Dreams, vocations, dreams of vocations
Certainly Don Bosco’s dream at the age of 9 “remained impressed on his mind for the whole of his life”! That dream was meant to enlighten and guide not only him but also many others. That dream is the founding myth of an entire spiritual family. In it, are condensed the constituent elements of a vocation, a mission, a charism. And indeed, the story clearly manifests the intent to leave a precious spiritual and pastoral legacy to future generation
The dream is clearly a scene of vocation and mission. This is understandable: man is vocation and mission! The profound identity of every man is vocational and missionary. Every man is challenged by God and involved in His plan of love, and in this way, his life becomes meaningful and fruitful. There is nothing more beautiful than recognising oneself touched by God, called by name and sent in His name. It is an experience that fills the heart with humility and courage, with trust and hope, with love to receive and to give; at the very least, it is an experience that prevents one from living life as an arbitrary endeavour or a solitary enterprise, with all the wake of sterility and sadness that follows.
The fact that a charism and spirituality such as Don Bosco’s is inaugurated by a dream is something very significant. The night consciousness that is proper to the dream is like an open door to the mystery, expressing the primacy and initiative of God, and at the same time making one humble and courageous because it is authorised to live and work by the wisdom and power of God, not by one’s own intelligence and resourcefulness, and not in spite of one’s own limitations and faults. The person who surrenders himself to God’s dream is certain to accomplish His work!
The dream and the vocation are thus related. Their common trait is the obscurity of the details: it is so “because the message comes from God, and not in spite of coming from God” (K. Rahner), and then because it speaks of a future that is not so much imagined as travelled. Another trait common to dreaming and vocation is in the fact that the images and inspirations are not ideas but commands, not illustrations but injunctions. In every vocation, the road is not known at the start, but opens up by walking along it. It is always like this: one understands what one lives, and one’s intelligence expands with obedience and initiative.
Vocations in the Bible: astonishment and disturbance, consolation and desolation
There is a detail in the story of the dream at the age of 9 which expresses something very instructive about every vocation and mission, and which unites John Bosco’s vocation to all the great vocation scenes in the Bible: it is an unfailing sense of turmoil which runs through the soul of the one called when faced with the initiative of God, the unpredictability of His initiative, to the disproportion of what He asks of us, to the sense of inadequacy that seizes the creature. In the voice of God who calls to Himself and sends into the world, something greater than us and our possibilities is demanded, something that displaces and exceeds our expectations, that blows away any desire for mastery or claim to control. Only an unconditional surrender is demanded, and when this happens, then the one called is no longer at the mercy of his own strengths or weaknesses, his own limited vision or uncertain initiatives, but is guided and directed by the light of God, by the power of the Spirit.
The experience of the turmoil before God’s greatness and His demands is the experience of Moses, who does not feel authorised to go to his people despite God’s command (Ex 3, 11); it is the experience of Jeremiah who feels too young and unable to speak (Jer 1, 6); it is the experience of Peter who twice manifests his inadequacy: “get away from me, for I am a sinner” (Lk 5, 8)… “I am going back to fishing” (Jn 21, 3). It is also the experience of Isaiah, who feels lost before the manifestation of God’s holiness in the temple because of his “unclean lips” (Is 6, 5), as well as that of Amos, who compares the strength of the divine Word by which he feels gripped to the roar of a lion (Am 3, 8); and it is also the experience of Paul, who experiences the existential reversal that comes from the encounter with the Risen One (Acts 9:1-9). It is even the experience of Mary, who, although all holy and full of grace, at the Angel’s greeting “was troubled and wondered what the meaning of such a greeting was” (Lk 1:29). It happens like this in different forms and to different degrees in all the great vocations: although experiencing the allure of God’s seduction, biblical men and women do not throw themselves headlong into the adventure of mission, but show themselves frightened and hesitant before something that exceeds them.
The paschal core of every vocation and mission.
Now, as Don Bozzolo observes in his study on the dream at the age of 9, even in the account of Don Bosco’s vocation, there is something surprising that must attract our attention: “while for the boys, the dream ends in celebration, for John, it ends in dismay and even tears”. But how? A party that ends in weeping? And does it end like this for John Bosco, the one who will be the apostle of “holy cheerfulness” and who will teach the boys to “be very cheerful”? Let us try to understand: first of all in Christian light, and then in Salesian colouring.
Our election is rooted in the election of Christ, but the Chosen One is the Crucified One, and it is the Crucified One who is ultimately the Risen One. Therefore, Christian existence will always be, in a thousand different ways, an Easter existence, a profound interweaving of joy and cross, of love and pain, of life and death. One must know this, so as not to be found unprepared in the face of life’s trials, contradictions and injustices, humiliations and bitterness. Otherwise, the heart weakens or hardens, becomes discouraged or stubborn, succumbs to the weight of the world’s evil or one’s own sins.
If we run through Scripture, we see well that God’s love, when it manifests itself to the world, is like a shining meteor that on encountering the atmosphere is set on fire. Then the progenitors reject the paradise generously offered by God. When God renews the covenant, all the prophets are killed. When Jesus, the fulfilment of all prophecies, arrives, he manifests himself as a “sign of contradiction” (Lk 2:34). He comes among his own, but his own do not welcome him (Jn 1:11), and when he gives his whole heart, men pierce his heart (Jn 19:34). The Word is condemned as blasphemy, the Just One is killed with the death of the ungodly.
In all this, Jesus is very lucid, for himself and for us: the beatitudes start from humility and end in martyrdom, fascination is turned upside down in persecution, and this because Christ and the Christian are “in the world but not of the world”, because the world “loves what is his” (Jn 15:19), because darkness hates the light (Jn 3:19). Like Christ, the Christian, too, if he is serious, if he does not align himself with the world, will always in some way be a sign of contradiction: He may speak or remain silent, be mild or combative from time to time, but he will be for many a living reproach, an obstacle to their way of thinking and living. On the other hand, the proclamation of the Gospel can never be separated from the call to conversion, and these are the first words of the Lord Jesus at the beginning of his public life: “the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel” (Mk 1:15). Indeed, all the biblical characters, from Ezekiel to the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, have experienced the bitter-sweet of the Word of God, the Word as a two-edged sword, which aims to heal not without wounding: “the word of God is living, efficacious, and sharper than any two-edged sword; it penetrates to the dividing point of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and searches the feelings and thoughts of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
The Christian’s condition is truly paradoxical: he lives in the world but is a stranger to the world; he loves the world and the world hates him. Jesus, against the background of His joy, and in view of His cross, made this clear in many ways: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you” (Jn 15:18); “you will be hated by all because of my name; but he who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22); “I have told you these things so that you may have peace in me. You will have tribulation in the world, but have confidence; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33). And we are warned: “woe to you when all men say good things about you” (Lk 6:26). But what is decisive is this: to accept the condition of struggle and not to stop loving. All the more so because the struggle is not only with external enemies, but is always also spiritual combat, not to yield to one’s own evil tendencies, not to fall into the temptations of the devil, to become ever more docile to the Spirit. And, finally, the fight is permanent because the vocation is realised in the mission, and the mission always imposes the joy and duty of evangelisation, a mysterious protection from God and an inevitable exposure to the world. However – as St. Paul says – “from Him we have received the grace of the apostolate to obtain obedience to the faith from all nations” (Rom 1:5), but “it is not a boast for me to preach the gospel; it is a duty for me: woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16).
The Salesian core of vocation and mission
The Salesian colour of Easter existence is to carry the labours and crosses while cherishing and radiating joy. This is possible, because Grace is worth more than life, because Good is greater than any evil, because evil is ultimately “finished”, while good remains eternal. The contrast in the dream between the joy of the boys and John’s dismay is due to the fact that Christian joy and Salesian joy are not deceptive euphoria, pure entertainment, simple light-heartedness, but are an inner resonance of the beauty of Grace, an awareness that “the Lord is near” (Phil 4:5), that joy is the first gift of the Risen Lord (Jn 20:20) and the first fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22). Therefore, the posture of joy “can only be achieved,” Bozzolo explains, “through demanding spiritual battles, the price of which Don Bosco will largely have to pay for the benefit of his boys. He will thus relive on himself that exchange of roles rooted in the paschal mystery of Jesus”. The dream at the age of 9 echoes the experience of Jesus, who “in exchange for the joy that was set before him, submitted himself to the cross, despising the ignominy”, but just like that “he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12,2); and it directs John to the condition of the apostles: “we foolish because of Christ, you wise in Christ, we weak, you strong; you honoured, we despised” (1 Cor 4:10), but just so “co-workers in your joy” (2 Cor 1:24).”
In the school of the ‘dream at the age of 9’, let us ask ourselves:
- How do I deal with the turmoil and uncertainty associated with the mystery of my vocation, the demands of God’s commandments and will, the greatness of His gifts and requests, and the smallness of my person and my response?
- How am I learning to carry crosses without losing joy? What is my joy based on, and what threatens it? How humbly and resolutely do I carry out my spiritual battles? And with how much humility and courage am I involved in the task of evangelisation?
Fr Roberto Carelli – SDB