Hens and Their Role in My Vocation

Yesterday I mentioned that my novitiate had nearly come to an end when I was appointed minion to the monastery poultry-keeper. A small Twitter-storm followed, with people eager to know how hens could have such an impact. To understand, you would have to be a Benedictine novice yourself — preferably one who doesn’t like the cold or feathers — sent to dig trenches in the snow so the wretched darlings could continue to cross the orchard in their accustomed way. But, as the wiser among you will have realised, I am not really concerned with hens (sorry, poultry-lovers), but something rather more challenging: the difference between accepting and embracing vocation.

I use the word ‘vocation’ here to mean anything asked of us by the circumstances of our life. In a monastic context, it has a more precise meaning: that which constitutes our fundamental response to God as expressed through a life lived in common under a Rule and superior. But I think anyone will understand that the demands of being a parent, for example, constitute a vocation. We also have a tendency to see certain types of employment as being a vocation — e.g. teaching, nursing, medicine — which is hard on those whose work attracts less positive accolades — e.g. bankers, lawyers and sewage farm workers. We may have greater difficulty seeing illness or exile or other negative experiences as also being part of our vocation; and that’s where the difference between accepting and embracing really tells.

It can be very hard to accept that which is contrary to everything we hoped or longed for — widowhood, for example, or the death of a child. Everything within us rebels at the loss. Over time we may come to an acceptance that is part willed, part the effect of other experiences masking, at least for a while, the rawness we feel. To move from accepting to embracing the loss, to see it as God sees it, is the work of grace; and we do not all receive grace in the same measure or at the same time. It is, however, something we aim at, or should aim at. As Julian of Norwich remarked, ‘Love was his meaning;’ and until we have grasped that, we have not really understood anything at all.

To return to my hens. The grace of the novitiate was sufficient to allow me to accept my role of henchman and get on with the uncongenial business of digging trenches in the snow and mucking out filthy hen-coops; but it wasn’t enough to make me embrace my task. I did what I had to do with steely determination, but I could not love it. Love came later, with the realisation that, no matter how hard the task set before me, no matter how repugnant I found it, somewhere in the midst of it all was God. I cannot honestly say I found God in the hen-coop; but I did, at least, begin to seek him there.

So, the question for today is: where is your vocational hen-coop, and how are you going to deal with it?