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Online Retreat: “Called and Sent” - Day Three


This is the third installment of the Catholics on Call summer online retreat on vocation. Readers are encouraged to consult the first two segments of the retreat for the purpose of continuity.

Fr. Robin Ryan, cp

  • Read Jeremiah 1: 4-10
  • For the podcast, click here.

The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) are filled with colorful and intriguing characters. Among all of these figures, I find Jeremiah to be the most interesting and compelling. He received his vocation to be a prophet at what was perhaps the most tumultuous and painful time in the history of ancient Israel (the end of the 7th century and beginning of the 6th century BC). Tiny Israel was surrounded by larger and more powerful nations that were vying for supremacy – first Assyria, then Egypt and finally Babylonia. Israel was caught in the middle of political intrigue, with a series of kings who, quite frankly, did not have a clue as to how to negotiate the situation.

The period of his prophetic career began on a promising note, with a reform instituted by King Josiah. Josiah is remembered as perhaps the king who was most like David, zealous to be faithful to the covenant between God and the people. But after Josiah’s death, matters de-escalated quickly. Subsequent kings proved to be weak and vacillating, at times entering into political alliances that Jeremiah considered foolish and faithless. Eventually, the unthinkable happened: the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the city was set on fire, and the Temple was looted and destroyed. The king and many of the nation’s most prominent citizens were sent into exile. Jeremiah stayed behind until he was forced to go to Egypt, after which we hear nothing else about him.

It was during this period that a young, sensitive man was called to speak the word of God. He was called to proclaim to the people a very unpopular word of repentance and faithfulness to the covenant. At a time of national crisis, a message of repentance sounded like treason in many ears. The account of his call is striking. Jeremiah receives the understanding that he was born for this prophetic vocation; he was appointed by God for this task even before he was formed in his mother’s womb. The call story also reflects Jeremiah’s initial hesitations, even objections: “’Ah, Lord God!’ I said, ‘I know not how to speak; I am too young.’” Jeremiah is evidently a very young man from a priestly family that lived near Jerusalem. He feels that he is completely inadequate for the daunting task that lies before him. The Lord, however, responds to Jeremiah’s objections by reassuring him: “Have no fear before them, because I am with you to deliver you…” Jeremiah senses that God is placing his words in Jeremiah’s mouth and strengthening him for his mission. His prophetic vocation will ultimately not be Jeremiah’s work, but the work of God.

What makes the book and the figure of Jeremiah so intriguing is the prophet’s startling honesty about his personal struggles with his vocation. From a purely human point of view, he was not “cut out for the job.” His was a deeply sensitive soul; he did not have the “thick skin” that seemed to be necessary for the task. His personal struggles are made strikingly evident to us in passages that have come to be known as Jeremiah’s “confessions” (11:18-12:6; 15:10-21; 17: 14-18; 18:18-23; 20: 7-13; 20: 15-18). As Old Testament scholar Bernhard Anderson puts it, “Not only does he proclaim the ‘word of the Lord’ but, like the people who heard it, he struggles against it. He complains about his lot, cries out for vindication and even hurls defiance at God. He undergoes the trials of faith – faith shadowed by doubt, rebellion, self-pity, and despair. Jeremiah is justly called the most human of the prophets” (Understanding the Old Testament, 380). Nowhere is this struggle more evident than in his piercing reflection on his vocation in chapter 20. He resolves to keep silent – not to speak a word of challenge to the people, because he repeatedly experiences rejection when he does. He says to himself that he will mention God’s name no more. Inevitably, however, the word of God becomes like a fire burning in his heart, imprisoned in his bones, and he cannot hold it in.

Despite his struggles, objections and piercing laments, Jeremiah did remain faithful to his prophetic vocation. He was able to do so, not so much because of his own natural ability but because of the grace and fidelity of God in his life. Further along in the same lament just mentioned, he is inspired to affirm his trust in God’s faithfulness: “But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion…” (20:11). Jeremiah is a biblical character with whom it is easy for us to identify precisely because he was not a pillar of strength or an intrepid “soldier of God.” He was, rather, a fully human, perhaps overly sensitive, sometimes doubtful and resentful, person whose vocational journey involved some intense struggle.

Most of us who strive to discern and to live out God’s call in our lives are a lot like Jeremiah. We have moments of clarity and powerful inspiration, when everything seems clear and we feel empowered to carry out our mission in life. But we also grapple with periods of doubt and uncertainty, when things do not seem as clear as they once did. Sometimes we simply want to abandon our call, to silence the word of God, as Jeremiah tried to do at certain moments in his life. Like this prophet, there are moments in which we feel that our efforts are not having much success and we wonder whether it is all worth it. At such times, we realize that continuing to discern and respond to our vocation is a task in which we are entirely dependent on the grace and faithfulness of God. We recognize that, ultimately, it is not our work or our mission but God’s activity that is important. We come to see that often our own perception of success and failure is very limited. God’s way of measuring success may be quite different from our own. And we begin to see that, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta liked to say, what is of enduring importance is faithfulness, not success.

I invite you to pray with Jeremiah 1: 4-10 for this day of retreat. Speak to God about your own personal struggles in discerning and living out his call in your life. Ask God for the clarity you need to make important decisions about your path in life. And ask God to renew your trust in his faithfulness and in the power of his grace at work in your life.

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