The vocation of all saints

By Kathleen Staudt

Once again, teaching my class on the Call to Discipleship at Virginia Seminary’s Evening School, I am struck by the Reformers’ insight that vocation is actually where we experience the grace of God. Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are clear on this: Our calling is the expression of God’s grace in our lives; obedience to God’s call is our faithful response to that grace – not something we have to earn or even fully understand, not even something that makes us “better people,” though technically it is what makes us “saints.” This is hard to grasp but it is a beautiful mystery. Vocation is ultimately less about “what shall I do with my life” than it is about “how shall I respond to the relationship with God that I’m already in, perhaps without knowing it? The stirrings and restlessness that come with that experience of call are really already responses to God’s grace, active in us and in our world and relationships. This is what makes reflection on vocation something different from simply career counseling or self-awareness, even though our feelings and yearnings about work and our understanding of our identity help us in discernment. But vocation is the good news that God invites us to participate in the divine work of transformation in the world. So our honest questions about where our real work and our real heart’s desire lies are a form of prayer, really, “responding to God,” as the prayer book has it.

These thoughts about the grace of call and vocation seem particularly appropriate to me as All Saints Day approaches, a day that used to strike me as one of our most “Catholic” celebrations in the Episcopal Church. My first invitation into the Episcopal Church, many years ago, came in a children’s sermon offered by the Rev. Robert Denig (later bishop of Western Massachusetts) at St. John’s, Northampton MA, where he invited the children, whenever they hear the communion prayers, to “remember the company” – the company of heaven who surround us and have gone before us. Raised as a Presbyterian with the concept of the Priesthood of All Believers, I found it a natural and beautiful transition to embrace this idea of the mystical body of the church and to understand participation in the life of the church as a calling for all God’s people, rooted in baptism. “The saints of God are just folk like me,” we sing in that silly and beloved hymn, “And I mean to be one, too.” And the grace of God makes that possible – as Luther and all the saints have known and taught.

There are several different emphases in our celebrations of All Saints Day. Often we combine All Saints and All Souls, and/or the “dia de los muertos,” praying for the faithful departed and loved ones, and embracing the hope of eternal life that is implicit in the idea of the Communion of Saints. I suppose that’s the “catholic” dimension of our Anglican tradition. But it’s also appropriate that the BCP calls for baptisms to happen on All Saints Day, because that stresses the Reformers’ emphasis on God’s grace expressed in our baptismal identity and calling us, right from that moment onwards, to faithful discipleship and membership in Christ’s “eternal priesthood.” It seems to me to be a day when we celebrate the experience of vocation as the center of our relationship to God, regardless of the particular callings that we discern.

“They loved their Lord so dear. . . and His love made them strong.” What the “saints of the Church” know, and what they show us, is that God is active in human affairs and that we come to know God as we discern the divine invitation, always there, to participate in what God is already doing. Baptism begins a life of companionship with those who have known and know this, a life that goes on beyond the boundaries of life and death, but begins here and now, each moment that we say “yes” to this call to participation, to faithful discipleship empowered by grace. This opportunity for recommitment, together with the celebration of the Mystical Body, continue to make All Saints Day a highlight of the church year for me.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt (Kathy) keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park.

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