When I lived in Laredo, we were always getting people who knocked on the door wanting to talk to someone. We even had visits, like many of you, from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it was actually one of our brothers at the time who had run into some Mormons and invited them for a chat at the monastery. At any rate, I was the one who opened the door for this group of about six young men, early twenties at most, and had a brief conversation with them before the brother who had invited them arrived. They were all wearing name tags and as I examined them I chuckled aloud and said, “Hey, you all have the same first name!” The first name on all of their name tags was “Elder.” They just smiled at me and chuckled as well, about thirty seconds later I realized my error.
Being called an elder means something in the Church. We don’t become an elder simply by becoming old. An elder has acquired not only experience, but the wisdom and prudence that go with it. There is of course some silly irony in calling young men elders – fervor and devotion must stand the test of time before they produce the kind of wisdom that only gray hairs can bear witness to.
We have a striking example of this in today’s first reading from Samuel. The youth lacks discernment in what he hears – we could say that Eli also lacked discernment. Why did it take him three times before he realized that God was calling the youth? Why did Samuel not realize that Eli was not calling him? This is a lesson to us from God about how we are to proceed in the spiritual life: consult the elders even if at first they seem to know nothing. And the elders must allow their awareness of God’s omnipresence and providence permeate the advice they give to the young. There are two vocations revealed in this reading: the vocation of the young, and the vocation of the old.
I remember when I was a boy going to CCE at my parish in Austin, Texas. We had teachers who did their best to teach us the faith, many of them simply got involved in religious education because “somebody has to.” I remember being afraid of the word “vocation,” because it meant becoming a priest – I wasn’t really sure what it meant for girls. One of our teachers told us that the word vocation actually had a wide range of job possibilities – all kinds of different things God could be asking you to do as a job. We even had Vocational schools that the secular world seemed to be on board with.
Vocation doesn’t primarily refer to a job however – it isn’t about what we do. Vocation refers very specifically to a calling from God. God calls constantly, just like in the case of Samuel. We don’t need to figure out what we’re supposed to do, because the call is mostly about making ourselves available to listen. In today’s Gospel, the message about vocation is very simple: “Come and See.” The calling of the first disciples was about spending time with Jesus, learning from him, being in a relationship with him. We can see that these disciples were given no job to do, no mission to accomplish: that came after establishing an intimacy with Christ.