Today is World Day of Prayer for vocations, and our gospel gives us some interesting ways of considering how a vocation works. In the gospel, there is a dynamic at work. The shepherd has to go through the gate, and it is only then that he can lead the sheep out into pastures. What does this mean for us? We might begin by looking at the idea of a gate.
How many of us if asked to describe freedom and living life to the full would choose the image of a gate? Freedom seems to be more about no fences and open horizons and big skies. The dominant idea of freedom nowadays would be lack of constraint. That is: no-one is forcing me do anything.
But if we stop to think about such freedom – a freedom from – we immediately realise that it can’t be the whole picture. A picture of such freedom would be us standing still. We are not doing anything. No-one is bothering us, sure, but we are not going anywhere. We soon realise that ‘freedom from’ only makes sense if there is a prior ‘freedom for’, whether that be for someone or something. It is ‘freedom for’ which gives purpose and meaning to our actions and shape to our life.
When we start thinking about this ‘freedom for’, we begin to realise that it does look like a gate. If we choose to marry this person, it means not marrying that person. For example, if we choose this, it means not doing that. Choices initially seem to limit us. Moreover, the more choices we make, the narrower the next gate seems. Each choice brings with it a trail of obligations, obligations which affect future choices.
In a sense, this experience of freedom as a gate is the experience of a gate that forces a shape on us. As we make more choices and as we remain faithful to the consequent responsibilities, we soon realise that the gate in front of us requires us to assume a specific shape to pass through. We might have to let something go in order to pass through. Or even get down on our knees.
Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that this door was made for me and only I can pass through it. This is because no-one else has the right shape: no-one else has been sculpted by all the other gates, all the other choices. This is the weird paradox of freedom and necessity. The more I exercise my freedom, the more concrete my life becomes, the fewer choices I seem to have. Each subsequent gate has something of all the previous gates that led up to it. But it is important for us to realise that there is no other way to be free. If we refuse to walk through the gate in front of us, we are not exercising our freedom. We might think we are keeping our options open, but really we are just stalled.
The interesting thing about this process, though, is that, if we are faithful to it, if we take it seriously, our life really does become more concrete. We become embedded in a network of relationships. Our life becomes more and more meaningful, as we see the history of our choices and their interactions play themselves out. Perhaps this concrete nature is what we call character.
This might be what Jesus is talking about when he says the sheep know the shepherd. As our lives become more and more concrete, as we develop character, people can get to know us. They can begin to trust us. The voice that our life speaks with becomes increasingly familiar. And, this developing trust has an interesting effect.
As we become increasingly trustworthy, other people gain more freedom. In a sense, the more rock-solid we become, the more secure is the ground on which other people live. Other people can become more confident in their own decisions because they can rely on us to do what we say we will do. They no longer feel like they have to do everything. This frees them to look more closely at their own lives, spot the particular, find their own gate. They can act freely and become more concrete in their own lives
This is how our narrow gate actually opens up into a bigger world: not through just our efforts, but through the combined efforts of responsible people exercising their freedom. This is something that we can easily forget when it comes to freedom and vocations: freedom and vocations are communal. Our vocations come from others and are for others. Freedom is always only in and for relationships.
So, let us pray today for us who have been called, which is one of the basic names for us, the church. Let us pray that each of us grows in our vocation, that we persevere in it, and that, through it and through those of others, we can become trustworthy shepherds who can lead others into the freedom of the children of God.