Vocation Campaigning and its (dis)Contents

With the prospect of facing a highly relativized crowd of millennials, what choice can one offer against a conglomerate of pleasurable options without sounding like a patronized madcap taking baby steps at advertising? Pressing on the concept of vocation is climacteric as there are nowadays arsenals of cult following desperately fighting for the limelight.

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The starkest cardinal pitfall in campaigns has always been the perilous border dividing what is proselytizing and what is not. And what is not? Nobody can really set the parameters with military precision of the sacred text that counsels on being wise as serpents. For the wisdom betrothed to such serpentine acuity is layered with circuitous nuances, most of the time on the self-serving end. The caution then remains: how shall one sell an apple without acceding to a deceiving cleverness as in the serpent in Genesis or to a hypnotizing ‘trust in me’ rhetoric as Kaa the snake’s charm in The Jungle Book, or still more to a caging persuasion as in the grumpy old lady in Snow White? Dashing words could be alluring and the acting of one who has an artistry of acting surely can make a disciple or two. There are things to learn in the art of persuasion. Whereas before it was a matter of words, now it is a matter of many other things: appeal, entertainment, presentation, and all other factors that can be weighed as percentage criterion.

The practice goes back as far as the successful men in antiquity who paid much to sophists for them to teach their sons the art of persuasive speech, literally buying the kind of cleverness that can make their sons succeed in the world no matter what; that in the arena of a deliberative and discursive polis, a strong presentable argument, and not just a valid one, must deliver and convince than the others. In the course of history, all other unlikely things become necessary and they function to promote other standards by which one can picture out a wide-ranging set of perspectives capable of ensuring that these very standards remain extant as formulas of the grandest victories. This development owing from the mentality of success disrupts the proper means and stays with whatever that works throughout the whole scenario until the desired end continues to be achievable. What seems to be the most effective apparatus to get the point deserves the mainstream place.  Two things can have the same content but differ in presentation; their charm judged on the basis of the standards that set proper proportionalities in beauty and its accepted face. Within this prima facie benchmark, why would one look for a VIP pass for models if one already looks like a model? In the most proficient artistry of shape and form, the appearance that gets one to the fast lane is more desirable than painstakingly falling in line.

And yet in a logic as simple as sheer sweet talk, what chance does it have in the same logic that counters it in the hands of others? One does not marvel at ‘has been’ presentations anymore; bringing them back to life as revivals may only support their golden days of either classically remaining at the mercy of sentimental valuations or ‘good riddance’-gratitude applause. The idea that one has to please and disgust one’s current state all the time is a frustrating move in the flux that demands something way better than what is plain good. Satiety and the absence of wow-effect for bored humanity is death. In short, the audition is not the real deal but the play, the sustenance, the progress – every other next level quarter stage towards the finals! In this frame, even superficiality loses its bearing. Expert businessmen know that the point is to make sales and not to remain in the state of flirting with the customer’s money; abandoning all stereotypes and whatnot, a good salesman means business and thereby talks even to a man with worn out clothes, ragged shorts and dirty sandals as long as that man has enough money to pay. Every other step becomes a clean kill for the reward.

With all the options fighting for the spotlight, is there any viable way that the question of self-examination mostly done as a personal or private practice be given enough attention when proclaimed in the public sphere without having to be easily dismissed as an awkward vocal self-appraisal or a tedious subject better discussed by yoga trainers and meditation gurus?

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If one is asked to market green tea over competitors like white wine or fruit sodas, can the comparison even be justified, or does the product sell itself for its rightful consumers? If a green tea can taste like Fanta, perhaps. It goes the same when the additional chemicals mixed in diet and zero Coca Cola products would have a similar basis by which nutritional values can be assessed compared to herbal juices.

What needs to be made clear is: will this sort of business talk, persuasive art or skill, blandishment or whatever one may call it – this amalgamation of political ventures, economic transactions, and artistic beautification that coats a propaganda – even be applied to the concept of vocation and vocation campaign; for here even vocations and its campaigns may cajole respect with narcissistic or blunt words in the tribunal of publicity. If evangelization or new evangelization as one may modify is another kind of international pageant vying for the crown of “an accepted face” and outstanding others, then it may indeed possibly cross the line of ecumenical or interfaith respect, not that on the other end there is the pacifism that incenses absolute tolerance. Even with that understanding, fame, as with other material constitution, wilts only for a time. In the face of other voices claiming the righteous position of success, the promotion of vocation campaigns I claim veers in another direction.

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Every time I am asked to give a talk about vocation whether in the pulpit or a symposium for seminarians or altar servers or high school students here in the Philippines, I don’t start with that ostentatious grandiose speech about God predestining each one to be a priest; that the calling in a vocation, rooting its coinage from the Latin ‘vocare (to call), is such a pedestal sufficient for one to raise one’s pride rooted from an exquisite divine entitlement, as if playing favorite among other siblings; not even the agency that one can be pleasing enough to be chosen among few men; that what this priestly vocation promotes is a sublime esotericism, a noble class standing at par with the kingly class, no matter that some comically pose themselves obviously as parvenus brainwashed to dress elegantly; that the brand of exclusivity to wager all other beliefs is for me a blatant no-no, forcing people of the old credence that only in a particular belief can one find redemption – otherwise the old totalitarian regimes will be revived once more in a history that repeats the abuse of itself. One cannot just start to narrate stories where one interprets – and has in fact a one-of-a-kind ability to interpret – God’s ways in the makings of one’s personal life, as if prayers serve as contractual pacts able to alter the random complexity of mishmash events made possible by the interweaving sociality (and contradictory prayers) of persons. One cannot also tailor something for an end that does not make sense, that at a very particular point in time or place, a sign is somewhere waiting for the divine lens to be given to a particular person to see it: but isn’t it found in the scriptures itself that signs are no longer needed except that of the yester signs that redemption is forthcoming without some empowered puny human scheming it?

Truth is, to speak about vocation is not all pep talk, fancy and honey speech. One cannot even mention the lavish lifestyle some of the secular clergy and princely episcopates are enjoying, assuming that they never crossed the serpentine line. Outside any blueprint of determinism, there is no fixed vocation that will make sense in a plane where freedom is obvious permitted – that a truly divine set of coordinates are plotted even before one thinks of it as a solid choice. That is what makes sense in a true ontology: one that enjoys the free will of becoming and does not live in plain legalistic mores: living in hard-won desires out of transgressing laws and opting to utilize one’s life in boundless betterments of painful joys and overkills. A true vocation then does not dwell on priestly ministries or nunneries alone, or the general inclination of union in marriage, or more so in being prosperous and generous in a life led by being single. It is the whole lot of these limited only by a life-changing choice that will decide one’s fate. From here, no talk about vocation concerns only about the pleasantries that a choice creates in its consequences. And one does not speak only about saccharine consequences! On the contrary, to talk about vocation could just be a talk about real life, one that strives and holds on to the essence of true sacrifice. For isn’t the model of the cross, as all good Christians know, an embodiment of such costly grace? – A friendly grace, but still remains an open question of offering – an offering that invites and not forces one to offer in return?

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One of the best stories I can remember before proceeding to the minor seminary is that tale of a young boy whose sister is in the hospital and is in need of blood. The doctor asked the parents of someone who might be the closest relative of the same blood type as their daughter, as the case is a matter of urgency, to which they pointed their son. Calmly, the pediatrician in kind gesture explained the situation in simple terms and inquired if the young lad would allow the blood transfer to his sister who needs it badly. And then the oxymoron of the following humorous seriousness took place as the young boy thought about the question for a moment, in just a matter of seconds, and then gave his affirmation. When the two siblings were already lying in bed for the blood transfusion to commence, the young boy politely asked his closest parent the honest question: ‘mom, when will I die?’

That story became my cornerstone of the meaning of sacrifice. Because the point about the line of vocation one intends to tread in the ministerial priesthood means more than just success; the way of progression and development does not necessary have the same trajectory of power, sophistication, and surplus of prestige in a lifetime. It rests on a faith that one is making a life sacrifice, patterned to that of the God who suffered on the cross as a sacrifice for many. Not a payment for God’s atrocious consequences of his justice, not a divine version of the gory proclivity in the concept of person – thus including divine persons – but a love of a God who is love, who allows suffering to penetrate into a God-made-man for the economy of salvation. It is that choice of that same child who for a moment thought that he is ready to offer his life for the person next to him – his ‘neighbor’. But as it may be realized, the offering of one’s life paradoxically does not take it away when given; instead it gains, while the reverse of preserving it endangers its own existence in the end – one of the hopeful reasons why goodness when diffused remains goodness. The boy’s offering of his life, at least as how he believes it to be, is not a juvenile judgment, but an honest offering that gained him not only his life back, but also his sister’s. If then a whole new art of convincing is needed for one to succeed in offering choices, the radical choice remains to that of the other process of progression in being faithful – one that is slow and not in a hurry, but quick to sacrifice even when the luxury of freedom permits a different and much more convenient way.

As Nietzsche honors the priestly type, without any trace of sarcasm, he is well aware that “it requires rapid streams of love and strong, humble, pure hearts who are willing to perform such as service of non-public hygiene, sacrificing themselves – for this does involve a sacrifice, and a priest is and remains a human sacrifice.” (The Gay Science, 351)

At the end of the day, it is about searching the depth of one’s heart, and perhaps, finding a little reason in it to grow an honest faith for living; ever renewing the constancy of one’s choices. That remains to be the contention, contentment, and the content in which the kernel of vocations are founded and made better – that the everyday struggle of life is not depreciated, but enacted for a sacrifice that gives oneself for many.

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