Unlike many other works on vocational discernment, the author does not present a "how to" manual designed to provide the reader with step-by-step instructions for determining a career path. Conspicuously absent is a patented “success formula” or hyped promotion of the latest “Six Easy Steps to Discovering Your Vocation” that one might find through a Google search. Instead, the author presents an autobiographical account of his own vocational process, including his depression and “dark night” periods, leading to the discernment of his vocation as a teacher. Palmer suggests is through the twists and turns of life and the often hard lessons that one learns, that one comes to embrace one’s true vocation.
In the introduction, the author states that the material of this present work is repurposed material that has previously appeared in other publications over the course of a decade that has been edited and massaged to produce a sense of unity and coherence rather than a collection of topical essays. While the book is brief (116 pages), it is well structured and easy to read. In six chapters, Palmer challenges the reader to listen to life, explores how one becomes authentically oneself, discusses the opening and closing of “the way,” reveals the depths of the dark night experience, encourages surrendering to internal wisdom and guidance, and suggests the metaphor of “seasons” (spring, summer, fall, winter) to relate to one’s current life situations.
This is a book about discovering within one’s self the “way”—in other words, things about oneself and one’s purpose and especially how this is progressively revealed through personal failure as much as through personal success. Palmer is adamant that closed doors speak as loudly and profoundly as open doors and he encourages deep reflection on the topic of “vocation.”
Vocation, much more than simply choosing a job from several external options presented to a candidate as viable options for a secure future, entails a process of inner work and recollection to one’s fundamental life purpose. Palmer understands this to be one’s way of serving the larger community in a way that not only utilizes one’s gifts, but also allows one to integrate both the light and the dark of one’s self in the process.
As a spiritual director, this reviewer has had numerous individuals ask him for assistance in discerning vocation. Until recently, most “orthodox” literature (from a Protestant perspective) on this topic has emphasized methods for seekers to answer their vocational questions by going "outside" of self (which is totally depraved and unable to do much of anything except sin) and rely on the identification of skill sets (such as spiritual gift inventories), the advice of others (authorative guidance from parents, religious superiors, etc.), with little attention given to “passion” and one’s inner “fire”—which is probably little more than inordinate attachment to desires that one ought to sublimate (i.e. Puritan work ethic). Palmer writes: "That concept of vocation is rooted in a deep distrust of selfhood, in the belief that the sinful self will always be "selfish" unless corrected by external forces of virtue” (10).
Palmer, coming from the Quaker tradition, suggests that the reader go "inside" oneself and explore vocation as a matter of the heart more so than a matter of the head. His advice is designed to prevent vocational discernments that reinforce “false self” expectations that one has been saddled with from others. Palmer writes that vocation is not "a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear" (4) or "a gift to be received" (10).
In other words, vocation is something that one comes into via a process of attending/listening to one’s life in the moment and by allowing one’s true self as created by God to come forth to be and do whatever that destiny happens to be. This stands in direct opposition to the way in which most people go about it—i.e. asking a few people for advice (who are equally clueless!) and seeking their acceptance and approval about what one "ought" to do, and ending up just as misaligned as they are.
A key strength of the book is its autobiographical, self-revelatory approach to vocational discernment. The author invites the reader to walk with him through the nadir of his depression, clear through to the other side. Additionally, Palmer introduces the reader to the Quaker model of group discernment or “clearness committee.” In this reviewer’s opinion, these are the two major “take aways” of the book.
The last chapter is a wonderful meditation on the flow of life using the metaphor of the seasons of the year and how each season has its own particular gift. For example, autumn is a time that is rich with the “seeds” that will become new life in the spring. This can easily track with the emotionally “down” times in one’s life, yet realizing that within that experience is the seeds of a future time of harvest. During “winter” he says, "Despite all appearances, of course, nature is not dead in winter--it has gone underground to renew itself and prepare for spring. Winter is a time when we are admonished, and even inclined, to do the same for ourselves" (101). There can be times in one’s life when it looks like it’s “the end as we know it”—yet it merely a time of dormancy to heal, rest, and retool for the coming spring.
While this reviewer thoroughly appreciated Palmer’s approach, he recognizes that some evangelical Christians will be nervous by what they read, considering him to be too loose on nailing down objective truth, and having compromised his thinking to modern American relativistic thinking. Some readers will find Palmer’s thinking to be shallow and catering to subjectivity (ie. “I have my truth and you have your truth.”).
However, as a spiritual director and life transformation coach, this reviewer is in fundamental agreement with Palmer when it comes to vocation. One must truly “follow your bliss” and "pursue your passion," which is essentially what the author is proposing while casting it in a Quaker theological framework. God has placed one’s vocation within the very fiber of one’s being and if one pursue a path that allows that vocation to surface, to be the person God has created one to be and not the person everyone else thinks one should be, then all is well.
Again, some fundamentalists and evangelicals will be read between the lines and suggest that Palmer is arguing that one can rightly jettison traditional morality and so forth if it feeds the good feelings, but this misreads Palmer.
This is a wonderful little book which this reviewer wishes he had been introduced to years ago (had it existed at the time) while serving as a military officer and trying to discern God's for his future vocational life. At that time, this reviewer relied heavily on external guidance and validation (i.e. counsel of superior officers, spouse, “reading” the trajectory of military life at the time, etc.) to make the decision to leave active military service. Later, when evaluating options for service in the ministry, this reviewer utilized this same pattern for discernment without much regard for the leading and inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. While this is understandable given the theological framework in which he was trained, it did lead to service in two parishes for which he was not well equipped and subsequently suffered much in the process. However, if this reviewer had had access to material like Palmer’s, he may have made a more thorough exploration of the “inner” movements of self, tried the “listening” route with more diligence, and perhaps arrived at a different conclusions.
Having learned some of this material a few years ago, this reviewer did attempt to take a more contemplative, “listening,” group discernment approach to parish renewal during 2009-10. However, participation by most parishioners was limited to criticism of discernments made by the leadership following times of prayer and listening as not being “reasonable” or “not good business—after all there is a business aspect to running this church.”
Palmer’s metaphor of the seasons in regard to the vocational life speaks profoundly to people in the midst of a transitional period. It is comforting to realize that while one is moving inevitably along a path that one does not “manufacture” one’s life, but one simply “grows” it. Parker Palmer is a welcomed addition to this reviewers short list of spiritual authors to read and recommend.