A beautiful book just landed on my desk: The Listening Heart: Vocation And the Crisis of Modern Culture, by the Baptist theologian A.J. Conyers. He’s pondering our culture’s loss of the sense of a providential plan — of each person’s “calling” from God. Conyers was by all acounts a great man. His counsel on discernment in this book is rich. Of course, he makes frequent recourse to the writings of the Fathers.
In these works — and I am thinking particularly of Origen, Athanasius, and Augustine — the idea of vocation, of being “called” is a rich and powerful idea. Really, one should say that it goes beyond the “idea.” It is something evocative of an experience of being drawn, pulled, tugged, newly fashioned, almost if not completely killed, for the sake of that which calls you on. It has to do with the whole person, body and soul, transported in a way that is at once profoundly disordering and profoundly ordering. It is the word that means, at once, death and life, the loss of freedom and the discovery of freedom in a new way, setting one at once against the community to which you are born, and yet done so for the sake of that community. The Church Fathers recognized that such a sense of “calling” was the very essence of the Church. For to be called to follow Christ was to be called to die on a cross: the fellowship of the Church was the communion of those who had, in a profound sense, accepted the sentence of death in order to transcend it in a new life.
That’s the story not only of Origen and Athanasius and Augustine. It’s the story of my life and yours — the story of God’s plan for us and our response. Thank God for this book. It articulates a process so universal, yet universally obscure. The Listening Heart is a rarity: both beautiful and practical. It’s a book that belongs in the hands of everyone, because everyone has a calling from God, but especially in the hands of thoughtful young people who wish (or should wish) to discern that calling.
Later this week, I’ll post Conyers’ thoughts on the patristic roots of the virtue of tolerance. I wish I had discovered this author years ago. He died of cancer at age 58 in 2004, just days after finishing the manuscript of The Listening Heart.