By Katelyn Beaty
I recently finished a new and fascinating biography of Dorothy Day, titled The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. Day is best known as the founder of the Catholic Worker movement. Her tireless work on behalf of the poor is one reason she is being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church. The richness of Day’s life gave her biographer, Kate Hennessy (also her granddaughter), plenty of material for a compelling narrative. It is one that challenges our popular conceptions about what our calling is as Christian leaders and how we go about finding it.
Born to a working-class family at the turn of the 20th century, Day spent her early years in New York and Chicago as a reporter and activist who ran with a bohemian band of writers and actors. She had relationships with several men and eventually gave birth to a daughter, Tamar Teresa. Becoming a mother awakened in Day a new spirituality, and soon she began praying, reading Christian classics, and slipping into parishes to pray. The blessing of new life, and the natural beauty surrounding her cottage on Staten Island, led her to ponder the Source of what she called her “natural happiness.”
Years later, after she had converted to Christianity, Day met a freewheeling French philosopher named Peter Maurin who introduced her to Catholic social teaching. Soon she and Maurin launched the Catholic Worker house and newspaper to draw attention to the poor and other marginalized groups. As Day wrote in her autobiography, “We felt a respect for the poor and destitute as those nearest to God, as those chosen by Christ for His compassion. . . . He had set us an example, and the poor and destitute were the ones we wished to reach.”
It was among the poor that Day found her life’s deepest joy and true vocation. The word vocation is from the Latin vocare, “to call.” Christ’s call upon Day’s life was to voluntary poverty, to give up worldly comforts and live in up-close proximity to the people she was given to count herself among. This call was difficult and messy, as Day’s biographer shows clearly. But, it gave others, up to this day, a living icon of the sacrificial love of Christ.
Today, when we discuss calling, we are encouraged to turn inward to figure out who we are and what we are made to do. My generation of youngish millennial Christians living in 21st-century America are perhaps more prepared than any other to discover our one true calling. Here, vocation is defined as the thing that we naturally find most enjoyable, the thing that matches our unique makeup, background, and passions. Plenty of personality tests, life coaches, and popular writers encourage us to “follow your dreams” and pursue the work or activity that makes us feel most fulfilled.
Parker Palmer’s popular book Let Your Life Speak captures some of our modern notions of calling. Palmer was an accomplished professor, but a still small voice inside said that the work wasn’t congruent with his true identity, so he quit his job in order to be a writer and later found the Center for Courage and Renewal. He says, “Our highest calling is to grow into our own authentic selfhood, whether or not it conforms to some image of what others think we ought to be.” Here, calling is something that expresses our true inward self, despite what external authority figures might expect or what constraints our environment might place upon us.
As I learn more about Dorothy Day, I will admit have grown suspicious of this conception of calling. As we discern God’s call upon our life, seeking to make the most of the life God has given, the still small voice inside is not the most important voice to listen to. Besides the voice of God—heard through God’s Word, prayer, and a community of believers—the most important voice to heed is the voice of our neighbor. Oftentimes that voice will bring us directly into suffering, others’ and our own. The call to bear others’ burdens, to a cruciform suffering, is anathema to the modern, secular vision of a good or fulfilling life. But if we believe Jesus, it is the way of true life, and true joy.
To be sure, not all of us are called as Day was to voluntary poverty (although I am always haunted by Day’s teaching that “if you have more than one winter coat, you have stolen from the poor”!). Our neighbors need good doctors, teachers, accountants, and ministers, in all neighborhoods and among rich and poor alike. And, a sense of fulfillment or fittingness—“this is the thing I can’t not do”—is one important marker of vocation. For me, writing is the thing I can’t not do, and that has been key to my own sense of God’s call. Writing is the “natural” channel by which I can teach and inform others and respond to pressing issues of the day. Whatever my day job consists of, writing will almost assuredly be a part of it.
But, I believe our truest, most authentic calling is found not by turning inward to search for an internal satisfaction, but by turning outward, toward others in service, self-giving, and sacrifice. Because we are made in the image of a three-person God, our true self—and calling—is found in connection with others. As we discern together the calling God has placed upon our lives, may we be courageous enough to imagine a cruciform vocation, which will surely be difficult, but also the most truly satisfying way of life.
Katelyn Beaty is the author of A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World (Simon & Schuster) and an editor at large with Christianity Today, where she was the magazine’s youngest and first female managing editor. Learn more at KatelynBeaty.com.