Vocation and the Serendipity of Exile

What if being out of the mainstream isn’t cool so much as serendipitous?

Hans Urs von Balthasar was an imaginative twentieth-century Catholic theologian.  Jean-Luc Marion notes that Balthasar:

  • Was ostracized by the Jesuits with whom he trained
  • Never became a university professor
  • Was ‘only’ a student chaplain at Basel
  • Was not invited to Vatican II
Image result for hans urs von balthasar

Icon Painting – Holy Theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar 110 by William Hart McNichols

But Marion says that good was brought from evil. Balthasar was freed from the procedural and litigious dimensions of a church council. He was liberated from faculty meetings and committees. He did not have to grade essays. He wasn’t formed by one particular spirituality (the Jesuit way).

The result of his “exile”? Marion says that Balthasar:

  • “Remains without doubt the best Barthian”
  • Was a practitioner of “ecumenism in the highest sense”
  • Was freed to become a great writer
  • Became the only real rival of Karl Rahner
  • “Was anything but dogmatic”
  • Was “truly and deeply spiritual”
  • Exuded a “humble and almost timid authority which earned him any number of students [i.e., people who learned how to do spiritual theology and theological spirituality from him] but no disciples [i.e., people who were copycats of his theology and spirituality]”
  • “Had a learning so sweeping that it gave you goosebumps”
  • Is “the greatest Catholic theologian of modern times”

Sure, you can be a part of an “inner ring.” You can get invited to all the important meetings. Your name could be called whenever NPR or Le Monde or the BBC need a reaction to the day’s news from someone in your field. You could have young people aspiring to be just like you. Some of these things may even be gained without succumbing to soul-suffocating pride and the deadliest variety of ambition. You could certainly be a star. And not all stars are self-promoted idols.

But it could be that you’re not doing anything particularly sexy. You might be in some backwater place doing some low-profile thing for a living. It’s possible that no one will ever invite you onto their podcast or ask you to write a guest post on their blog. The phone might never ring, and you might only get 3 emails per day for the next 20 years.

But imagine what all that time could yield. Twenty years of not being interrupted by other people’s sense of urgency. Twenty years of focus on what you deem important, regardless of whether it happens to be urgent. Twenty years of quietly becoming one of the very best at whatever it is you’ve been called to do.

One indispensable key to maturity, I am learning, is the ability to emotionally adjust to being sidelined from the main event, exiled from the place where “everything” is “happening.” To adjust to the reality that margin and even a certain type of marginalization is not only serendipitous for one’s soul, but  also for one’s vocation.

And don’t the two go hand in hand? My soul is maturing, is growing up into the stature of Christ, insofar as I am emotionally content and volitionally diligent in my calling.

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