I just finished reading a book I got from my wife Jamie—The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling by Stephen Cope. It is a book about the truth that every person has a unique calling and that our greatest responsibility in life is to that inner possibility.
In other words, this is a book about vocation or sacred duty.
As I finished the book, I was struck by the paradox that living out my vocation with the greatest power and impact is tied to living it within certain limits. My calling is not universal or general; it is particular and idiosyncratic. I live out my calling in one particular domain. Cope writes:
I have come to believe that dharma [vocation or sacred duty] gives us the one thing we need to be fully human: Each of us must have one domain, one small place on the globe where we can fully meet life—where we can meet it with every gift we have. One small place where, through testing ourselves, we can know the nature of life and ultimately know ourselves. This domain, this one place that is uniquely ours, is our work in the world. Our work in the world is for each of us the axis mundi, the immovable spot—the one place where we really have the opportunity to wake up. (p. 252)
I am reminded of Wendell Berry, who has written so well about the importance of place. Berry describes topsoil; topsoil is a treasure of millions of organisms constantly interacting, a constant cycle of death and rebirth. Topsoil is unique to particular places; it is a distinctive conglomeration of all that has come and gone in that particular place. And that unique topsoil is where we live out our sacred callings.
Thomas Merton helps me understand the power of limits and particularity in my calling. He writes:
We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything…. But if we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us—whatever it may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.
Merton goes on to say, “The fulfillment of every individual vocation demands not only the renouncement of what is evil in itself, but also of all the precise goods that are not willed for us by God.” Cope elaborates on this: “We are not called to everything. We are just called to what we’re called to…. What a relief.”
The epigraph at the beginning of Cope’s book reads:
Every man has a vocation to be someone:
but he must understand clearly that in order to fulfill this
vocation he can only be one person: himself.