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Name: Interview with John Neafsey
School: Loyola University Chicago
Topic: A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience
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1. What was your motivation for writing A Sacred Voice is Calling: Personal Vocation and Social Conscience, and what do you perceive as the audience for this text and how it might be used?

Well, I suppose the writing of the book was itself a kind of personal calling for me. It was a way for me to try to express and pull together all kinds of insights and learnings about vocational discernment from both my personal spiritual journey and my professional life as a teacher and a psychologist. For some time, I’ve had the sense that an important dimension of my own calling is to help other people to discover theirs.

I tried to write the book in such a way that it would be accessible to a diverse, ecumenical audience of young adults and adults who are wrestling with questions about the direction of their lives--not only about what kind of work they are called to do, but about what kind of persons they are called to be. I especially aimed to write something that would strike a discerning balance between personal fulfillment and social responsibility, considering not only questions like “What makes me happy?” or “What am I good at?” but also thinking about what the world needs from us, what kind of contribution we might be able to make for the betterment and redemption of this troubled world we live in. In recent years, especially since 9/11 and the onset of the Iraq War, I’ve found myself increasingly preoccupied--both personally and professionally--with the moral and social and political dimensions of vocation, and especially with the connections between vocation and social conscience. In these dark times, it seems to me that an uneasy conscience may be one of the best places to listen for the whisper of the Spirit that calls us to a better way.

As someone who teaches a semester-long class on the theology and psychology of vocation, I’ve personally felt the need for a solid book that could be useful as a text for such a class. I wanted the book to be accessible for people without a lot of training in theology or psychology, but also scholarly enough to be useful as a text in undergraduate and graduate courses in spirituality, social justice, ethics, and ministry. The ten chapters of the book, for example, could be used as a structure or outline for a semester-long course, focusing each week on themes like discernment, authenticity, passion, vision, suffering, and conscience. I like to have my own students write short reflection papers each week that integrate scholarly appreciation of the concepts as well as personal application of the ideas to their own lives, and so throughout the book I try to provide a lot of evocative questions and case examples to stimulate personal reflection or to serve as a focus for group discussion. I hope the book might also be helpful in other settings such as faith sharing groups, discussion groups, or retreats.

2. What criteria can we use to distinguish between the different kinds of voices that call to us in our vocational discernment process?

There are a lot of different criteria we can use to make distinctions between the authentic voice of our true calling and all the other competing, counterfeit voices in ourselves and in our culture that tend to get us on the wrong track. The great challenge of discernment is learning to recognize the difference between the “still, small voice” and all the other distracting racket in our own minds and in our world that tends to drown it out. In Frederick Buechner’s words, it is about learning to distinguish between the “voice of our own deep gladness” and what he called the “great blaring, boring, banal voice of mass culture.” James Joyce, the great Irish writer, saw it as hearing and following the “call of life to our soul” as opposed to “the dull, gross voice of the world of duties and despair.” I think the image of the “still small voice” from the story of the prophet Elijah resonates deeply with a lot of people because it suggests that the Spirit speaks in unexpected ways, often in quieter or softer or subtler ways that we’re likely to miss if we’re not paying attention, or if we’re mistakenly directing our attention someplace else.

The challenge is to learn to differentiate between the different voices or “spirits” that are clamoring for our attention at any given moment so we can make intelligent, discerning, and courageous choices to follow our callings, as best we can discern them, in any given set of circumstances. In the Christian tradition, this process has been referred to as the “discernment of spirits.” In the book I explore some of the traditional criteria for discernment in Christian spirituality.

Being a psychologist, I also value insights from modern psychology that I think reflect parallels to the older spiritual insights into discernment. On a psychological level, I’ve found that the “felt sense of authenticity” is one of the most useful criteria in discernment. This has to do with the degree of emotional or intuitive rightness or fit we experience when we’re considering a choice or when we’re engaging in one activity or another. The issue has to do with whether or not a path feels right to us, whether it seems to fit with the “real me.” When it doesn’t fit, we have the jarring experience of catching ourselves in the act of trying to be someone we’re not. I explore the affective dimensions of discernment in the book in some depth, because vocation is very much a matter of the heart. We listen for calls in our hearts, with our hearts. And callings often begin with a stirring of the heart.

A lot is at stake in this matter of discerning our callings. When we’re wrestling with choices about what we’re called to do in important matters of love or work or conscience, it sometimes feels as if our very souls are at stake. They are! I mean this not in the sense that choices we make during our earthly lifetime affect our prospects for salvation in the world to come, but in terms of the precious opportunity we’re given to save our integrity and humanity in this life by discovering who we are, what we have to offer, where we stand, how we can help, how we might be able to make some small difference for the better during our short lives here on this earth.

3. In your book you argue for a deep connection between personal calling and social responsibility. Describe that connection and what happens when it is lost or broken.

The basic idea is that an authentic vocation is not just about “me” and my personal fulfillment, but about “us” and the common good. In Buechner’s words, our callings are found in the places where our “deep gladness” and the “world’s deep hunger” meet, on the holy ground where our heart’s desire comes together with what the world most needs from us. Socially responsible discernment seeks a proper balance between inward listening and outward, socially-engaged listening, between listening to our hearts and listening with our hearts to the realities of the world we live in—especially to the ways the needs and pains of the world and its people are calling to us.

Jon Sobrino, the Jesuit liberation theologian from El Salvador, says we need to learn to “hear the word of reality.” For him, this particularly means the reality of social suffering -- the problem of needless human suffering caused by unjust poverty and unjust war. And one way we hear the call is through the response of our hearts to social suffering. Sobrino says the natural response of our hearts to suffering and injustice is always a combination of compassion and indignation - compassionate feeling for the pain of the sufferers along with a sense of indignation that they should even have to be in such a situation in the first place. Such feelings, of course, are always accompanied by inclinations to do something to relieve the suffering, towards actions aimed to help the sufferers or to change the unjust social conditions or policies that are causing their hurt or deprivation in the first place. It is in such feelings and inclinations of our hearts that callings to service and justice originate. Such feelings, I think, are the emotional echoes of the inner voice of conscience speaking within us.

The other question is about what happens when the connection is missing between personal vocation and social responsibility. I think that the individualistic bias in much of modern spirituality and psychology is hazardous to our spiritual and moral health. It results in a tendency to consider our vocational discernment as an exclusively personal or private matter of “following our bliss” or self-actualization in the narrowest sense of what these things mean. It becomes an egocentric, me-oriented pursuit of our own happiness and fulfillment, and misses the deeper insight that what ultimately makes us happy--what ultimately gives us a sense of joy and peace--is about becoming just and decent and loving human beings while we have the chance. And so, regardless of what we do for our living--whether we are a minister or a doctor or a taxi driver, a big shot or an unknown--our fundamental human vocation is to become ever-more just and loving and humble persons. This begins, of course, with how we treat our loved ones and the people in the circle of our everyday lives. As we consider our social responsibilities as global citizens, though, our callings extend beyond our personal circle to an ever-expanding network of connection and solidarity with people both far and near.

4. What is the meaning of Jung’s term “shadow” as it describes certain aspects of the self, and how is this relevant to vocation?

Well, I explore the concept of the shadow in the book in relation to the call to authenticity, the idea that we are called first of all to become ourselves, or to discover our true self. Genuine callings are always grounded in the sense of personal authenticity. They grow out of knowing ourselves and being ourselves--but there’s a kind of inherent tension in this process of self-discovery between our strivings for wholeness and holiness, a need to find a discerning balance between being ourselves and behaving ourselves.

Holiness is usually associated with being good, with our strivings for moral perfection or self-transcendence. Wholeness, on the other hand, is associated with our strivings for integration or completion or self-realization. So, rather than focusing on overcoming our human weaknesses and limitations, the urge to wholeness is about embracing or accepting or expressing ourselves in all our complexity and imperfection. And the thing is, we’re called to both wholeness and holiness. So perhaps one of the most complex moral challenges we face in discerning these simultaneous calls is what to do with all of the aspects of ourselves that don’t neatly fit in with our ideal image of what a good or holy person should be like. For example, if we aspire to the ideal of being always and everywhere a compassionate person who is full of loving and compassionate feelings towards others, we will no doubt find ourselves feeling quite uncomfortable when we experience feelings that don’t seem particularly nice or kind or compassionate.

This is where the shadow comes in. The shadow was Jung’s term for all those dimensions of our emotional experience, those parts of ourselves that don’t quite fit in with our image of the kind of person we aspire to be in the light of day. He did not mean to suggest that these shadow dimensions of ourselves are inherently bad or sinful, but rather that they’re morally ambiguous and complicated and hard to integrate in a responsible way into our sense of who we are and who we’re called to be. For example, in my clinical experience working with people in psychotherapy, and especially in my work with very idealistic people from Christian backgrounds, the shadow is often associated with feelings related to anger, sex, or emotional needs that are laden with guilt or shame or anxiety. And frequently they struggle with concerns that such feelings or needs are sinful or self-centered, not sufficiently generous or holy or other-centered.

But the problem is not the feelings themselves, but what we do with them. Dealing constructively with our shadow, I think, requires a combination of psychological honesty and a commitment to conscientious care and respect for ourselves and others that is expressed through loving self-restraint. A humbling awareness of our own shadow helps us not only to be more authentic persons, but also enables us to be more tolerant and forgiving human beings. The calls to holiness and wholeness come together in a right love of ourselves that frees us to be more just and compassionate in our dealings with others.

5. You discuss prophetic imagination in your book. How might a college student develop prophetic imagination and what would be the motivation for doing so?

In her book Big Questions, Worthy Dreams, Sharon Daloz Parks explores how colleges and universities can become what she calls “mentoring environments” that encourage and support students in their efforts to ask the big questions of personal purpose and meaning and social concern. As she puts it, “where they are encouraged to look beyond the self and the world as they are right now to discern a vision of the potential of life--the world as it ought to be and the self as it might become.”

Prophetic imagination (the phrase comes from the title of a wonderful book by Walter Brueggemann) has to do with this effort to discern or envision a new world, a better world, a different world from the one we have right now and to imagine how we might personally contribute to bringing this about. Each of us is called in our own way to cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination, to find our own way of making God’s Dream a reality in our world: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But such imagination isn’t based on dreamy, idealistic, utopian fantasies about how the world could one day be a better place. It’s more likely to be grounded on a solid foundation if it begins with a serious engagement with the world as it is right now, the injustice of the current status quo.

Perhaps the best place to start in developing prophetic imagination is through regular personal contact with the poor and the distressing social realities in which they live. Dan Hartnett, a Jesuit here at Loyola, suggests that such personal contact with the poor is the first step toward any authentic commitment to social justice. It has to do with getting acquainted with real human beings who are in trouble, seeing real faces of pain and hearing real stories of pain. So the beginning of the capacity to imagine how things could be different is often an unsettling observation of how bad things are for so many right now. On a practical level, there are all kinds of ways for schools to facilitate such experiential learning for their students – volunteer service programs, domestic and international immersion experiences, service learning courses--anything that gets us into contact with real people in the real world.

6. You draw from a variety of resources in the book, from Freud to Muhammad, from Sobrino to Buechner. Is there one source that might not appear in most theological or psychological texts?

I explore the life experiences and insights and stories of quite a diverse collection of interesting and exemplary people in the book. Although I stand within the Roman Catholic tradition, I especially try to draw upon examples from religious traditions that are different from my own, including, for example, insights from Zen Buddhism, or the fascinating call story of the prophet Muhammad, or the deep spiritual wisdom of a person like Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman from the Netherlands who was sent to Auschwitz by the Nazis.

The title of the book comes from a song heard in a childhood vision of Black Elk, the great Native American visionary and healer. I explore a number of striking case examples from Black Elk’s own remarkable vocation story in the book. I think the study of the lives of persons like Black Elk can help us develop an appreciation for the deep, universal, archetypal dimensions of vocation that are shared by all human beings-- including Catholics and non-Catholics, Christians and non-Christians, religious people and non-religious people. Also, I believe that us hyper-rational European-Americans have much to learn from the wisdom of Native Americans and other indigenous cultures with regard to the symbolic, non-rational dimensions of human experience, especially in regard to the mysterious matter of personal calling. Black Elk is also a beautiful example of the vocational pattern of the wounded healer, which I explore in depth in the book. It’s a pattern commonly found in shamanic cultures throughout the world, but it’s also found in the life patterns of all kinds of people in both the ancient and contemporary world--including in the life of Jesus.

7. Must vocation always involve some kind of suffering?
The short answer is “yes,” because there’s a certain degree of suffering and discomfort and risk that goes with the territory of any step we take in the direction of becoming a more authentic or loving person. There are growing pains that are an inevitable part of the process of emotional and spiritual growth--a cost to discipleship of one form or another. In the book I also explore how certain kinds of painful life experiences can become a kind of initiation into the vocation of the wounded healer: the person whose interest in relieving the suffering of others has grown out of personal experiences of pain or difficulty.

In the book I also explore the matter of redemptive suffering, which is the great mystery at the heart of it all. It’s important, though, not to romanticize or spiritualize suffering, because painful experiences do not always ennoble us or have a redemptive outcome. Whether any particular form of suffering is experienced as meaningful depends upon our attitude towards it, and on whether it becomes an occasion for deepened loving connection with God and others.

8. In your book you lift up several different liberation theologians. Why are these liberation perspectives important for you?
I think the message of liberation theology is especially important for us privileged North Americans to hear--whether we like it or not--because moral complacency and apathy and obliviousness to the suffering of the poor are perhaps the greatest hazards to the spiritual and moral health of privileged people. In the book I refer to certain kinds of life experiences that shock us into an awareness of social injustice and suffering as “wake-up calls.” In Sobrino’s words, such experiences have the potential to help us “awaken from the sleep of inhumanity.” This is relevant to vocation because, when it comes down to it, our most important calling is not to this or that career path, but rather to the lifelong process of becoming a just and compassionate human being. The ultimate measure of our lives is not our career achievements, or the correctness of our theological beliefs. In the story of the Last Judgment, Jesus says that what we will ultimately be accountable for is whether or not we have responded with compassion and justice to the needs of the least of our brothers and sisters in this world.
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