Vocations: Destiny or Free Will?

crossroads

As someone who grew up reading fairy tales and watching anime, I began to notice something in the way that people see vocations.

Many of my married friends believe in the idea of pre-determined “soul mate” love and how God planned for them to marry a specific person. The story of their love life is essentially like the chorus from Taylor Swift’s “Love Story”: “You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess. It’s a love story, baby. Just say ‘Yes.'”

People who discern religious life, on the other hand, have vocation stories that resemble the typical anime “destiny plot.” In a typical adventure anime, the main character goes on a long journey or goes to school while trying to figure out what their purpose in life is. Either way, the protagonist finds their destiny and the story focuses on them working towards becoming a priest or a nun, with the perfect gang of friends who accompany them on this journey.

I’m speaking in generalizations, of course. I know that every vocation story is different. But in the years I spent going to vocation-related events, it seems like people see marriage and religious life as a pre-determined destiny and all they have to do is “discern” which one is right for them. In reality, marriage and religious life are not as cut and dry as that.

Yes, God creates each and every person with a unique personality and skills, but he also gave us this strange thing called free will. We have the ability to choose what to do with our gifts, for better or for worse. Our lives are more like those video games where the choices you make effect the way that the game ends. (Just think of Mass Effect or Infamous.) It doesn’t mean that we can just do whatever we want. The power to choose comes with the responsibility of making sure we choose to do God’s will. In an ideal life, we work with God to help us to choose the right thing. Eventually, our choices help reveal what God wants us to do with our lives.

The best example of this can be seen in the movie Moana. Although Moana was chosen by the ocean to voyage out and return the heart of Te Fiti, her journey was not an easy one and at one point, she gave the heart of Te Fiti to the ocean, wanting to return home after Te Ka nearly killed her. The spirit of her grandmother was supportive of Moana’s decision to turn back, but at the same time, Moana was hesitant. She had to choose to take the heart back herself and not just because the ocean or her grandmother told her. She did that by remembering who she was, where she came from, and reflecting on how far she has come.

So how does free will play a role in discerning marriage or religious life?

When it comes to marriage, I have a bit of a bias. For one thing, I don’t believe in soul mates. Now before you clutch your pearls and start citing the examples of Tobias and Sarah as well as Mary and Joseph, know that I wrote a Bible study on Tobit and I have a great devotion to the Holy Family. Tobias was worried about having to marry Sarah. He was free to choose to fulfill the promise he made to his father. Thankfully, Raphael guided Tobias to understanding how they would save Sarah from the demon that killed her previous husbands. If Sarah and Tobias’s marriage was predetermined, God would’ve found a way to have Tobias marry Sarah first and also expel the demon from her house at the same time.

In a similar way, Mary and Joseph still had to choose to say “Yes” to what God was asking of them. And their life was anything but a fairy tale, with Mary having to deal with at least three months of pregnancy alone (even while she was helping her cousin Elizabeth) and Joseph almost choosing to divorce Mary when he heard about her having a child.

God creates each and every person with a unique set of personality traits and skills and in our lives, we find people who we’re compatible with and some that we don’t get along with. But everyone we meet teaches us a lesson. Every relationship we have is a unique experience because we fall in love in different ways, depending on the person. It’s not going to be an instant-love-at-first-sight kind of thing that we see in romantic comedies and fairy tales. We choose who we love and then, once we marry, we can choose to stay with them in good times and in bad.

On the flip side of things, I know people who are still waiting for their lives to start, who have an idea on what God is calling them to do, but still have to choose the path they need to take in order to get there. The good news about these people is that they’re not just waiting around waiting for an answer to come on a silver platter. These people might have to pave their own paths or consider options beyond the norm. Regardless of where they head, God will always be with them.

I’m not saying that God doesn’t have a hand in our lives, but when it comes to our vocations, we can’t make the idea of finding our calling the end all-be all. We are called to ask God to be the compass of our hearts and then we choose the paths we walk down. There is no grand destiny where we save the world from an apocalypse. Most of us are called to live our holiness in ordinary lives. But is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think so.

tl;dr: Our path towards our vocation, whatever we are called to be, is not a straight line. It’s a path we forge with God guiding us through each and every choice we make.

Existentialism, Choices, and Discerning God's Will

One verse I keep seeing a lot lately in my social media is Jeremiah 29: 11

“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you—says the Lord—plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope.”

I’ve lamented before that I always wish that I knew what exactly those plans were. But some discussions with my friends have given me some perspective on God’s will.

My friend Justin recently made this video:

At first, I felt like this video was bordering on existentialist. If taken the wrong way, the idea that God doesn’t exactly have a great big master plan for every person makes it seem like He is indifferent. But of course, I know otherwise. God is not indifferent,

So I asked Justin some follow-up questions and here’s what he had to say:

If God doesn’t really have a grand master plan, how can you prove His omniscience?
Just like we know that the sun will rise tomorrow and can study everything about its orbit but don’t actually control the sun, so also is it with God. God knows everything we will choose, but He isn’t the one dictating our choices.
 
How would you explain divine intervention?
God intervenes when He sees fit, but other times He expects us to live according to our conscience and free will. 
Explain the Felix Culpa
The happy fault of Adam and Eve that resulted in the coming of Christ was an example of God turning something bad into something good. Of course, this is what often happens in life. When we make a terrible decision, God always gives us opportunities to alter the consequences of our actions, but that doesn’t negate the fact that the bad decision has already been made.
He already has plans on making a follow-up video which I plan to share on here as soon as it’s uploaded.
I am also reminded of a conversation I had with one of my college friends. I lamented to him about my discernment issues and he said:
Maybe he’s waiting to see what you have planned.
I think your vocation is your actualizing your own deepest desire and living it out in the world. So instead of asking God what do you want me to do? Or how are you going to lead me to my destiny? Etc. I think the silence we often experience with those sorts of prayers is really an invitation to reverse the questions. Don’t ask God anything except for the strength and purity of heart to be deeply honest with yourself and then ask yourself, What do I really want? Then you can explore that for awhile. And once you get some clarity you can start asking how you can make that dream come true. I don’t believe God makes any of these things happen for us. Don’t get me wrong I’m not denying grace or providence I just don’t think these realities work the way we often think they do. It’s much more up to us than we’re usually comfortable to accept. We have to choose and then do something about it. God gives us the strength to do it but it’s up to us. I think.

Having free will is a great power that comes with great responsibility. The temptation of existentialism is to believe that the universe is indifferent and that we have to make a choice or else life doesn’t have any meaning. God always allows us to make choices, but one wonderful part of having faith is that we can turn to Him and ask for His help in making our choices. Stanley Kubrick said that in spite of the darkness, we must create our own light. Thankfully for people who have faith, God supplies the light and we reflect and refract it into the world. 

God is the author of our lives. We have the power to choose what we want to do with our lives. What results from those choices, I think, becomes our vocation. It took me a long time for me to realize this but vocation isn’t just a lifestyle choice, but a daily process of choices we make in order to become as holy as we can be.

So even though a certain atheist/absurdist writer wrote this quote as sort of an existentialist manifesto, I look at this quote and think about how balancing our free will with our faith ultimately makes us stronger:

So here’s the part where you make a choice. What if you could have that power, now? In every generation, one Slayer is born, because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power, should be *our* power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of this scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a Slayer, will be a Slayer. Every girl who could have the power, will have the power. Can stand up, will stand up. Slayers, every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?

My answer is “Yes.” The choice is yours.

Firefly Month: The Wisdom of Serenity, the Big Damn Movie

Ladies and gentlemen and Browncoats of all ages, we have come to the end of my Firefly Month. And the only way I can properly end this is with a recap and analysis of the Big Damn Movie Serenity.

I hadn’t seen this movie for a long time, so watching it again gave me thrills and chills. I think it’s a great way to bring newcomers into the fandom and it’s a sneak preview of what Joss had to give the world in Avengers. Keep in mind that the last time Joss made a movie, it was Alien Resurrection and before that, it was the 1992 Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie starring Kristy Swanson. So to say that this movie is one of Joss’s best is saying a lot.

The prologue of the movie opens with a universe-establishing history lesson from Cam from Bones. Young River talks back to her teacher. Cut to River at the Alliance Lab, where she is in the middle of being lobotomized. The men at the Academy explain to Simon what they’re doing to River.  They intend on turning her into a living weapon. Simon activates a blast wave and the two of them escape the Academy.

It turns out to be a video seen by the bad guy of this movie, The Operative. He’s accessing the records and asks the Academy Doctor what his sin is, pointing out that it’s pride. The operative thinks that River picked up government secrets as she was experimented on. The Operative proceeds to kill everyone in the room in a disturbingly clean and precise manner and then asks about a way to get to River Tam’s triggers.

After the titles, we see Serenity preparing for a landing. Of course, the landing involves the usual atmospheric burning which included a hull scorching. This opening scene is majorly awesome. Former internet critic Welshy does a wonderful analysis of this opening shot in his Scene It video.

Mal plans to take River out on a job and Simon isn’t all too keen on it. This is a great intro for newcomers, but I’m very certain some of us are wondering where Book and Inara are. Mal, Zoe, Jayne, and River are planning a robbery of a security firm. River’s purpose in the robbery is to use her psychic powers to make sure the job goes smoothly.

Unfortunately, the job goes south when Reavers attack. River gets into a psychotic breakdown. The 4 head back to the ship as fast as possible. The Reavers are a LOT smarter and faster in this movie, making them all the more dangerous. They make it to the ship by the skin of their teeth, with only one Reaver on board. The Reaver gets dispatched of easily and Mal tells Wash to set a course for Beaumonde. Simon punches Mal in the face and tells Mal he wants off the ship.

Mal and Zoe have a conversation about why Mal chose to mercy kill a bystander instead of letting the guy onto their hovercraft. Mal has pretty much hardened. In the cargo hold, Kaylee says that the ship is falling apart in more ways than one. Not only does the ship need a repair, but Mal has seemingly drove away Inara like he’s pushing Simon and River out.

Once Serenity lands on Beaumonde, Kaylee gives Simon and River some tips before she and Mal go off to a bar/club called Maidenhead. Kaylee begs Mal to keep Simon and River on the ship, whining about how she hasn’t gotten laid in at least a year. She chastises Mal for letting Inara leave and walks out.

Mal meets up with Fanty and Mingo. River wanders into Maidenhead just as a commercial for fruity oaty bars plays. The commercial triggers her “living weapon” mode and she proceeds to she-fu everyone. Jayne tries to get her to calm down only for her to hit him below the belt and knock him out. Simon arrives and says a phrase in Mandarin that makes River fall asleep.The Operative watches from a distance.

Back on Serenity, Mal handcuffs River to the catwalk. He and Simon get into a fight again. Wash decides to ask Mr. Universe, a communications expert. They look over the footage and realize that the commercial had a subliminal message that activated her trigger. Simon takes care of River and she mentions Miranda. Simon thinks it might be a person or an alternate personality. River contemplates suicide, but Simon comforts her. We then cut to The Operative meeting with Inara, which can’t be any good.

Serenity lands in a moon called Haven, where Shepherd Book is waiting for them. Mal talks to Book about what to do with River. Book says that belief is going to help him get through this. Mal decides to walk out at the mention of faith, but Book points out that he wasn’t talking about God. Book, given his past with the Alliance, points out that whoever is after River is gonna strike from the shadows and won’t ask any questions.

Inara video calls Mal as the rest of the crew eavesdrops on them. She invites everyone to the Companion Training House where she’s staying and brings up the fact that she left some luggage on the ship. (Classic ex behavior.) When Mal enters the cockpit, Zoe deduces that it’s more than likely a trap and Mal agrees.

Mal arrives at the Training House and Inara chastises him for willingly going into the trap. The Operative comes in. He and Mal have a talk. Once The Operative mentions that he is unarmed, Mal shoots him. Of course, The Operative is wearing full body armor, which leads to him getting into a brawl with Mal and Inara. Just when The Operative thinks he has the upper hand, Inara points out that she wasn’t lighting incense. Cue a flash bomb that allows Mal and Inara to escape to the shuttle. Serenity sends out a handful of decoys and high tails it outta there.

On the ship, Inara points out that the reason that The Operative is dangerous is because he believes that killing River is the right thing to do and won’t stop until he finishes his mission. Jayne points out that Mal is being reckless, acting like he’s still in a war. Zoe orders Jayne to leave. Inara and Mal get into a fight of their own as the ship heads back to Haven. River has a dream of a distant planet and being attacked by Reavers.

In the kitchen, Jayne hears something from the other room. He gets his gun ready and looks for River. The rest of the crew hears a gunshot and find the kitchen locked. They search the ship for River, only for River to come out from the kitchen. She punches Simon in the throat and knocks Simon out. Mal finds River in the cockpit. She holds him at gunpoint. Mal asks River if she’s a person. She shows Mal what Miranda is: a planet.

Mal says that Miranda was an uninhabitable planet. But even though they’re close to Miranda, they would enter into Reaver territory if they were planning on landing on the planet. The ship lands on Haven to find the encampment burned by the Alliance. Mal finds a dying Shepherd Book. Book went down fighting to defend himself. Book says that he isn’t part of Mal’s crew but Mal says otherwise. Book begs Mal to believe in something, anything, and dies.

Zoe realizes that The Operative is probably tracking down everyone who’s ever worked with them. Mal is at the cockpit, looking at the footage of the people The Operative killed to get to them. Mal asks The Operative why he’s doing what he does. The Operative says that he believes in a world without sin. Then Mal gets a wonderful, awful idea.

Mal starts ordering his crew to disguise Serenity as a Reaver ship. The crew starts to protest, but Mal stops the fight once and for all by saying that he wants to make his stand against the Alliance and he wants to go to Miranda. So Serenity dons her disguise. As the ship gets closer to Miranda, they hear distant screams of nearby ships, leaving The Operative in the dust.

Once the crew is on Miranda, they find that the planet was properly terraformed and well developed. Their search for a beacon signal leads them to a public area with corpses all around. River goes through another mental breakdown.

They make their way to a research and rescue building where the beacon signal was sent. River activates a recording of a researcher assessing the damages. The people of Miranda died because of a chemical called the Pax which was put into the atmosphere as a way to lessen aggression. Only problem is that the chemical worked too well, taking away everyone’s desires and drives until they let themselves die. However, a tenth of the population had the opposite reaction and turned into Reavers.

River throws up and realizes that she finally gained clarity. Mal makes it his mission to get that message out to the entire verse and aims to misbehave. They decide to reach out to Mr. Universe, who already has the Alliance in his house. The Operative tells his men to destroy everything.

An epic space fight ensues as Serenity makes its way out of Reaver territory. On the other side, The Operative waits with an entire Alliance army, ready to fire. Serenity comes in with a fleet of Reavers behind her, forcing the two armies to fight each other.

Wash maneuvers Serenity through the artillery fire and blasts in a seriously awesome scene. All the while, The Operative gets into an escape pod and heads for the planet. Serenity prepares for a very crashy landing but Wash is able to maneuver the ship and glide it into landing. The ship shakes, rattles, and falls apart inside, and comes to a stop at the hangar. But just before the audience gets a chance to breathe, Wash says “I’m a leaf on the wind, watch how I-” and gets impaled in the chest by a Reaver ship, dying instantly. Zoe and Mal make a run for it and head inside with the rest of the crew to a bunker.

The crew creates a strategy. Zoe says they have to bottleneck the Reavers and prepares herself for battle. Mal asks Jayne for grenades as Reavers close in and sends a few out the door. Mal tells Zoe to hold the line as he makes his way into Mr. Universe’s room. He walks in to find the whole place wrecked up. However, the robot tells Mal that there’s a backup hidden and that the signal is still going.

As the Reavers close in, River breaks down. Kaylee laments dying while Simon decides to tell her how he feels about her. With the promise of finally consummating her relationship with Simon, Kaylee gains the will to live and prepares to fight.

Back at Mr. Universe’s, the Operative and Mal confront each other. Mal declares that he believes in getting the message out there and that he’s willing to die for it. Thankfully, Mal is a very quick draw.

The crew falls back as the Reavers close in on them. Jayne throws his last grenade. Kaylee says that the door can be shut, but only from the outside. Then Simon realizes he left his bag outside and gets shot.

Cue the beginning of River’s most epic moment in this entire movie.

Serenity_2286

You take care of me, Simon. You’ve always taken care of me. My turn.

Then River jumps out there, closes the door, and tosses Simon’s bad to the crew, all the while, she fights off the Reavers in the most epic fight scene since “Chosen.”

Mal continues to fight the Operative. During the fight, the Operative asks Mal if he knows what his sin is. Mal says “Hell. I’m a fan of all 7. But right now, I’m going to have to go with wrath.” The Operative stabs Mal in the side and prepares for his final blow, but we all know that Mal doesn’t go down without a fight. He refuses to kill the Operative and sends the message from Miranda out into the verse. When Mal returns to his crew, opens to River standing on the corpses of Reavers. The Alliance closes in, prepared to kill, but the Operative tells them to stand down.

A funeral is held. Zoe wears a beautiful white dress as she sends off the rocket. The crew gets to work repairing and repainting Serenity. Simon and Kaylee finally consummate their relationship while River watches, the little voyeurist that she is. And finally, on a rainy day, the Operative warns Mal that as of now, they’re all fugitives. The Operative is no longer working for the Alliance. Zoe says that Serenity is ready to go. Mal asks Inara if she’s ready to leave, but Inara isn’t so sure. Then Mal makes his way to the cockpit, where River is there, as his copilot. And the film ends with the ship flying through the rain into the black.

In the DVD commentary of this movie, Joss outed himself as an atheist and an absurdist. One theme prominent in this movie is the concept of belief. It’s telling that Joss chose to kill off Shepherd Book and Wash in this movie because Wash, like Xander in Buffy and Topher in Dollhouse is Joss’s Author Avatar. Symbolically speaking, Joss was killing off his belief in a higher power and his time with Firefly through this movie.

There’s this theme in Serenity of the “right to be wrong” because the Alliance was trying to take away free will in Miranda. During the Easter Vigil, one of the many readings is the fall of Man in the Garden of Eden. Fr. Robert Barron said this in one of his Lenten Reflections:

“The serpent places in the minds of Adam and Eve the conviction that unless and until they determine the meaning and purpose of their lives, they will not be free. To put it in modern terms, their lives will not be lived to the fullest. But the knowledge of good and evil is the godlike prerogative to set the agenda for one’s life, to determine the difference between right and wrong. And this belongs to God alone. Just as he breathed life and being into us, so he breathes moral and spiritual purpose into us.

When we convince ourselves that we live on our own terms, we cease to be truly free and alive. When Adam and Eve grasped at this knowledge, they were expelled from the garden, not because God is vindictive, but because it is the natural consequence of making oneself into God. When we grasp at divinity, whatever life we have dries up. We become small souls, locked in the prison of our egotism, victims of the Great Lie.”

The thing is, though, is that Whedon isn’t anti-religious. He just hates bad religion. He includes Jewish characters in Firefly such as Amnon and Mr. Universe. And while Book has a dark and troubled past, he still advises Mal in spite of Mal’s hatred for God. It’s telling that Book’s last plea was for Mal to believe in something, anything, because Mal did find something to believe in: the right thing to do. The Alliance doesn’t represent God, but rather Man having a God Complex. As Paul said “Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.” Make a world without sin, and you also remove grace. The name of the planet is also an allusion to this. Miranda is the name of the heroine from The Tempest. As in “O brave new world that has such people in’t.”

Kyle Cupp and I discussed the themes of Serenity and sin and he had this to say:

“When Mal says he aims to misbehave, he’s not defending moral anarchy or nihilism. He’s defying the Alliance’s false concept of what’s right. And their demand that everyone obey. It’s not God he really opposes, but idolatry. [The Operative] bought into the lie. He believes a world without sin is possible, for others if not himself.

The Operative: I’m sorry. If your quarry goes to ground, leave no ground to go to. You should have taken my offer. Or did you think none of this was your fault?
Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: I don’t murder children.

The Operative: I do. If I have to.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: Why? Do you even know why they sent you?

The Operative: It’s not my place to ask. I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin.

Capt. Malcolm Reynolds: So me and mine gotta lay down and die… so you can live in your better world?

The Operative: I’m not going to live there. There’s no place for me there… any more than there is for you. Malcolm… I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.

He’s almost a Moses figure for the false paradise promised by the Alliance.

I’ve been talking a lot about the Serenity Prayer and alluding to this during my Firefly recaps. If “The Message” was about acceptance and “Objects in Space” was about courage, the movie as a whole carried with it the theme of wisdom. Wisdom, as I’ve learned, is very different from knowledge. To put things simply, knowledge is the desire to know everything while wisdom is the desire to only know what is important.

In Serenity, the Operative and the Alliance represent knowledge. They used Miranda as a test site for gaining the knowledge of having as much control over everyone as possible. In contrast, Mal and his crew represent wisdom. Mal knows he’s in over his head and they all know that the odds are stacked against them, but they also use wisdom to press forward.

Zoe gains wisdom in this movie through the loss of her husband. She gets herself injured during the fight with the Reavers and there are some points where you wonder if she has a death wish, but ultimately, she moves on. The last line she says in the movie about Serenity also applies to herself as well. And it’s a relief to know that in the comics, Zoe eventually has a child.

Jayne doesn’t get much to do, given that he’s the muscle, but it’s interesting to see the number of times he goes out of his way to help River. It’s a really big character development given his misgivings for the Tam siblings. And while he keeps an eye out for River, he still acknowledges that they’re dangerous to the crew. But this time, he does this with a layer of sympathy for both of them.

I knew what was coming the first time I heard Wash say “I am a leaf on the wind.” I wanted to stop the movie there. But I didn’t. We get to see Wash be active in combat, albeit only through flying the ship in dangerous situations. But his landing of Serenity was still a wonderful moment in spite of what happened.

Kaylee was right to call Mal out for becoming such a cold-hearted person, especially towards Inara. Her desire to get laid is a source of humor and some eye-rolls from me. But hey, she gets to fight and she gets the guy in the end, so all’s well that ends well.

Inara doesn’t really do much in this movie aside from help Mal escape from the Operative. But it’s nice that she decides to return to Serenity. Sadly, given the length of the movie, their will they/won’t they will have to sadly never be resolved. Thank God for fanfiction!

But really, the movie is about three people: Mal, Simon, and River.

I think it was wise of Mal to bring River during one of his heists because he wants to make her useful in the hopes of getting her to function like a normal person. Simon is so protective of River that he borders on smothering her. However, it’s not until River goes to Miranda and finds the message left behind that River actually starts to gain the healing she needs. And once River gains her clarity, Simon decides on making his own life, starting with having a relationship with Kaylee. The movie starts out with River and Simon being the focus and crux of the movie centers on Mal’s belief that River was still human and still in need. In spite of him being hardened, helping River gives Mal and Simon some sense of purpose.

I think my favorite line from the movie is the one from the end. I think this shows what Mal believes in more than anything else.

Mal: It ain’t all buttons and charts, little albatross. You know what the first rule of flying is? Well, I suppose you do, since you already know what I’m about to say.

River: I do. But I like to hear you say it.

Mal: Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘verse… but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love… she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turn of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she ought to fall down… tells you she’s hurting before she keels. Makes her a home.

And with that, my Firefly month comes to an end.

Attributions: Screenshots are copyright to 20th Century Fox and Mutant Enemy Productions and are used for editorial purposes only.