“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” – Matthew 9:9bre
That’s it? That’s all it took? Two words from Jesus, “follow me”, and Matthew followed. Matthew and I share similar professions. Which is part of why I like this passage. Matthew was a tax collector, and I was an accountant. But I think there is a second similarity that draws me even deeper into Matthew’s call. I think Matthew was searching for something. Afterall, if Matthew felt fulfilled, sitting at his tax collector’s booth, why did he leave so suddenly, and with so little prompting?
The idea that Matthew was searching for something more, might be my own projection; placing my own feelings on Matthew. But with such sparse details, it’s hard not to use my own life to give depth to Matthew’s narrative. Could Matthew have sat at his booth day after day, collecting and counting money, wondering if he was missing something? Did the money he collect leave his pockets heavy but his insides empty, as he asked himself if there wasn’t more to life? At least, these were the questions I found myself asking, but in a cubicle rather than a collector’s booth.
After finishing college, I found a job at a large accounting firm doing audit and consulting work. I made good money for a kid right out of college, and I spent it well. Everything I needed and most of the things I wanted were within my reach. This life seemed like the culmination of years of hard work in school, a reward for a job well done. I felt I had earned the excess I was enjoying. But the more I filled my life with things that I thought would bring me satisfaction, the emptier I felt. It wasn’t long before I started to wonder if this was it, if this was all that there was.
It was hard to explain the dissatisfaction and emptiness I felt. The people around me seemed like they knew something I didn’t, like they had found what I was looking for. New things would bring temporary satisfaction before I needed something else to fill the void. Praise from others for my initial success felt misplaced. “It isn’t as great as it sounds,” I often wanted to respond. But I usually just said thank you. I didn’t think anyone would understand anyway. What I was feeling on the inside didn’t reflect the progress I was making down the path I thought I wanted to travel.
We create narratives to help us understand our lives, to make sense of events in and out of our control and give them meaning and order. These narratives give us a way to understand ourselves in the context of our world, to piece together random events and to make sense of the complexity in our lives. These stories, however, are not objective. We can emphasize details that we think support the identity we hold and minimize or eliminate elements that conflict with our understanding of who we are. Our personal narratives serve the purpose of giving meaning and order to our lives and help us to understand how we got where we are.
There is an official narrative of how I became a Jesuit, my “vocation story.” It goes something like this.
“After graduating from college, I went to work in a public accounting firm. After the initial excitement wore off, I began to wonder if there wasn’t something I was missing. I seemed to have all the things that should have made me happy, but I still felt empty. Searching for something more, I joined the Peace Corps where I was sent to live and work in a small village in Costa Rica. I noticed that my neighbors had very little and yet were much happier than I was, and I began to wonder whether I was following a path that would really lead me to feeling fulfilled. I enjoyed that my job as a Peace Corps volunteer was essentially to be of service to others, but I felt alone in this small town and wished for deeper connections with others, for belonging. After thinking about the many Jesuit novices and scholastics who had taught me in high school, I began to feel called to religious life; a life where I could be of service but also find community and belonging. I started spiritual direction with a compassionate and wise older Jesuit who helped me learn to listen and discern God at work in my life and after a few years, I was ready to apply to join the Jesuits.”
Even before becoming a Jesuit, I crafted this vocation story. As part of my application to the Society, I was asked to write a spiritual autobiography, a narrative of how God was present and had invited me to religious life. I have often been asked to share my vocation story. Sometimes by well-intentioned parents hoping to steer a child to religious life and sometimes by warry young adults, wondering what warning signs they need to watch out for to avoid ending up like me. This story was useful because it helped me to make sense of how I got to where I was. When asked why I had chosen religious life, I would, without fail, offer this polished, brief, and easy to understand answer that left inquirers’ curiosity seemingly satisfied. People enjoyed this nice, neat story, narrated in a linear way. It made sense.
But this neat and tidy story is a lie, or at least, it isn’t the full truth. The truth is I have no idea why I’m a Jesuit. My vocation narrative summarizes years of experiences, both good and bad, with the seeds of goals and values planted throughout my early years into a few brief lines. It couldn’t possibly integrate all these unique pieces into a coherent story. The truth is that there were a lot of other options that made far more sense and no one, least of all me, could have predicted where I would be today. It was much more likely that I would have returned to something related to accounting but that I was better at or maybe gone back to school. And saying that I chose to join the Peace Corps is true but in the way you may choose the last cookie on the plate. You have a choice but no better options.
The truth is I wasn’t very good at accounting work. If I had been better, I might still be there today. That was, after all, the plan. My vocation narrative omits this crucial part to ending up a Jesuit. As a young adult, I wanted satisfaction, but if I had found satisfaction where I was, I may never have been forced to move on. I wanted to live comfortably, but if I hadn’t been forced to live more simply, I may never have seen that things weren’t going to make me happy.
In hindsight, I can see how specific decisions I made led me to where I am. But I also recognize that the outcome of many of those decisions was not what I hoped it would be. Life didn’t turn out the way I planned, and it’s so much better because of it.
That compassionate and wise older Jesuit I mentioned is known as “Bud.” Bud would often tell me, when describing his own vocation story, that he felt like he had been led by the hand to religious life, and that that same hand had guided him through his life as a Jesuit. When I reflect on this path that brought me to where I am, I recognize that I didn’t blaze this trail on my own. I was often led blind and stumbling through indiscernible twists and turns. Without help, I would have been lost long ago.
Bud would tell me that his prayer for me was “get him Lord.” When he would say this, he would make a hook with his finger and pull like he had hooked a fish. Maybe a better metaphor, than led by the hand, for my journey to religious life is hooked like a fish. Like a fish expecting a meal then fighting not to become one, I have been dragged, often against my will, or at least not according to my plans, to a place that is better than I ever could have imagined. I had to be hauled along until I was tired enough to stop fighting. It turns out, trying to find my own way, I was lost.
Life didn’t turn out the way I planned, and it’s so much better because of it.