The mountains are calling and I must go.—John Muir
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die!—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
As Murland Evans recalled, it was in the summer of 1891 “in one of those dreadful basement rooms in the Head Master’s House [at Harrow], a Sunday, to be exact, after chapel evensong.” It was on that summer evening that Evans was struck by a conversation he would never forget. Sitting opposite his friend and classmate Winston Churchill, the seventeen-year-old boys mused about their futures. While Evans considered his fate secure in diplomacy or finance, Churchill had an altogether different sense.
“I have a wonderful idea of where I shall be eventually.” Churchill confided, “I have dreams about it. . . . I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world; great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger—London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defense of London.”
“How can you talk like that?” Evans asked. “We are for ever safe from invasion, since the days of Napoleon.”
“I see further ahead than you do.” Churchill continued, “I see into the future. This country will be subjected somehow to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but [warming up to his subject] I tell you I shall be in command of the defenses of London and I shall save London and England from disaster.”
“Will you be a general then, in command of the troops?” Evans asked.
“I don’t know,” Churchill puzzled, “Dreams of the future are blurred, but the main objective is clear. I repeat—London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.”
Forty-nine years later, in 1940, Prime Minister Churchill would be rallying his country against the screaming German Luftwaffe ruthlessly bombing English cities during the Blitz.
This recollection (one of thousands about Churchill) was almost forgotten until it was found among mountainous piles of papers collected by Churchill’s original biographer, his son Randolph. When Martin Gilbert, the researcher who continued writing Churchill’s biography after Randolph died, discovered this remembrance, he told a colleague, “It was a stunner.”
Now, I’m not exactly sure what to make of this, but it is one heck of a story. And a childhood friend quietly relaying an intimate conversation that endured in his mind for more than half of a century lends even greater credence to the authenticity of the exchange. Were these the fevered musings of an expansive, egocentric teenage mind? Or was this something strangely different? Could a man who described himself, not as a pillar of the Church, but as a flying buttress “supporting it from the outside” have been granted a form of prophetic insight? In some ineffable way, did Winston Churchill receive The Call?
To be sure, Catholics are no strangers to The Call.
In the First Book of Samuel, Eli, the Israeli high priest and judge, slept soundly while his apprentice, Samuel, was repeatedly stirred by his master’s calling. Three times Samuel ran to Eli’s bedside and said, “Here I am. You called me.” After the third episode, Eli, sensing that this summons was otherworldly, instructed Samuel to respond to the voice, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Samuel did this and found himself in an encounter with the divine. What he learned about Eli and his future was difficult, but Samuel trusted in the providence of the Lord. The heavy hand of duty rested on Samuel’s shoulder and the young boy responded with faith.
The prophet Samuel heard The Call.
Wandering through the streets of Assisi, young Francis happened upon a small, dilapidated church named San Damiano. Kneeling beneath a large, wooden crucifix, Francis fixed his eyes on the pierced Christ’s gaze and prayed, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” Shocked by words that fully enveloped him, Francis heard, “Francis, go and rebuild my church which, as you see, is falling down.” From that day forward, Francis stripped himself of all earthly trappings. He changed himself, and in establishing the Franciscan religious order, he forever changed the Church.
St. Francis of Assisi answered The Call.
Embarking on her mission to save France, the young Joan of Arc was warned of the English and Burgundian soldiers lurking on every path out of Vaucouleurs. Dismissing her worried friend’s concerns, she insisted, “I do not fear the soldiers, for my road is made open to me; and if the soldiers come, I have God, my Lord, who will know how to clear the route that leads to messire the Dauphin. It was for this that I was born!” A sense of faith in her calling pervaded the young woman’s mindset.
St. Joan of Arc was emboldened by The Call.
The Call is mysterious. It is a thing of God, not of human design. “The wind blows where it wishes,” Christ said, “and you hear the sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The Call is no cooked-up man-made master plan or niggling calculation arrived at rationally with ledgers weighing pros and cons. It is profoundly interior, and yet alien. It speaks intimately to our depths, but as an Other.
The Call demands a leap of faith. It risks being called crazy and courts trouble. At the same time, The Call enlivens us, hoists us to new levels of understanding, and opens the gates to glory. Awakened from her sleep, Mary heard The Call. Standing in his boat, Peter heard The Call. Knocked off his horse, Paul heard The Call. To their peers, they each seemed damned crazy . . . but crazy enough, perhaps, to have found something true.
For some, The Call is inescapable. Whatever plans, whatever direction you are pursuing, The Call imposes itself. It gets in the way and demands to be reckoned with. Insistent and unbending, The Call tugs at you, pulls you, and draws you in. It molds and conforms you to its will. To discern The Call, but to avoid, ignore, or disdain it is to settle, to be incomplete, to abandon purpose. And the paradox of The Call is that the more you neglect it, the stronger it becomes—like being overpowered by the itch you stubbornly refuse to scratch.
For others, The Call is inconceivable. When invoked, they have no idea what you are talking about and thus deny that any such “Call” exists. Muddling through their “everydayness” (to borrow from Walker Percy), they neglect “The Search.” As Pope Benedict XVI would say, “They have too many frequencies in their ears.” Distracted and restless, they live life on the frothy surface too afraid to plunge to the depths. Without purpose, they drift from appetite to appetite, inching their way to oblivion. The difference between those who don’t believe in The Call and those who can’t escape it is well-framed by Cordelia Flyte, Evelyn Waugh’s precocious girl in Brideshead Revisited, “If you haven’t a vocation it’s no good however much you want to be; and if you have a vocation, you can’t get away from it, however much you hate it.”
Either way, The Call is never easy. Before Churchill’s doggedness would lead Great Britain to victory, he would first (and frequently) be pronounced a political dead-man, endure cities leveled by bombing raids, and would ultimately lose an election at the height of his popularity. Though Samuel would be blessed with the gift of prophecy, he would be pained by the shortcomings of the very king (Saul) he was called to anoint. St. Francis of Assisi would not only be deemed mad by his family, friends, and townsfolk, but he would endure painful dysfunction within his own order. And while St. Joan of Arc would strive valiantly for her faith and country, she would be declared a heretic and burned at the stake.
I don’t know if Winston Churchill received The Call.
That is not for me to decide.
What I do know is that The Call can come to anyone—the son of an aristocrat or a priest’s apprentice, a wealthy playboy or a peasant girl, a cantankerous fisherman or a religious scholar—but it requires a humble heart, a listening ear, and a courageous soul.
May God grant that we too may hear The Call.
And respond to it.