In 1959, Fr. Giussani wrote a book entitled, “Life as Vocation.” It deals with an expression that is by now common, maybe even overused, so that it can be perceived again as meaningful. We need to rediscover it so that we can help others understand it. The disorientation that is being twisted around in the world that we live in can become a great help for our lives if it is taken as an invitation to be aware of what has happened.
Vocation: an Infinite Series of Facts
I would like to start from my experience of vocation. When I think about my life, I can see that my vocation, before it is a reflection of God or of others, before being a feeling of love for Jesus, for God or for my brothers, before any thought or feeling, is a fact, an event that has happened.
Our thoughts can be profound or dry, our feelings can come and go, but what never disappears is the recognition that “He has first loved us” (1Jn. 4:19). This reflection of St. John, that has drawn many conversions from many people, was born in his rebellious heart but that is then brought towards calmness and a mature emotion precisely because of his awareness that He has first loved him.
At the beginning of everything, there was a fact: God wanted me. And because He wanted me, He wants me and He waits for me. I think that every one of us cannot reasonably live a day without remembering this.
“God called me out of nothing,” wrote Giussani in that book from 1959. The absolute simplicity, almost disturbing, of this saying is like a bottomless well. I could not exist and yet I am. What is there that is more radical, simpler, more fundamental, more moving, more powerful, than this? There will be other experiences that will clarify this, that will deepen it, but, foremost, there is the evidence that I exist, that I am. This is the connotation of our life, of many single moments, like the instant of birth, precise moments that we did not create ourselves, but to which God has called us. Vocation is an infinite series of facts that God alone knows because for us there is only the finite. Let us, however, follow these single moments as an infinite series of moments created by Him.
I think, for example, about my parents. One probably needs 60 years to begin to understand who one’s parents are. It is a theme that I go back again many times with seminarians because I believe it is radical: to recognize one’s parents even if they are not known, like what happened to my father whose mother passed away when he was born. There is something like an archetype in this event. It deals with accepting the flesh as the grace of god, as the way through which God speaks and acts. “Caro cardo salutis.” The flesh is the point where our salvation is rooted. How many places of birth are important to build our vocation! By this expression, “places of birth,” they become part of many other realities, geography, and the history of our existence.
Every one of us could recount the facts that are apparently casual, that marked our life. In mine, for example, a first meaningful fact happened in the beginning of the 50s. Because Fanfani built new houses in Milan, my parents, who did not have a house there anymore and moved to Leggiuno by the lake, moved back to Milan. If they did not go to Milan in 1953, things would have been different. I think of the fact that the town where I lived had a classical high school in Berchet, the school where Giussani taught. There were not a lot of classical high schools in Milan at that time so even if I was in the periphery, those who lived in my town went to Berchet.
Every one of us can remember the gratuity of certain facts of one’s life. Because if one is here, it is because there were those facts that could have not happened. I did not build those houses in Milan, I did not decide that Berchet was the high school of my town. That you, on that day, encountered that person that told you precisely those words and that you were struck by his eyes, his hair, his clothes, and so you went there, you remained, you went back…You did not create those facts.
I am not talking about automatism. It is clear that I could have gone to Berchet, encountered Giussani and said, “Eh, I’m not interested.” I am not talking about an unrestrainable mechanism that happens independently of me. Nothing happens independently of me. Of course everything happens before me. Before my “yes” there is a fact. My “yes” sees the event as interesting and decisive for me.
The existence of everyone is woven of facts that are apparently casual that then, if seen together, reveals a design, a design where things are interwoven to the objectivity of the work of God and the modality with which He has made me.
We are not a blank blackboard before what God does. We are not a tape recorder. We receive what God does through the fabric of nature and grace with which He has made us and constituted us. It is a weaving: I encountered particular people that synthesized all that God has given me and made me encounter. For example, the way I drank from the wisdom of Giussani and how I reproposed them is inseparable from my sensitivity and gifts that God has given me, from the history that He has made me walk through. And all of this is grace.
God Called Me Out of Nothing
Giussani wrote, “Among the billions of possibilities, God chose and called me. My life continues because He continues to call me, preventing me to fall into the silence of nothingness from which I was made.”
Looking at my life as vocation is the great antidote to the nihilism that we breathe every day, the poison that corrupts the air from which we are nourished. In front of the nihilism according to which we come from nothing and head towards nothing, for which everything is the same and there is nothing that lasts, we tragically respond with our self-affirmation. We respond to the fear of death saying, “Only I exist.” But one does not come out of nihilism in this way. One comes out of it by recognizing what binds one to everything, to life, that is, recognizing the meaning of the world and one’s person, one’s dependence, the design of oneself that is made of light and darkness.
In front of the questions that justly come from earthquakes, from world tragedies, but also and above all, from personal tragedies, from babies that die, from spouses that leave each other, there are only two great alternatives: either life is guided by chance, by nothing—as Pascoli said in the most dramatic and most terrible verse in all of his poems: “We are alone in the dark night”—or these express a design, an expression of a personal will that wants everything and guides everything, a will that has called me from nothingness because He loves me and therefore He wants me to be in front of Him as a free and loving person. And therefore He corrects and calls us again. He lets us go through the darkness to entrust ourselves again to the light.
To this consideration, one does not arrive at it if not by a particular grace or a purity of heart before the facts of life. Even Israel, rethinking about the ways God has made her travel, had to conclude that at the origin of everything there is God the creator, a personal God, loving and free, that wants us free and loving like Him.
This does not easily free us from anthromorphism, from the temptation to feel that God is like us, from the difficulty of worship and recognition that He who loves us and wanted us is not like us. He became like us but He is not like us.
The Psalms and other texts talk a lot about the continuous fight of Israel in front of the otherness of God. In the Psalms, however, we also find the response of God: “Do you believe that I am like you? Do you believe that I need your sacrifices? Do you believe that I eat the things that you prepare for me?” The drama between the freedom of God and the freedom of man is the most difficult thing there is. So we need to stay on the facts instead of distancing ourselves from it with our thoughts. And this fact is this freedom that wanted me.
When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars that you set in place—
What is man that you are mindful of him,
and a son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him little less than a god
(the author of the Psalm did not have the courage to say it, but he wanted to say: “You have made him little less than You.”)
crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands,
put all things at his feet. (Ps. 8)
You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed;
in your book all are written down;
my days were shaped, before one came to be. (Ps. 139)
For you drew me forth from the womb,
made me safe at my mother’s breasts.
Upon you I was thrust from the womb;
since my mother bore me you are my God. (Ps. 22)
God, you have taught me from my youth;
to this day I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
Now that I am old and gray,
do not forsake me, God. (Ps. 71)
The Voice of God
Now I would like to turn to a new observation. Why did God want me and accompanies me?
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.” This time it is God who speaks to Jeremiah. “Before you were born I consecrated you” (Jer. 1:5). This is why God wanted me: to consecrate me, to give me a task in the world. In the word “consecration,” that is true in every person, in baptism above all, is everything that has to do with the double meaning of vocation. First, vocation consists in being His. He abducts you, as St. Paul said: “I, the prisoner of Christ” (Eph. 3:1). In the second place, this consecration is the expression of His desire that I become His sign. God establishes a dialogue with me, gives me a name and this name is a task that one can never take away in spite of my errors and my infidelities. So we need to be attentive, we need to listen to what God tells us, what God reveals in the name that He has given us, what He has called us to.
“One day Eli was asleep in his usual place” (1 Sam. 3:2). Eli was the priest who protected the covenant, a man that God called, but then regretted of. Here is a great and important observation: we need to ask God the grace to say “yes” until the last day. Our freedom is something serious, as an adherence to God, as the possibility also to be degraded. God calls us and we need to be attentive to what He says.
“One day Eli was asleep in his usual place. His eyes had lately grown so weak that he could not see.” He was in the place near where the ark of the covenant was.
“The lamp of God was not yet extinguished.” There was a boy that was consecrated by his parents and brought to the temple: Samuel, he who will build the foundation of the kingship in Israel. “Samuel was sleeping in the temple of the Lord where the ark of God was.” He was there, precisely under the ark, in a sacred place. A crouched boy. He did not know who God was. He knew that his parents consecrated him to Him.
“The Lord called to Samuel, who answered, ‘Here I am’.” God calls. And He had the voice of Eli even while Eli was sleeping. “He ran to Eli and said, ‘Here I am. You called me.’ ‘I did not call you,’ Eli answered. ‘Go back to sleep.’ So he went back to sleep. Again the Lord called Samuel, who rose and went to Eli…Eli answered, ‘I did not call you, my son. Go back to sleep.’” In reality, as the Bible notes, Samuel at that point did not know the Lord, the word of the Lord was not yet revealed to him.
“The Lord called Samuel again, for the third time.” Like what Jesus will do with Peter. “Getting up and going to Eli, he said, ‘Here I am. You called me.’ Then Eli understood that the Lord was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” It is God who calls, but we hear the voice of a man. We listen to the voice of a brother or a friend or a teacher, but that is the voice of God. “The Lord came and stood there, calling out as before: Samuel, Samuel! Samuel answered, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening.’ The Lord said to Samuel: I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears it ring.” (1 Sam. 3:2-14)
The voice of God speaks through people, things, and circumstances. Giussani comments on the text: “The voice of God that calls is incarnated and translated normally in the very mechanism of things.”
The Voice of God is Mysterious
The voice of God is mysterious: it needs to be infinitely listened to. We cannot think of having it definitely stored because we have heard it sufficiently. The voice of God is always new, always reveals new nuances, new meanings of what you have seen and lived and that you have not understood before.
This is maybe the most important thing I can tell you. As Augustine said, “If you understand it, then it is not God.” God is He who calls us to open ourselves to something new that we have not yet seen. It is not said that it is something that we expect, what will make us happy right away.
In one’s adherence to God is the joy of man, but this adherence, because of our materiality, can imply a long time. It is not said that the kickback to which God calls us will be welcomed right away or digested easily.
God calls, promising the good
Terrence Malick wanted to put at the beginning of his movie, The Tree of Life, this sentence from the book of Job: “Where were you when I founded the earth?” (Job 38:4). At the same time, as a necessary counterpoint of this question of God, there is positivity. If you follow Him, He will bring you within the good. God calls, promising us the good.
Don Giussani continues: “God calls me to a dialogue with him. He is love that responds to love.” Only in adoration is there joy in man. No figure, besides Christ, has synthesized in his personal story both of these connotations like Abraham did when, through faith, following the call of God, “obeyed, went out not knowing where he was to go” (Heb. 11:8).
Our Wisdom is Adhering to His will
All of life runs along the dialectic between two poles: the sovereignty of God and his good will. Wisdom, therefore, consists in knowing and adhering to his will. The third chapter of Exodus, together with the passage of the vocation of Samuel, constitutes the decisive text to enter into the mystery of vocation. It deals with the episode of the burning bush: “Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. [he went out of his town because he was being searched] Leading the flock beyond the wilderness, he came to the mountain of God, Horeb. There the angel of the Lord speared to him as fire flaming out of a bush.” Moses found himself among the bush wood. The bushes in the desert were part of a vegetation that needed little water and in which everything that is exposed to the sun became thorns. The bush is part of the life of the desert and it is a life full of thorns.
“When he looked, although the bush was on fire, it was not being consumed.” For me, there is in this image the synthesis of all that I wanted to tell you: the sovereignty of God and his good will, the sacredness of God and the smallness of man.
“God called out to him from the bush: ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am!’ [just like Samuel]. God said: ‘Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’” I cannot dispose the sacredness of God as I want. I cannot tell God what He should do, to decide what is good for my life. God decides it. At the same time, He is the fire that burns, the attraction that draws us with his light and splendor. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’, that is, God who acts.” The God who makes, the God who chooses and creates through men. “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Ex. 3:1-6)
Education of Vocation: Communicating by Living
The discovery of vocation is not transmitted to others as a discourse or as a reflection. It is not so much about giving a lesson about life as vocation, but allowing them to participate in something that is happening to me. In the measure that I live the life with the intensity and truth that is indicated to us in the Psalms and the Gospel, I call others to be aware of what has happened to them. I would like therefore to speak about some of these things.
Discovery of the Positivity of Life
The first and fundamental point: to help those who live with us to the fact that there is a good and positive experience at the origin of life. In his interview in Avvenire, Jean Vanier says, “To announce the good news is not to say ‘God loves you,’ but ‘I love you and I want to commit myself to you.’” It is an expression that could be equivocated, but it is pedagogically very important. The person, as Giussani would say, is not changed because of a discourse, but by a presence. To announce the good news, we need to accompany young people in their diverse environments, showing how the hypothesis that God loves me and wanted me is the most reasonable and fruitful way to read every situation of my existence. There is a design, a You that calls you, a usefulness that only you can give. You are not a speck of dust in the ocean of the universe. You are a brick for the construction of the house that is the world.
Learning to listen and to see
We need to help young people see the suggestions of God. Fr. Giussani, in Traces of Christian Experience, speaks of vocation using the word “suggestions.” The suggestions of God are given to us through the facts of life. It is the usual way God speaks to us. So we need to accompany young people within the events of their daily lives, helping them to listen. It is difficult to listen to another, to come out of oneself to listen to another. Oftentimes we limit listening to listening to ourselves or to prolonging of ourselves, which is technology. We therefore need to help them to see things and listen to voices. It is the first thing that God did, taking Adam by the hand to bring him to see things.
Opening Ourselves to Others
God speaks above all through other human beings. To learn to open oneself to others is as primordial as it is difficult. As we have seen in the episode of Eli and Samuel, God speaks with the voice of other people. God needs human beings and through their voices He makes us understand what He wants from us.
St. John said, “If you do not love your brothers, how can you love God?” (1 Jn. 4:20). It seems that the opposite is true, and in some sense it is, but even this is true. If I think that I can arrive to God bypassing my brothers, I will only arrive at a copy of myself.
To open oneself to one’s brothers means, first of all, opening oneself to the people that God has chosen to put near me as a path towards Him. It is a vocational companionship, like a husband for a wife or a wife for a husband. Not all people are equal. In time some will have more importance, some less, and others can be more meaningful outside the vocational companionship, but one can never bypass them. “Even if someone comes to teach you a different gospel than that which I taught you,” says Paul, “even if it is an angel, cast him out” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:1-4). You cannot bypass those that God has put at your side. One cannot think that one can find happiness in the future by cancelling the present or the past.
The Certainty of the Faithfulness of God
Because God is greater than our hearts, because He is by nature “id quo maius cogitari nequiti,” to follow Him implies a sacrifice, a continuous exercise to enter into something that is always new, so much so that, sometimes, we may feel disoriented.
“Temptations and sins remain, but what counts is that all of the fiber of our being acquires a new direction, being placed at the service of the kingdom of God. Even temptations and sins become useful for our humiliation and become instruments for conversion.” Evil is an instrument that God uses to call us again from the enormous distractions that we live in. We do not need to be afraid of sacrifice because it brings an enormous fruit of joy. “You have loved him without seeing him,” says St. Peter. And he was talking to people who never saw Jesus. Peter saw him, but they didn’t. “Even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 1:8), while expecting revelation in its fullness.
We need to learn how to enter in the truer dimension of existence, which is hope. Hope is not an illusion. It is not the attempt to forget what is going wrong and it is not an ideology about the future. Hope is the certainty of the faithfulness of God. “God is faithful and for this reason He called you” (1 Cor. 1:9).
 Cf. L. Giussani, Vita come vocazione, in Porta la speranza. Primi scritti, Marietti 1820, Genova 1997, 163-167.
 L. Giussani, Vita come vocazione, op. cit., 164.
 Tertullian, De resurrectione moruorum, VIII, 6-7.
 L. Giussani, Vita come vocazione, op. cit., 164.
 G. Pascoli, “I due orfani,” in Poesie, I, Oscar Mondadori, Milano 1981, 294.
 L. Giussani, Vita come vocazione, op. cit., 164.
 St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 52, 16.
 J. Vanier, Fragilità. Il nostro grido di salvezza, in “Avvenire,” July 10, 2011, 18.
 Cfr. L. Giussani, Tracce d’esperienza cristiana, in Il cammino al vero è un’esperienza, Rissoli, Milano 2006, 121.
 St. Anselm, Proslogion, II, 1.
 M. Camisasca, Una voce nella mia vita, Piemme, Casale Monferrato 2008, 59.