You Must Follow Your Deepest Vow
“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” — Howard Thurman
Recently I read, in Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas, about the moment he took his final, solemn vows as a monk, and his reflection on that experience—most of which could be qualified as a quiet confirmation, a sureness, a simple but profound recognition of belonging to his path. After reading this, and nearly as an afterthought, I turned to David Whyte’s collection of poems called The House of Belonging, and opened to the first poem I had not yet read. The title? “All the True Vows.” This is what it says to me:
There is only one life
you can call your own
and a thousand others
you can call by any name you want.
Hold to the truth you make
every day with your own body,
don’t turn your face away.
Hold to your own truth
at the center of the image
you were born with.
Those who do not understand
their destiny will never understand…
the one life that waits
beyond all the others.
Merton resisted his own deep call to write nearly all of his days, so perhaps it’s no surprise that I—or any one of us—would resist our call as well. Lord knows the world resists it. When it comes to the deep call of my soul, nearly everything on the surface of my life tells me I’m foolish, that I’m not good enough, that I really must come to my senses and do something else. But the call lives in me like the magnetic pull of migrating birds, like a vow sealed in my body that drives my walking no matter where I mean to go.
When you listen to that voice, deep in the well of your secret soul, what does it say to you? What is the path it is beckoning you to follow?
Whatever you sense there, even faintly, those are the edges of your deepest vow.
I am living my own true vow right now, the one that lives, and has always lived, deep in my bones. I am writing my truth. I am writing a love story. I am singing to God.
I am in labor with it, and inside me it feels as confirming and sure and simple and profound as everything Merton describes. This work I am doing is my solemn vow—not a vow I have made, but a vow that was made in me by God, that I must obey.
Ah! need I say, dear Friend! that to the brim My heart was full; I made no vows, but vows Were then made for me; bond unknown to me Was given, that I should be, else sinning greatly, A dedicated Spirit. — from “The Prelude” by William Wordsworth
What needs to happen for you to become “a dedicated spirit”? To what are you secretly longing to dedicate your life? I can tell you this much—it isn’t some destiny you pick from a menu, or anything your ego or selfish ambition would choose. Your vow is already alive in you, placed as a burning ember in your soul by God. It is not a thing you can manufacture; it’s a thing you uncover, and surrender yourself to…
“Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about – or my life will never represent anything real in the world, no matter how earnest my intentions. That insight is hidden in the word vocation itself, which is rooted in the Latin for ‘voice.’ Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…” — Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
Have you heard the call of your deepest vow? How willing are you to follow it? What would it look like for you to fully surrender your life to it?