, but everyone should contemplate beauty (and truth, and good, and being, and all that stuff).

Anonymous said...

oops "sustained contemplation of duty" should have been "sustained contemplation of beauty". Sorry.

John Lamont said...

I would have said the same about the nature of vocation until coming across Fr. John Blowick's book Priestly Vocation, in which he makes this case, I always thought that a priestly vocation was an inner call to a man from the Holy Spirit telling him to choose the priestly life, and that this inner call was based in God's decision that that individual should become a priest. From this notion of the priestly vocation the idea of a lay vocation has been elaborated. But in fact this idea of a oriestly vocation was invented in the seventeenth century and has no satisfactory theological basis. All that is involved in becoming a priest is having the capacities to be one and making the choice to be one. Of course God's providence is at work when a man makes this decision, but the providence works through his free choice rather than through any antecedent divine decision and call. The call that gives God's stamp to the man's choice is the bishop's calling him forward for ordination. Blowick bases his arguments largely on Fr. Joseph Lahitton's book 'La vocation sacerdotale', available online here:

This is a rather long theological disquisition, but it is important as the idea of lay vocations is simply an extension of the previous, mistaken idea of priestly vocations. Since there are in fact no priestly vocations of this kind, there are a fortiori no analogous lay ones. Fr. Lahitton was denounced to the Holy Office for his book, but the Holy Office's response endorsed his claim: here it is.

'The book of the eminent man Joseph Canon Lahitton, “La Vocation Sacerdotale.” is in no way to be reprobated, but rather is is deserving of outstanding praise in the following points: (1) that no one has a right to ordination antecedently to the free choice of him by the bishop; (2) that the condition to whcih the Ordinary should look, and which is called a priestly vocation, by no means consists, at all events necessarily and as a general rule, in some interior aspiration of the subject or in impulses of the Holy Spirit to receive the priesthood; (3) but, on the contrary, nothing more is required in the candidate that he may rightly be invited by the bishop, than a right intention together with a fitness based on those gifts of nature and grace, and confirmed by that goodness of life and sufficiency of learning, that afford a well-founded hope, that he would be able rightly to fulfill the priestly duties and maintain its obligations holily. - AAS 4 (1912), 485.

Jonathan said...

A few things to consider, from Fr. Butler’s book Religious Vocation: “The use of call or vocation in the New Testament is restricted to the call to justification. Vocation is never used with reference to the counsels [of poverty, chastity, and obedience]. This is a more recent appropriation by theologians.... No consideration of vocation was attached to the practice of the counsels [by the Fathers]. Vocation was treated only in its proper reference to justification.... The divine dictum, ‘Let him accept it who can,’ was sufficiently clear to these early Church writers” (38-39). He also interestingly accuses the modern practice of so-called discernment of “relegating religious vocation to the realm of Gnosticism, making of it an esoteric private inspiration” (7). I should mention that he references St. Thomas quite extensively throughout.

So, let’s assume for the moment that Fr. Butler is right, and that he’s using his patristic and scholastic sources appropriately. For one thing it means that we need a different way of looking at our Christian lives than “vocationally,” since vocation is simply the universal call to justification or holiness. It seems to me that we can get hung up to some extent on the matter of religious orders, as well, which are not strictly necessary even for living the three counsels (since such orders didn’t exist in the first few centuries of the Church). Just because I decide against joining any of the reasonably available orders doesn’t mean I’ve even decided against the religious life as such, though it’s certainly harder to do outside of an order (St. Thomas apparently allows a place for an unvowed Christian living the counsels (59)).

We can also get hung up on Holy Orders and Matrimony because of their sacramental nature. It often seems to be expected that men will choose one or the other, and that women will choose either the nunnery or matrimony, based on the assumption that without a religious order or a sacrament providing a pattern for the entirety of one’s life, that life is being wasted. But St. Paul strongly urges Christians not to marry, nor to remarry after being widowed, and I don’t think we can assume that all those single men were going on to be priests and bishops. Doubtless they helped at the local church, but they also had their own secular responsibilities. The Fathers seem clear that the religious life is intrinsically higher than the married life, even though the latter is a sacrament while the former is not. Similarly, a secular priest is living a lower state of life than a lay monk, despite the everlasting nature of his sacrament. It’s an odd inversion of our usual hierarchy of values.


Jonathan said...


“This therefore I say, brethren; the time is short; it remaineth, that they also who have wives, be as if they had none; and they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as if they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”

As to art, I’ve spent some years thinking on the subject, myself. The idea of poetry- and fiction-writing as a Christian vocation can at least popularly be traced back to Flannery O’Connor, though I suspect she was condensing the thoughts of many earlier thinkers. St. Thomas called poetry “the least of the sciences,” and I expect he would be bemused, and then concerned, that anyone would think that its practice could be comparable with or a replacement for the divine counsels. The visual arts are higher than the literary arts—and you captured their differences quite well—but I don’t believe that even a life committed to creating religious art or iconography is intrinsically good (cf. your example of Caravaggio). Modern Catholic writers like Maritain are fond of pointing out that a good artist does not always equate to a good man, which to me is a sufficient argument that art is a worldly pursuit which can potentially lead to a great deal of good, but which is fraught with moral dangers like sensuality and vanity.

We can’t, it seems, ever assume that God is calling us to do anything but become perfect. “My kingdom is not of this world,” and so our vocation doesn’t really have anything to do with the world. St. Thomas elsewhere says that the Christian should certainly not be scrupulous about loving created things, but so long as they are loved “in God” as fellow creatures. If I’ve not gone entirely off the rails, then, God is not calling me to write a poem about a warbling bird nor calling you to draw a picture of a model, but he certainly doesn’t mind if we do, and our doing so may even help us learn to love God more through appreciating his creation. “Love, and do what thou wilt,” as St. Augustine wrote. There’s a kind of purgation that comes with the mere fact of living in this world when we desire the better one, and this life becomes doubly troublesome for those of us living outside of any socially-recognized “state of life.” We are more obviously pilgrims.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you're right, Karen. It has been suggested to me that not having family gives me more time to devote to the things God wants of me. Not a bad argument.

It's not an argument, it's just common sense. Life is not some kind of puzzle where we figure out a way to get all the nice things that were promised us. We just don't necessarily get everything we want or even everything we need. I personally don't get a lot of bang out of thinking "God WANTS me to be raising children in the middle of societal breakdown so I can't have any adult occupation." I mean, I guess I can see how in a way that is true since God wills everything that happens but.... I don't know. Things are just not always good. Things are often pretty bad. There's no sense we're going to find in this life. This sounds gloomy written out but I find the dreary insistence that everyone find a personal divine plan in the vicissitudes of personal fortune much gloomier! - Karen

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Are you trying to tell me Mick Jagger LIED!!!?

Anonymous said...

NEVER - Karen

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

All my life I've had the problem of a great deal of anxiety over whether I'm doing things right. I wasn't really raised, in the proper sense at all. My mother never really did figure out how to do her life and I was out of the home by 15 and had to more or less raise myself from that point. So this anxiety that I'm donig things wrong and will have to go back to the beginning to start all over or try to fix things has been with me since then. It' horrible and the cancer thing has really brought home the fact that there is a deadline, literally, and made the problem more acute if anything.

Anonymous said...

Ugh, I sympathize. Still, you do know, right, that these feelings aren't a guide to reality? Your level of anxiety has zero to do with the rightness of your actions. You can be doing everything right and still be lying awake at night terrified. Anxiety is like any other physical disorder; you don't get it because you're being punished for something and you can't fix it by doing right things. We just have to suffer it. ANXIETY PARTY LET'S HAVE ONE - Karen

Gary said...

There's no real deadline except eternity. God will take care of everything in the end if we seek only to love Him and serve Him as best we can in our sufferings.

What we do with the state of life in which we find ourselves is more important than "finding" one. We can only offer our anxiety and worry in these matters to Our Lord, who will arrange everything for us in His time. Every grace needed to become a saint.

St. Teresa's bookmark. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk. It's been a great help:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

Anonymous said...

I think sometimes we underestimate how much WANTING to do the right thing, and TRYING to do the right thing, matters to God. Especially when we suffer because of it.