Shopping Cart

The Out-of-the Box Vocation

Posted by Theology of Home on
The Out-of-the Box Vocation

By Denise Trull

When I finally reached the end of Maisie Ward’s biography Caryll Houselander, Divine Eccentric I closed the cover slowly and simply collapsed into the cushions of my sofa. What a ride it had been. I have been spiritually fed, enchanted, and consoled by many of Houselander’s books over the years. I have come to consider her my spiritual guide, as she so often speaks straight to my heart with her attractive and refreshing quirkiness.

Monsignor Ronald Knox, a contemporary of Houselander’s and a most original and charming writer himself, says this about Caryll: “…she seemed to see everything for the first time, seemed to find no difficulty in getting the right word; no, not merely the right word, the telling word, that left you gasping.” I think many people feel this way about her -- as though she had read their minds and given answer. If she one day is officially proclaimed a saint, which I don’t doubt for a moment, I hope she becomes the patron saint of the quirky.   

As you read her life, however, it is a surprising little shock at every turn. She had visions, she could read hearts sometimes, she wrote the most incredibly beautiful, serene, and creative spiritual missives and letters. But she herself was not serene or gentle or even-tempered in real life.

She was the unfortunate victim of a messy, angry divorce. Her mother was emotionally erratic and unpredictable with full blown narcissistic tendencies. Sometimes her erratic nature inadvertently brought blessings to Caryll and her sister, like the time she decided out of the blue to have them baptized Catholic along with herself. Yet, she began entertaining odd, fringe like priests who had all sorts of strange ideas about the faith that led little Caryll to an exhausting prayer regimen and scruples at the age of nine -- scruples so ingrained that she suffered and fought them for the rest of her life. Providentially, she was sent to boarding school where the French nuns became her second mothers and gave her a longed-for stability. The nuns taught her prayer, traditions, and kindness. But she had grown odd and was filled with anxieties she would never quite shake.

She was sickly most of the time. She was short, pale, plump with shocking red hair and thick round glasses. Just when she was getting on and making progress with the nuns, her mother pulled her out of the convent school on a whim and she was sent to a prestigious school. She hated it because everyone was handsome, sporty, and wealthy. In the end, she left there as well because her mother wanted her at home to help with a new boarding house venture she has concocted. Caryll essentially became an indentured servant, doing all the heavy cleaning and dusting and feeding of guests. She also had to navigate her mother’s changing moods. This was a time of great loneliness and anxiety for Caryll filling her with a constant sense of being trapped by the demands of a capricious woman who should have been her protector and guide.

Caryll broke free at last from this life. She found the courage to say no, and go to art school where she made friends much more like herself. Here she had a small stint of happy freedom and creativity. She befriended a young, wealthy woman named Iris who had been emotionally gutted by her own heartbreaking divorce. Caryll helped her through the trauma of this and they set up house together in Iris's mansion. Iris loved Caryll's eccentricities and they remained friends through thick and thin all the way to the end of their lives. Caryll and her artist friends had a wonderful, offbeat little community. She was forever poor and beholden to the generosity of Iris and her wealthy friends who found Caryll fascinating.

In all of this, Houselander slowly finds her vocation: while striving to overcome her own scruples and anxiety, she learns how to convince each person she meets that Christ dwells within them, suffering as they suffer, rejoicing when they rejoice. That even in those who have sinned and rejected Him, He dwells there as in His sepulcher. She slowly begins to befriend prostitutes, vagrants, rich people, unbelievers, militant atheists, and children. She stays up all night sometimes praying for these new friends and the whole world trying to convince them that not only does Christ love them, He LIVES within them. She offers them up at daily Mass. She prays the rosary for them. She finds them psychological help. She feeds them and finds other people to help her in her simple work.

While she is doing all this, she begins to write her books. All night sometimes she writes at the request of her spiritual director. People who read her books begin to crowd her door to talk with her in person. She insists that she loves best through her writing and that is where she truly resides as her true self. In actual life, she is simply a mess and, in her own words, physically grotesque. Her inner self is so utterly different than her physical appearance. People who meet her are shocked at her white face, her nicotine stained fingers, her bright red bangs, her large thick glasses, and her penchant for gin. She isn’t what they might have envisioned a saint to be. But here she was before them, and they never wanted to leave her little house.

Her life seems an odd, cobbled together affair; nothing like the 40-year-plan we often envision as success for ourselves. Her's was a life filled with sufferings we only dream of, some of us. Ill health, emotional trauma, not blessed with good looks, poor, always living in small flats and at the charity of friends whom she embarrassingly cannot repay. And still she became a saint through all of this. And she wrote it all down for us -- so driven was she to bring Christ to the modern world whom she knew by experience was devastated without Him. She was to restate the Good News for us all. That Jesus still lived and lived suffering and crucified in all the distressing parts of us. This was her call. Her vocation. She wasn’t a nun. She wasn’t married. She was a quirky laywoman who had many crosses to carry and who was called to help others carry theirs through her inspired words and her practical love.

It is this idea of vocation that struck me most as I read. She says, "Everyone ought to work and their whole-time job should be their holiest and most charitable self-giving. If they are not able to find a work that fulfills that ideal, they are crippled all their life long…”

What I gathered from these words was that the work we choose to do to earn our living and take care of our own should also be "our holiest and most charitable self-giving." Meaning that the job might not pay well in the world's eyes, might not bring an over abundance of financial security and yet if we use it to give of ourselves to others with God's love then it is worthy. It becomes vocation. It becomes His will for us.

This is not the boomer ideal I grew up with surrounding me. Success, power, and financial riches are American virtues to be pursued. This seems so engrained in us that we are a bit uneasy, or a lot uneasy, pursuing jobs that don't have security, though they might be the very jobs that offer the most in charitable self-giving. We grew up in a world that is somewhat afraid to venture outside the model we are used to. It's just a long standing habit we might have of staying well within the box -- even when it comes to our faith and how we live it out and what it might end up looking like. We so often play it safe, which is a lack of faith in God’s power.

It may be an uncomfortable proposition to us who think in trajectories, 401Ks, retirement plans, and an educational plan thought out for a child from the age of three all the way through to college. There are jobs that seem ideal: lawyer, doctor, engineer, business. Everyone successful goes to college. An established 40-hour-week is a must. I never questioned these ideals of American living. They seemed responsible and steady to me. And I think they still are for some, but are they problematic and too self sufficiently secure when up against service to the God we have been called to serve? Are we ready to accept if He asks our children to be poor? Or to do something out of the ordinary with their lives? Do we entertain the possibility that they might be asked to serve Him at a job that only offers minimum wage when we dreamed of them owning a thriving business and a house with a yard and a deck, and where their own children will attend the best schools? Many of us are generously willing to give our consent if our son or daughter wants to be a priest or a nun. But what if their vocation is to live poor in this world? Are we willing then?

What if your child wants to work remotely at a job that is in no way upwardly mobile, only to earn money for something else that is more important to him or her: like working in a struggling mission in Peru for part of their year? What if they want to live in a tiny house and work at the Quiktrip in a poorer neighborhood the rest of their lives in chosen solidarity with the poor Christ? What if they want to live a vagabond kind of life in order to make connections with people they have never met? What if they don't buy into the security trajectory? What if they just want to be a plumber and not a stock broker so they can come home at night and read history, plays, poetry, or philosophy and leave their work where it belongs, so they can give their undivided attention to their children? Would you support it? Would you be proud of them? Would you worry about them making it, about having a nest egg?  Are nest eggs something we should even be worrying about? Are these just another name for bigger barns? What if our children are born to struggle in order to do great things for God’s Kingdom to come? Do we admire this kind of life only in saint stories but refuse to consider it a possibility in real life?

Reading Caryll Houselander’s life has given me these great questions to think about. Vocation is not just priesthood or the religious life or even the married life. Vocation is the call each of us has, through our work, to do the Will of God and become holy. Our work is not just the best way we have discovered to make money. It must be chosen as the best way to serve God.

Almost any job we feel called to choose can be holy and charitable. Even if you just simply love fixing cars, this can be a pathway to justice and charity. Just recently one of my sons brought his car to my mechanic. In another state where he lives, the fancy shop told him he would need all sorts of repairs that he didn't need and he ended up paying great amounts of money for nothing. My mechanic told him that none of that was needed and showed him why. My son said he almost teared up at the honesty of this man. He hadn't seen that in a while and it lifted his mood. Fairness, know-how, good customer service... these are all the practice of the virtue of justice. My mechanic had found a way to be holy and kind and encouraging to people who have become jaded by a fast paced, money grubbing, dishonest world. He had the great gift of surprising them back into joy again through his love and talent with cars!

It seems we should encourage our children to do what makes them happy and makes others happy in the bargain. Even if we think they will be poor the rest of their lives. If they choose to be so because that is where their gifts lie, we should support it -- though we may worry -- because they will be bringing the world something in that job that they wouldn't bring in another.

There should be no 'ideal' no 'archetype' job or work-week template that all must seek to be successful. You don't need a huge house, a yard, a mortgage, to be happy if you don't want one. If you are not attracted to marriage, you shouldn't be judged by others for that decision if you have another plan for your life that is filled with giving and kindness and helps people find the good within themselves again. Maybe we should just stop ticking off the boxes we have created for a successful life. We can be a priceless gift no matter if we are a checker at a grocery store, an ophthalmologist, or a road construction worker. We should choose our job, our life, our offering to God in myriad ways so He can use us for what He will. We should see with the eyes of eternity.

Caryll Houselander was never rich. She had about three to four dresses. The office where she wrote her books was a freezing little shed behind her friend Iris's house. And it worked for her. She painted rooms for people's houses, she carved Stations of the Cross. She wrote and wrote and wrote books. She was never wealthy or established but lived mostly a vagabond life in her leaf patterned overalls and large glasses. She lived among poor people and artists and those who would never be successful in the world's eyes. Her great call, her reason for being, she discovered, was to simply try to convince each human being she came into contact with that Christ dwelled within them and their worth was unimaginable. She did it in her very small and limited life filled with odd jobs. And here we are today reading and being blessed by her books. God always finds a way to bless our efforts.

The grace of God is key! Do we believe in it? That He will use us as He will if we are true to our talents, whatever they may be. Talents that sometimes don't translate well into the definition of success we have tattooed on our brains. He will be true and take care of us even if we never have a 40-year-plan or go to college, or make six figures, or have a small house and survive sometimes on Kraft Mac and Cheese. Our "whole time job" should be chosen with care, and as parents we should support our children in the decisions they make as to what that looks like for them and what they think God is asking.

I was thinking about this last night while I was loading the dishwasher (being called to the married state, as it were). I thought of all the people who have blessed me in my life. Since I am a homeschooler from way back, I had to create my own "village" so to speak. I sought out other adults who came into my children's lives to enrich and bless them where I could not. These were ordinary people with great goodness. With all of them in mind, I made my own list of 'vocations' that would really be wonderful channels of grace for a Catholic young person to pursue and for parents to encourage. 


You can influence what children read. You can lead them to the beautiful and good books you loved as a child. You can help moms learn more about different authors that appeal to a child's innocence. You might have some clout as to what gets purchased for the library and give some valuable input. If you were homeschooled, you can make homeschool children who visit the library feel less like anomalies and talk to them in an easy way about your own experiences as a student growing up.

Our librarian, James, got my high school son through a lonely patch when he started researching odd and interesting blues bands and music. James would make suggestions and always have a great conversation with him when he brought his finds to be checked out. James never condescended but listened with true interest and even went home with some of my son's suggestions. He was a real peach, James was! He had the gift of encouragement.


You are the last person a patient sees and talks to when facing surgery. My father had this profession and he made rounds the night before surgeries to talk and joke with his patients. I know another woman who had this profession and offered to pray with her patients before they were put to sleep. Not a one said no. This profession brings comfort to fear and uncertainty. What a great gift to be able to give.

Hair Dresser:

This person hears all sorts of things, and sees all sorts of people. First, he/she makes them feel like a new man or woman. A great haircut can sometimes make a bad day great. We all know it. Plus, a hairdresser can talk about a million things with her clients. Her house, her cats, her children. And she can be a willing ear to someone whom no one ever has time to listen to -- especially the elderly. If she's bold, she can talk about her church and how much she loves it. I have always loved my hair dressers. They were the ones who never blinked an eye that I had seven children and that we homeschooled. They were always intrigued in a good way.

O.B. Nurses:

They stand on a pro-life platform! Rejoicing and cheering on the first-time mom as well as the mom of maybe seven with equal love and excitement. Sometimes women who are having their fifth child are afraid of raised eyebrows and unspoken "too manys" when they come in with a painful labor. What balm to hear someone say "WOW five kids. You are so blessed indeed. What name did you choose? Here dad, you know the drill. Cut the cord." It would be a lovely vocation to encourage the blessings of being pregnant at all and being open to the beauty of children, no matter how many or how few.

Highschool Theater Directors:

Oh, the possibilities! Your chance to lift up and bless a bunch of nervous, insecure, awkward, hesitant teens. Give them quality plays to perform and give them the chance to shine. You will be amazed how much good you do in a teen's life and help them to form a proper self esteem. You might be the catalyst for them one day taking back the arts for God, especially theater. 

Catholic Therapists:

Someone who is well-trained in long-standing therapeutic procedures, but one who also knows that suffering is viewed very differently by a Catholic than it is by someone who does not believe. It would be a beautiful vocation to help someone understand whatever they need to come to understand about their struggles. That grace is powerful in helping them, in addition to medical knowledge.    

Hospice nurses:

You will be offering your life to those who must learn to die and die well. Your kindness, your calm, your prayers, your conversations with them during long nights of pain. What better job to have than going to the very threshold of Heaven with someone and promising not to leave until they go through the door. One who prays with them, finds them opportunities to go to Confession with a visiting priest, one who always tries to find them a way to receive the Holy Eucharist each day. This is a priceless vocation, though one that is difficult and needs much prayer.

So many other vocations come to mind. School bus drivers, teachers, composers, sacred artists, prison guards. There are so many wonderful channels for grace to enter the world. These can all be called legitimate vocations -- distinctive calls from God.

I think we need to suggest many possibilities when we talk about discerning a vocation with our children. We need to bring up these vocations for them to think about in addition to the priestly, married, or religious life.

These are just some thoughts I had while loading the dishwasher in my married state.

Caryll Houselander has convinced me that God is everywhere and in everything. Wherever we seek to serve, He will be there waiting to use us. We don’t need a forty-year-plan. He has eternity waiting for us.

Denise Trull is the editor in chief of Sostenuto, an online journal for writers and thinkers of every kind to share their work with each other. Her own writing is also featured regularly at Theology of Home, and has appeared in Dappled Things. She also can be found at her Substack, The Inscapist. Denise is the mother of seven grown, adventurous children and has acquired the illustrious title of grandmother. She lives with her husband Tony in St. Louis, Missouri.

Older Post Newer Post