Infinite Gratitude: Reflections on Friendship and Vocation

By Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett

At the recent General Convention of the Episcopal Church, I was filled with a sense of infinite gratitude. Despite the hard work of those very long days (as a deputy, I served on the busy Committee on Structure), the smile has yet to leave my face. Why I am still grinning? It’s the “fault” of seminarians I haveover the years. I am still seeing in my mind’s eye a lively flowing river of faces, vocations, and callings.

Let me explain. Late at night on a hotel elevator, I encountered a former Episcopal Divinity School student whom I had not seen in almost 30 years. This long-lost and dear-to-me alumnus was one of those students who shaped and deepened my ability to appreciate vocational ups and downs. The next day, on the floor of the House of Deputies, I literally bumped into two other much beloved former students whose ordinations I had preached many years ago.

For almost 40 years—my first seminary appointment was in 1973—I have listened to, learned from, and been refreshed by lessons students have taught me. What’s more, I am still learning from today’s new and splendid generation of students.

What am I learning? Here are five hallmarks that have arisen from years of listening to their stories.

First of all, callings are seldom simple, and many are not as basic as matching the “world’s deep hunger” with my “deep gladness,” although these elements may well appear. The vocations I have been privileged to accompany are more often complex, thick with personal evocations, yet seldom clear from the beginning.

Callings are likely to be various, shifting, and to grow over time. What’s more, we can experience more than one call. We are as likely to end up back at the beginning as we are to be connected to places we never thought we would go. Surprise is a lovely component of formation, especially in the shape of “ah-ha!” moments that linger in our hearts and inform our hopes.

Theologically, I am clearer now about the importance of community. A community can, and indeed often does, evoke a call. Mentors and other community members can also help us see our gifts in ways we might not be able to on our own. Vocations are richly and often deeply peopled by those we’ve met along the way.

I don’t intend to sound overly sentimental or narrowly theological, yet I am also increasingly confident about the courageous incarnational center that lies at the heart of the vocational pursuit. We are, I believe, made of sturdier Christ-like stock than we habitually admit. Struggle and perseverance, as well tragedy and sudden loss, are often a part of even the most joyous vocational journeys. A calling may not be easy or comfortable, but I have seen many rise to the challenge.

Last, yet by no means least, I am vocationally refreshed by diving more deeply into the waters of those lavish baptismal promises that so many of us share. I believe these promises ground our commitment to God and to one another. They are a source of life-changing and life-lasting friendships—friendships for which I remain infinitely grateful.

As I am grateful for running into former students who remind me of the varied and complex paths that EDS students take in the world. Witnessing them through the years reminds me of the diversity, joy, and complexity of God’s work.

This essay originally appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of EDS Now.

Dr. Fredrica Harris Thompsett is Mary Wolfe Professor of Historical Theology and faculty emerita, and a member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church.