05/03/2011 01:01 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2011

Glittering Images: Helping Students Discern True Identity and Vocation

The place of honor in my office library is eye-level, on either the fourth or fifth shelves up from the bottom. This prime literary real estate is reserved for my favorite theologians, poets, historical figures, underlined and high-lighted classics in Black literature, and dog-eared spiritual writings that are occasionally lent out to colleagues and students.

My hardcover and paperback friends have listened in on many tear-filled conversations, some hilarious exchanges, numerous planning meetings, hope-filled chats over tea with students, and even the occasional confession. Well, here is another confession.

When I first moved into this space, I intentionally arranged the books this way. Not just to pay homage to my favorite authors, but so that people would see them, and perhaps see me -- or a certain image of me.

There is a very special book hidden at the end of one of those hallowed easy-to-reach shelves. This book really needs to be in the middle, facing outward, so that all can see the cover. It's called Glittering Images. This novel by Susan Howatch is one of the very few that I re-read from time to time. Or to be more accurate, this book re-reads and convicts me.

I will not offer you a full book review of this 1980s novel, but to briefly summarize, the main character is a young clergyman named Charles Ashworth and much of the story finds him working to uncover a mystery around a controversial Bishop. In the process of his investigation (and his falling in love with another character) he begins to uncover not only the "unvarnished absolute truth" underneath the Bishop's cover up, but Charles also uncovers his own true self, which remained hidden by the "Glittering Image" of the self that he worked so hard to keep up for others to see.

In finding himself he also finds his true calling. The real journey of the story is not so much the solving of the Bishop's mystery, but the journey inwards through the mystery that is the self. It's about mustering the courage to accept, love and be that person whom Charles keeps hidden deep within.

Every so often, this brilliant work climbs off the shelf and comes to me for a visit, daring me to lay aside my own glittering image -- the facade that I too often want people to see, the person who folks think that I should be -- and just be myself, blemished, with insecurities, shortcomings and all.

I'm finding that the great challenge for college students is the need to discern who they really are, what they are really meant to be, and then gaining the courage to be that person -- not the glittering image placed upon them.

My heart breaks for each student who tells me that they are entering a certain profession "because that is what my parents want me to do," or "I guess because I've always been good in math," or "because that's what people like me are supposed to do after college," or "I'm going to be doing that next year, but what I really want to do and what I'm really passionate about is..."

Most people, when they think of college and university life, think only of its pre-professional aspects. Yet, college is also a time where we can begin to look into the mystery that each of us is. We ask, not only "What do I want to do?", but "Who do I want to be?" Not "Who do others think I should be?" but "Who am I, really?" There is a tremendous freedom available to those who realize that our identities are not tied to our work, and that our self-worth is not chained to our net-worth. We are more than what we do.

Who is the real you, beneath your major, your future career plans, and the money that you will make? Find "her" or "him," and let that person decide what's next. For many of us there seems to be a tension between wanting to do what we feel called to do and the very real need to make money in a difficult economic time. The point is not so much what we spend our days doing, but rather who we spend our days being -- making sure that our dreams and passions are fully integrated into our lives no matter what our job title is.

I honestly think that most students ask these questions of themselves, but the real challenge is having the courage to be that person, and having the courage to follow the callings and paths we want and feel led to take. Perhaps, most difficult of all, is allowing that hidden person with her or his true passion to be seen and loved.

One of the great gifts that the faculty, staff and administrators of an institution can give is the creation of a safe space where students can be themselves and dream and imagine. Sometimes we need to pause the pre-professional work that we do and just just allow a student to be a student.

It takes courage to be yourself. We wonder if people will respect us, if our families will be disappointed in us, if we will succeed, if we will be insignificant. If we tear down the glittering image in front of our true identities and our vocational selves, what will happen if the absolute true self is seen? Will we still be loved?

I've come to find that when people only love the glittering us, they don't love us at all. It's a fake you and a fake me that they are loving -- and that's not love; that's not living at all. Being who we really are and doing what we are really meant to do isn't easy, but this is one of the great challenges of life.

The book shelves in my office hold the words of a wonderful cloud of witnesses -- friends who've challenged me and journeyed with me over the years. My pride and my own glittering image have indeed led me to arrange it in a certain way. Perhaps most telling is that my old journals, full of reflections, secret poetry, written prayers and big dreams are way on the top shelf, unreachable without standing on something, collecting dust in a place where no one can see them -- not even me. I think that this summer, I'll pull these hidden books out and reread them.