Dorothy Day, Writing, and Vocational Discernment

Dorothy Day… now she had a vocation to write.

I am reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography for a course in American Religious History, in which she writes her life’s story and conversion from Communism to Catholicism as a letter to her brother John.  Reading this intensely personal journey discussed in hindsight, I was struck by the simple complexity of her writing, of her life’s work with and on behalf of the poor.  But one line especially stood out to me: “God has given me writing as a vocation, so I write.”

Dorothy Day (1896-1980), photo taken in 1934

When we read the words of writers (especially autobiographies, I think), it is easy to forget that writing is not just something these women and men do… it is their vocation.  Granted, many biographies (and perhaps autobiographies) are not written by vocational writers; that is, not every written word out there is “penned” by someone who is, well, “called” to write. But for those women and men who are “called” to write, writing is their way of responding to that call, to affirm “yes.”

“Calling” is the root of the word vocation.  Vocare (as in, “vocal”) means to call out, and it carries with it a sense that it is God who calls.  We respond.  And in this ebb and flow of call and response that I have come to think of as a lifetime of vocational discernment, we often do not have the time to stop and think–really think–about what it is we do with our lives that constitutes a response to the Divine’s calling to us.

It is clear, certainly, that Dorothy Day’s vocation was multi-vocal, so to speak.  The vocation that the Divine gave her was not only writing, but incorporated so much else as well.  But that is often the nature of vocation, isn’t it?  It’s not just one thing, but it is the congruence of multiple means of response.

Reading Dorothy Day’s autobiography, I wish she had written more about her sense of vocation–specifically, how she came to know her vocation to write as a vocation, to see it clearly for what it was and to exercise it as such.

We do not all have distinct “call stories” where we might most assuredly hear the voice of the Divine in our lives–affirming or correcting, perhaps rebuking us into a more suitable direction.  Perhaps these stories simply do not exist for us “ordinary folk.”  But perhaps these stories do exist, but we are too busy attempting to hear them only in the extraordinary circumstances in our ordinary lives.

Sometimes, we do hear others speak retrospectively, saying things such as, “I always knew I was called to be a (fill in the blank).”

But how much more arduous and uncertain we are when caught in the flow of life!  Cliched phrases such as “hindsight is 20/20” only provide real comfort to those actually looking behind, and rarely to those looking forward.

Perhaps, though, this cliched phrase expresses a hopeful posture toward life? Granted, we usually hear this phrase in the tone of amending mistakes, “I should have known not to do that thing I did… but hindsight is 20/20.”  But perhaps this phrase points us to a more constructive and hopeful view of the future?

To trust in a future that has yet to be formed, to be open to surprise is necessarily to resist the urge to claim hindsight in the present.  It is to resist the urge to categorize the future as a thing that can be predicted and planned for, a thing to negotiate, or a thing that we subject to our own sense of utility.  To say, “hindsight is 20/20” is also to say, “at the time, I really had no idea what was going on, but given how things have developed, it is clear that something worked itself out.”  But, it would seem, with hindsight also comes the experience that allows one to look back… one can only make sense of past events if they are really passed.

There must be hope in realizing that the future is open and autonomous to some degree… and yet, we are also not simply along for the ride.  What we do now influences the future.  We somehow become active participants in the future, and paradoxically at that!  For it is only in relinquishing our sense of control over the future that we can become an active participant in the surprises that the future brings us.  It is only when we stop attempting to “predict” the future that we come to realize our changing identities within that future.

Caught in the midst of discerning one’s response to vocation, it is downright difficult to waive one’s claim on predicting what the future brings.  We would much rather know now, so we can get started on the hard work of accomplishing good within that vocational calling.  We would much rather read someone like Dorothy Day, whose calling seems so clear to us 70 years after her autobiography was written, telling us what it felt like to be called to something yet not wrestling with what that meant.

Perhaps that is asking too much of one autobiography.  After all, the more we give in to our impulses to plan out the future based on past experiences (our own or someone else’s), the less likely we will be to let ourselves be surprised by that future.  Without hope, the future seems fixed and dull.

And when the future is fixed and dull, we don’t really have the possibility of becoming the people God is calling us to be.

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