12/21/2010 10:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What's Your Calling?

Despite having largely lost his Calvinist religion by the time he reached adulthood, the 19th-century Scottish satirist Thomas Carlyle famously noted that the idea of "calling" was all pervasive in broader society.

"The latest gospel in this world is, 'Know thy work and do it,"' Caryle said.

When we consider the idea of "calling," most of us think of ordained ministry. Pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and clerics of all traditions are supposed to have heard and heeded a divine "call" that leads them into a life of religious service.

Still, religious leaders from Martin Luther to the founder of Opus Dei, St. Jose Maria Escriva, have insisted that we all have a sacred calling, whether it leads us to don a clerical collar, a hard hat or tap shoes in the service of the Divine.

This idea of a universal calling is perhaps best articulated by a line from the film "Evan Almighty," when a freshman congressman (Steve Carell) named Evan is asked why God (Morgan Freeman) "chose" him to forsake his duties and build an ark in his backyard.

"(God) chose all of us," Evan answers.

It is precisely this take on calling that filmmakers explore in the stellar new documentary film The Calling, which airs nationally on PBS stations Dec. 20-21.


The Calling follows seven emerging religious leaders as they embark on their journeys as pastors, preachers, priests, chaplains, imams and rabbis.

The Calling does not limit its exploration of "calling" to explicitly religious endeavors. In 220 minutes, the filmmakers paint beautifully articulate and intimately nuanced portraits of what a modern life of faith looks like, inside and out of the pulpit.

Last week, I had the honor of getting to know the five men and two women profiled in The Calling when they all gathered for the first time in person for an event in Chicago.

They are: Bilal, an African-American convert from Pentecostalism who serves as a Muslim prison chaplain in Connecticut; Shmuly, a charismatic young man raised in a secular Jewish/Christian home who embraced Orthodox Judaism in his early 20s and subsequently entered an Orthodox yeshivah; Steven, a Mexican-American born and bred in San Antonio who is now a Roman Catholic priest; Yerachmiel, a cradle Orthodox Jew and recently ordained rabbi serving his first congregation; Jeneen, an African-American single mother and freshly ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church searching for her first "call" to the
pastorate; Tahera, a young Muslim woman studying at Hartford Seminary to become a university chaplain as she plans her wedding; and Rob, a new father who struggles to balance his work as a Protestant minister in Los Angeles with his passion for rap music and his obligations as chieftain in his native Samoa.

After spending a day with the subjects of the film, I was most struck by how much they had in common, despite their vast cultural and theological differences: Each has an abiding love for God and a desire to help others encounter the Divine in a meaningful way.

While their paths to religious vocation are as varied as their personalities and personal histories, their spiritual orientation is the same. They crane their necks and cup their ears to discern their call -- whatever turns it may take.

Each of the seven faces obstacles -- cultural, institutional, familial and of their own hearts and minds -- in heeding their calls. Time and again they confront questions and doubts, both external and internal.

Their journeys take surprising turns (as, sometimes, the call changes and evolves over time.) To a person, their soul explorations are fascinating -- never taking turns into the trite or what we've come to expect in typical one-dimensional depictions of "religious" folks.

The filmmakers have a wonderfully fresh and tender eye for stories (and people) of faith. The subjects of The Calling are portrayed as honest, vulnerable, funny, compelling, sometimes maddening and unfailingly authentic.

Whether you are a person of faith, a skeptic or a seeker -- of religion, the Divine or your purpose in life -- The Calling will have something profound and perhaps transformational to say.

As a compendium to the documentary, the filmmakers have launched a website, What's Your Calling, to continue the conversation. They cast a wide net to include people with callings as disparate as musicians and writers, entrepreneurs and activists, Thai boxers and tattoo artists.

No matter what it sounds like, we all have a calling. Those with ears to hear will find it, so listen carefully.

So, what's your calling?