in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Psychology of Vocation - The Grail Search Begins...

At the launch of ‘The Disciple’s Call’ (Bloomsbury 2013, ed C. Jamison) on Thursday I was told about a lot of interest in the article I had written for the volume on ‘the psychology of vocation’. One of the good Dominicans in Dublin, Fr Gerard Dunne OP, had even gone so far as to write: ‘The assistance that psychologists offer to vocations personnel and their teams are covered in one of the concluding chapters of the book. This piece, authored by Dr Peter Tyler, is quite simply essential reading for vocation ministers. It is by far the best exposition of this topic that I have seen in some years.’ I will have trouble putting my hat on after this! Abbot Christopher admitted he had to read it twice before he wanted to include it... so I’m glad he did! I have already posted one extract from it (in December last year) but here is another if you cannot get hold of the book... it is my description of the ‘beginning of the Grail quest’ from Chrétien de Troyes. I love this passage and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. And many thanks to Abbot Christopher and all at Bloomsbury, especially Anna Turton, for encouraging me to write this...


The Quest Begins

Chrétien of Troyes begins his account of the Grail legend thus:


  It was in the season when trees flower, shrubs leaf, meadows grow     green, and birds in their own tongue sing sweetly in the mornings, and   everything is aflame with joy, that the son of the widow lady of the           Waste Forest arose, effortlessly placed the saddle upon his hunter and,          taking three javelins, left his mother’s manor. (Chrétien:62)


Now, as a psychotherapist, I know that beginnings are very important (as are endings). When the client comes in the room I look to see how they arrive, what are the features? What is their appearance? How do they enter? Likewise we can look at this medieval tale in the same way. How does it begin? Who is it about? Where does it happen?

          Well, the first thing we notice is that it is the time of youth – the sap is rising, the birds are singing and all is full of promise and hope. This description of the Grail quest seems as good a description of the ‘glad confident morn’ of youth as we can hope to get. Everything, we are told, ‘is aflame with joy’. This is the world of the young men and women who come to us seized with the vocation. Or at least it is the pool of life out of which the vocation director must fish.

           What is the next thing we notice? Well, that our young hero has no name. He is simply described as ‘the son of the widow lady of the Waste Forest’. The book of Chrétien is called the ‘Song of the Grail’, in its title the name of the hero is not included. Later we shall know him as Perceval or Parzifal (which means, literally ‘pure fool’) but at this stage in the story he has no name. This is significant as we shall see. Those who come to us seeking a vocation have at this stage of their lives no name…

          Secondly, we need to note that this is the story of a boy not a girl. Our hero is a boy. Now, on one level we can just put this down to pre-modern prejudice. Yet, recent commentators such as Richard Rohr and Robert Johnson have seen in the story of the Grail a blueprint or, if you prefer, archetype, of the pattern of male spirituality (See Johnson 1989 and Rohr 1994). Whereas we must remain cognisant of the critiques of writers such as Nichola Slee, I think we must bear in mind that the legend has something to offer men in particular. However, having used the legend with groups and adapted it in my writings over the past few years, I think it has relevance for both men and women and make no apology for using it here to draw wider conclusions.

          The third thing to note is that this is an ordinary boy. He is a simple boy. At this point the story of Vocation is not that to a religious group or to the priesthood. The false sense of Merton’s ‘religious self’ has not asserted itself yet. The boy has not been initiated into a particular religious elite. As mentioned above, in this context, I would like to suggest that the process of discovering vocation is the same for lay people, clergy and religious. In fact, I would go further to suggest that too often the word ‘vocation’ is used as shorthand for ‘vocation to the priesthood’. What I will be discussing here are archetypal views of how the individual is encountered by the Transcendent and then works through that encounter. That, for me, is the theme of the Song of the Grail, and why it is of such help for our deliberations on vocation. From this I derive:


First Lesson for the Discernment of Vocation

The fundamental question for the person discerning their vocation is that of St Benedict (and indeed the Psalmist):


Is there anyone here who yearns for life and desires to see good days? (Rule of St Benedict, RB Prol.:15, cf. Ps. 33:13)


Essentially, seeking advice on vocation is seeking advice on how to live a fulfilled and happy life. The question of the Vocation Guide should not be ‘what can you do for us?’, but rather, ‘what can we do for you?’ Her/his role is to help someone to live a happy and fulfilled life, regardless of whether that life is lived out as a lay person, a member of the clergy or of a religious order. Abbot Christopher talks in this book of developing a ‘culture of vocation’ in the present day climate. This ‘culture of vocation’ should, I feel, embrace help to young Christians to explore how their authentic self is manifest in whatever role they adopt for the bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. As well as priesthood, religious life and married life I contend that this should also include helping young people to discern vocations to be teachers, artists, healthcare workers or whatever role will bring ‘life in its fullness’ and fulfillment in the mystical Body of Christ.



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