I expect you remember the American television show This Is Your Life when Ralph Edwards surprised unsuspecting celebrities and unsung heroes, telling their stories to millions of viewers as family and friends travelled from around the world to pay tribute. It also became a television institution here in Britain. When I was 21, I became a researcher on the program, working with the show’s hugely popular and avuncular Irish host Eamonn Andrews. It was my first job in broadcasting and, although I wasn’t entirely prepared for the pragmatic world of television he seemed to inhabit so effortlessly, I looked up to Eamonn, not only as a towering figure of the small screen, but also as a man of deep religious conviction.
On one occasion, during rehearsals for an episode of This Is Your Life to be recorded later in the day, I had to stand in for the unsuspecting subject, as researchers often did, a few hours before the big surprise. We were honoring a famous comedy actress that day, so I was a bit flummoxed as to whom to kiss and whom not to.
Just before the unmistakeable theme music struck up and we walked through the doors together, I heard Eamonn tell a member of the crew that he had come to the studios straight from Mass. It was not the kind of revelation usually heard backstage of a top TV show, but Eamonn wasn’t nervous of declaring his allegiances in the sometimes irreverent world of light entertainment.
Eamonn had high standards outside the studios as well. If someone noticed him arriving for a church service near his London apartment, they usually approached him to read one of the lessons, but invariably he would decline, explaining that he needed more time to prepare. Beside the candle stands, he saw himself not as a great star of television but as an ordinary pilgrim on a journey of faith. I still have a letter Eamonn sent me on the matter of vocation and the priesthood. In it, he reminded me gently that “there are many ways of serving, and I feel sure you will find the best of them.”
At home, I keep a framed photograph of the show’s opening credits: the words This Is Your Life appear in bold yellow lettering over the studio set. This is not just a sentimental memory of working on the show but a reminder that the program’s very name contains an important spiritual message. Each of us is called to live our life bestowed on us by God. We are not expected to live somebody else’s life or the life that somebody else thinks we should lead. The call of God is always personal.
The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner believed people had “a need to sing about themselves, about this ever new and unique person they are, each in their own way,” while the spiritual writer Henri Nouwen pointed out that our unique presence in our community is the way God wants us to be present to others. We have to know and to claim that way, the deeper self. The American foundress of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, Cornelia Connelly, went further. She told her nuns: “Be yourself. But make that self all that God wants it to be.”
We have to come to God, as we are, but always prepared for God to beckon us on. Throughout my life, I have been astonished how often people have felt they knew what God was calling me to be (usually a priest, they said). A few even suggested that it was taking me a long time to respond. These were not always close friends or confidants but curious acquaintances who believed I was running away from the only calling someone like me should have.
As I mentioned in a previous column, to explain you have a vocation to be a journalist tends not be greeted enthusiastically. Over the years, perhaps to convince myself I am not trying to escape, I have tested my vocation in very painful ways and concluded that God is not drawing me into the institutional church, which is not to say there is not a priestliness to what I or anyone else happens to do.
It is extraordinary how the opinions of other people can disturb us. We may want to please or impress others in our life choices, but the only one we should be concerned about is God. Living up to the expectations of others or being thrown off course by their comments can never be a substitute for the long, hard work of prayer through which we discover the quiet voice of the One who calls us “beloved.” I am not certain God has blueprints in any case.
The contemplative writer Sister Wendy Beckett makes it clear in a study of prayer that “everybody reading this book has his or her vocation and his or her own life.” She points out that whatever the circumstances of our personal situation, we should retain possession of our selfhood and offer it to God. “It is who you are that God comes to in prayer. Your life is not my life.” This means having the courage to be who we are meant to be and not a fantasy of somebody else’s projection.
“This is your life,” said Ralph Edwards, Eamonn Andrews, and later, Michael Aspel to hundreds of people over the years. Each story they told was unique, the subject often having found the determination to be themselves in order to achieve and to serve. The guests sitting around them on the set had all played their part in supporting that person on their journey. What they hadn’t done was try to unsettle the guest of honor by having them believe their true path lay someplace else. As Saint Paul puts it: “I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
Dr. Michael Ford lives in England, where for many years he was a broadcaster with BBC Religion and Ethics. An author of spiritual books and a retreat leader, he specializes in the life and ministry of Henri J. Nouwen. He maintains the website Hermitage Within.