“Here I am! You called me?”
This Sunday’s first reading, from the Book of Samuel, has been a favorite of mine for a long time. I’m sure it’s a lot of people’s favorite— it’s so easy to imagine the little boy sleeping in the temple, woken up by the sound of his name, and running to his sleepy, disgruntled father-figure, eager to please, saying over and over, “Here I am!” And who wouldn’t want to be like Samuel, with God so present by our sides as we grow up, making sure “none of [our] words fall to the ground”? It’s a rich, colorful story, with a lot of material to mine. But this time, it was those words of the child Samuel, so excited to answer God’s call, even before he knows God, that particularly struck me.
Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, I mired myself in classes in Biblical Hebrew. On the very first day, the rabbi-professor had us all repeat after her, “Hineni!” She told us this was the most important word in Scripture, the only Hebrew we really had to know.
“It means, ‘Here I am,’” she said, “and if you ever heard yourself being called by a mysterious voice, that’s what you should to say.” She was basically kidding— there were not too many young people going into religious ecstasies on our stony, secular little campus— but she led us in repeating it several times, and I went home whispering all those sharp vowels to myself, practicing, just in case I heard my name some night.
But what does it mean to be called?
The presider this Sunday made the point in his homily that, like Samuel, we’re all being called: we’re all seeking something and someone. So it probably won’t be a mysterious voice that calls you and you alone to some great and terrible purpose. The calling will, most likely, start in your own heart, and it will intertwine with the callings of the people around you. And on a certain level, these callings might be prosaic and ordinary: To be helpful. To build something. To find love. To change a system. To nurture. To understand a little corner of the universe.
I believe that— even though it’s a far cry from the way that I understood calling when I was growing up. Callings sounded so harsh and so definitive in the stories I heard as a child. It seemed inevitable that God would ask you to do something grisly and you would just have to grit your teeth and do it. But now I’m learning, from a million different conversations with Sisters, that, rather than being certain and burdensome, a call may never be perfectly clear. But it should bring you some measure of happiness, should fit with your values and your gifts. As Dorothy Day said, “You will know your vocation by the joy it brings you.”
Here’s the maddening thing, for me, as I try to figure out what exactly I’m doing with my life: even when you have a sense of what you’re called to, you can never know what it really means to choose it. We all commit ourselves to people, to places, to ways of life without any knowledge of what the future will hold: you can marry someone with perfect certainty that you’ll love him forever, and he could be hit by a truck the day after the wedding. Or you can take vows with a religious community a year before a Church Council permanently alters what religious life looks like, what possibilities it can encompass. More to the point: I don’t know what will happen to this community. I don’t know what will happen to me if I enter. Or if I don't. That is scary.
Even if life unfolds more or less as you expect, there are still innumerable joys and pains that you can’t anticipate, and they’ll affect you in ways you’ll never predict. And even so, even with all those unknown quantities, you have to make your choices. You have to keep following the calling you find, seeking the thing you’re meant to pursue.
But the important thing about all this, at least as far as I can tell, is what the story of the child Samuel has to show us. Yes, the call can be as confusing and disorienting as it is unrelenting, yes, we might make mistakes as we try to answer it. But we have to bring our whole selves, our whole presence and willingness, to every effort— when so much is uncertain, that presence and that willingness are all that we can possibly bring.
So my Hebrew professor was right when she said that all we need to know is how to say, “hineni,” “here I am.” So much of life is just presenting ourselves over and over again, hopefully with some enthusiasm and grace, when we think we’re being pulled toward something. I’m just going to have to keep practicing.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.