Hearing and heeding God’s call

Hearing and heeding God’s call Sr Mary David Totah
Vocation is about becoming who God wants us to be, writes Sr Mary David Totah


You must ask: what does God want from me? It’s not just about ourselves. Vocation can’t leave him out. Many of us have been surprised by our call. And yet we knew that our calling was much bigger than such things, and that if God was truly calling us, he would provide all that we needed.

It is good that the cloth of our vocation is cut a bit large, that it is something we have to grow into, that there are aspects of it that are challenging. If it is something that only fits our requirements, or where we are now, there is a danger we will grow out of it!

In the Gospel we hear those parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. And note, to obtain the treasure the man has to buy the whole field. We can’t say: “I like this but not that.” Or rather we can say it, but we don’t allow it to condition our response, because of the treasure, the greatness of what we have found. Our calling is a gift; it is a relationship with the Lord that transcends its institutional and human expressions.


When Jesus called the apostles and they began to follow him, they, like Abraham, did not know where they were going. They let themselves be led. On one occasion Jesus said to Peter: “When you were young you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go.”

In a sense we cannot fulfil our calling as followers of Jesus without learning “to go where we would rather not go”. We cannot follow him unless we learn to leave all things behind and accept him as master and guide of our actions. And this requires that we be ready and willing to make any sacrifice and any renunciation, even of life itself.

Our call is not a vision or an apparition; it is not an extraordinary message we receive. It is much more an intimate encounter with Christ in the different circumstances and situations of life. There is often a persistent niggle, a feeling that won’t go away, as if someone were knocking on the door of our heart or mind, especially in moments of prayer, silence and adoration.

It’s not the Lord’s yoke that causes us to stumble, but only all the other yokes we don’t have the humility and daring to lay down. It doesn’t all depend on you”

At such moments we can perceive a voice, a voice without words, but very clear and penetrating. We may find that we get less satisfaction in our work or social life, not because they are wrong, but we somehow feel that they are not enough.


“Has the potter no right over the clay?”

God’s love is behind every call. These calls on the part of God are completely independent of all that is natural in man. Two people may have the same natural characteristics – one may be chosen, one not. There are no psychological tests to determine who will hear and follow the divine point of view. Aaron by all accounts was more gifted than Moses, more suited to the mission entrusted to him, but God chose Moses.

It is not by enquiring into a person’s aptitudes that we discover the mission God has decreed for him. Everything is determined by God’s holy call that he utters from his own freedom. Sometimes his call responds to the personal inclinations of the one who receives it, sometimes not – Moses and Jeremiah both felt a discrepancy between God’s call and their mission.

Have confidence and trust in the call of God. It’s not something that happened once and for all in the past, but continues to make itself felt throughout our life. Nor is our calling given all at once. We mustn’t think of our call as something programmed in advance by some computer in-the-sky. It’s a dynamic thing, and it’s important to keep the attitude of one who is called anew each day, of one who tries to be led by God at each moment.


I would counsel: a bit more humility. Not having all the intelligence: that is not going to change! We are limited; we are not angels and so cannot see in a flash all the implications of a choice.

It’s a bit like St Thomas’ dreaded curiositas, which he says is the unbridled appetite to know all, which undermines, defeats the attainment of truth. It’s an unreasonable appetite for reason!

A refusal to accept our limited condition and its consequences. It is an enemy of the truth. And the remedy is not a sort of stoic fortitude, an affair of gritted teeth and clenched fists, but humility and temperance, a directing, a channelling of that appetite.

I have been reading a little book on prayer by a Dominican, and he says that the reason prayer is not easy or spontaneous to us is because prayer makes us conscious that we are limited. “It is painful to realise that there are whole areas in the life of the mind that will never be revealed . . . There is an impatience with one’s limitations, a natural temptation that urges us to flee before such limitations” and take refuge in distractions, “a refusal of our real condition, an evasion of it in favour of illusion, dream, mirage”.

When Jesus called the apostles and they began to follow him, they, like Abraham, did not know where they were going. They let themselves be led”

While distractions draw us away from the road to real happiness, prayer brings us back; it is “the great pedagogy of God” by teaching us our limitations and our need of God, to obtain from him what is lacking to us. And giving only what we know does leave out a lot of the gift – i.e. it leaves out what God may be asking us to give.

That’s why, when we give ourselves, there’s always going to be an area which we can’t foresee, can’t know. “You see, Aslan didn’t tell Pole what would happen. He only told her what to do.”

It’s not the Lord’s yoke that causes us to stumble, but only all the other yokes we don’t have the humility and daring to lay down. It doesn’t all depend on you. Yes, Jesus needs more of a look-in to allow him to be the Saviour. And just make sure that all this might not be a way of rationalising.


If God created us and called us for his glory, there can be no real conflict between our vocation and fulfilment, between God’s will, God’s programme for us, and our interests. We are sometimes tempted to think, especially in times of discouragement, that our happiness lies one way and God’s will another; or that God’s will sometimes demands the sacrifice of our happiness.

But if we look deeply at our life, from the perspective of our call, we see that this conflict can never be more than an apparent one. The service which God requires of his true servant, the goal of the workman, the purpose of God’s soldier, is to fight for the glory of God. But the glory of God, St Irenaeus tells us, is the man who truly lives, the man who is fully alive. The saint is the man who is truly alive.

“The saints are the living ones,” says Origen, “and the living ones are the saints.” Holiness is life in its fullness.”

Sr Mary David Totah was a Benedictine sister of St Cecilia’s Abbey in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. The above is an extract from The Joy of God: Collected Writings, newly published by Bloomsbury Continuum.