What Harry Potter has to say about vocation

What Harry Potter has to say about vocation

By Kathleen McDonagh I.W.B.S., c

—Dedicated to Stephanie, now Sister Stephanie Francis, whose questions called forth these reflections.

The language and imagery of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are not in the Christian tradition. However, many elements in the story reflect Christian values. I do not mean to imply that this was what the author, J.K. Rowling, had in mind. Nonetheless a person of faith reading the book can see and appreciate in the adventures of Harry Potter important elements of faith and vocation.

Chosen one

We begin with the element of being chosen. Harry Potter, the hero of the book, is a chosen person, just as Christians are chosen by Jesus to share in his life. Jesus tells us, “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain…” (John 15:16).

Harry’s special calling is shown to us from the time he was a baby. Harry cannot be killed when his parents are killed, not even by Voldemort, that evil power who terrifies people so much that they are afraid to speak his name. They will only refer to him in hushed tones as “You-Know-Who.”

Harry survives Voldemort’s attempt to kill him and emerges from it marked only by a strange scar on his forehead. Throughout his life, this sign will warn Harry that he is facing great danger because the scar will burn and cause him pain when peril threatens. Similarly the devil, try as he would, could not overcome Jesus, the Messiah, through temptation (Luke 4:1-13), and “so he departed from him for a time” (Luke 4:13)—only to return at the time of his passion through the betrayal of Judas (Luke 22:3). Even when that betrayal led to Jesus’ suffering and death, the devil is not finally successful. He is ultimately overcome by the resurrection.

In our Christian vocation, we are called to follow Jesus. In some way each one of us has to live out again some aspect of the life of Christ. We too can meet and triumph over evil, if we believe that, however powerful temptation may be, we will be strengthened by the Lord to meet and overcome it. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us:

In order that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated. I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong. —2 Corinthians 12:7-10

Strength in weakness Who could be weaker than a little child, left without parents, at the mercy of evil? Yet the powers of good watch out for Harry Potter. As described in the imagery of the story, Harry is protected by strange creatures— cats, owls, strangely dressed people. He is delivered for a time into the care of his less-than-loving relatives, left sleeping on their doorstep. He sleeps on without knowing that he is special, famous, that at that moment, in many places, people are drinking a toast to him because the powers of evil have tested him but have not been able to overcome this baby (see p. 17 of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling, Scholastic, Inc., 1997).

So Harry comes to live with his uncle, aunt and cousin, to a life that is particularly difficult. His relatives resent having to take care of him, and they treat him abusively. Compared with his cousin, Duncan, he is a nobody, a nuisance in the house. Thus he is one of the “little ones” who, Mary tells us in her Magnificat, are God’s chosen ones: He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones, but lifted up the lowly. —Luke 1:51-52

Mistreated as he is by his relatives, as he grows, Harry does not turn away from his own vision of life. He remains true to his calling. And he does this without realizing that he is someone special. He just knows that his view is very different from that of his uncle, aunt, and cousin.

From the world of Wizardry comes Hagrid, the Keeper of the Keys, to bring news to Harry of the world to which he belongs. This is the world of magic—a world of wonderful happenings—as opposed to the world of the Muggles—the world of people who are interested only in material things. Hagrid is startled to discover that Harry has no knowledge of his heritage of magic. Hagrid questions Harry’s relatives, the Dursleys, and Harry himself. When he realizes that Harry knows absolutely nothing about his heritage, Hagrid explodes, informing Harry: “Harry, you are a wizard.”

Thus, part of his special calling is stated, although its meaning is far from clear to Harry. At that moment, he can only respond with a question: “What?” (pp. 50- 51). Being a wizard is not something Harry has chosen. Hagrid’s statement is an invitation to Harry to accept his heritage as it is made known to him at this time. At this point, he must either accept or reject. And at first it seems that Harry will reject it. He is bewildered by all that is happening and feels sure that Hagrid is making a mistake. How could he be a wizard? He is so ... so ordinary. But when he tells Hagrid what he is thinking, Hagrid reminds him of some strange things that he had done in the past that had angered his aunt or uncle. And Harry realizes that there is indeed some power within him that others do not seem to have.

At that moment, his uncle interferes in the conversation and announces that Harry can forget about all of this nonsense, that he will not allow him to follow through on this heritage. He is not going to any School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and that is that. Hagrid, however, tells him that there is nothing Uncle Vernon can do about that. Harry has been destined for this vocation since his birth (pp. 57-58).

Something similar happens with us. When God calls us to a vocation, we often have only the most minimal understanding of the gift being offered us. We feel, perhaps very dimly, an attraction, an urge, sometimes with a corresponding desire to turn away from this urge. Why do we want to follow this calling? We may not be able to respond with a logical reason. We may only know that it is difficult for us not to respond positively. Relatives and friends may try to “reason” with us, to get us to give up on such a foolish idea. If, however, we are honest with ourselves and look into the deepest recesses of our hearts, we may indeed find that we have been destined for this vocation ever since we were born. Jesus is saying to us in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name: you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). We are being invited to respond positively to a calling that resonates with the core of our being. We are invited to develop the deepest desire of our hearts. But it is an invitation. We are free to accept or reject our calling.

First response

Harry accepts the challenge of going to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and so he takes the first steps toward growth in his vocation. His acceptance leads him into a world he has never dreamed of. Shopping for school supplies for a school of witchcraft and wizardry is an experience beyond his wildest expectations. And his name seems to be magic. Old and young, people of every walk of life look at him with awe when his name is announced. Harry is bewildered by this. He is further bewildered by being taken to a top security vault where Hagrid picks up a seemingly insignificant, certainly unattractive, little package wrapped in brown paper which is lying on the floor. Of what importance can this be? But Hagrid does not explain, and Harry does not question further (p. 76). Unknown to him, the seemingly ordinary little package will be of major importance later on.

Right now Harry is overwhelmed by the special treatment he is receiving. Why are people acting as though he is somehow extraordinary? Will they expect great things from him? How can he measure up to their expectations? To this, Hagrid gives him excellent advice—Harry should not try to meet the expectations of others. He should just be himself (p. 86).

“Just be yourself.” No more is asked of us in following our vocation. We cannot live the vocation of another person; we are doomed to failure if we try. Jesus speaks to each of us just as we are, with our personal gifts, our personal talents, our personal problems, our personal weaknesses. Our positive response is to overcome our weaknesses, to work out the solutions to our problems, to develop our personal talents and gifts, to become our very best selves. Then we will live in Christ and he in us as he wants to.

On the train to Hogwarts, Harry makes friends with Ron who introduces him to new aspects of the world of magic, including collectible cards. The first card which Harry receives features a picture of Albus Dumbledore, who is the headmaster of the School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. As Harry looks at it, the face on the card appears and disappears. Harry will find later that Dumbledore is the most important person in the world of wizardry. He will not often be visible, but when there is great need, he will be present and powerful, always calling Harry to goodness and truth.

Personal growth in following vocation

In Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry Harry is introduced to a world of witches, wizards, ghosts. Here the new students are sorted into four different houses by the Hogwart Sorting Hat. Some instinct causes Harry to dislike the house called Slytherin, and as the Sorting Hat makes the choice, Harry says repeatedly within himself that he hopes he does not go to Slytherin. The Hat assures Harry he could be great in Slytherin, but Harry knows instinctively that this is not the kind of greatness he desires, and so he holds to his deeper values. He goes to the house known as Gryffindor as do the friends he has made on the train—Ron, Hermione and Neville. And in the start-of-term banquet, they see for the first time Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, who is described to Harry by an older student as a genius, the greatest wizard in the world but very different from most people— perhaps even a little insane (p. 125). Harry also meets the stuttering professor, Professor Quirrell, and another teacher, Professor Snape, who he instinctively feels does not like him. Professor Snape looks directly into Harry’s eyes, and immediately the scar on his forehead burns with pain. Harry is convinced that Snape must be an evil man indeed (p. 126).

Much later, Harry will find that Snape indeed does not like him, but that does not make him evil. Harry has to learn that his judgment of Snape is very erroneous, that dislike is not the same thing as evil, and that he must be careful not to judge others rashly. In general, even in the world of wizardry, good and evil elements are to be found, Harry discovers, and he consistently has to make choices in line with what he knows to be right.

And Harry too has his faults and failings. Before coming to Hogwarts, he argued and fought with his cousin. Now he sometimes argues and fights with other students. He disobeys school rules and gets into trouble. He has a very special calling, but he is not perfect, and he will have to struggle to overcome his faults.

So too with each one of us. God calls us in his good time, not ours, and sometimes, when we experience God’s call, our first reaction is a feeling of unworthiness. “God couldn’t be calling me,” we say. “I’m not according to his timing, just as we are, with our gifts and virtues, but also with our faults and failings. He does not expect us to be perfect from the start. All he asks is that we seek to grow in his love and in the love of others, and to work humbly to overcome the negative aspects of our character.

Seeking the treasure

The insignificant little package comes to the fore again and seems to be a matter of central importance—a treasure sought by many. Hagrid has taken it from the secret vault in the bank, and as time passes, Harry gradually comes to realize that it is hidden in Hogwarts in a corridor on the third floor where students are forbidden to go. Harry and his friends do go there, and there they find a huge, vicious, three-headed dog guarding a trapdoor. Here, Harry is convinced, is the treasure. What could this treasure possibly be? Hermione, the most intellectual of the four friends, reads widely, and in her reading she has come across an account of the Sorcerer’s Stone. This, she tells the boys, will transform all metals into gold and will make anyone who drinks it immortal. Wealth and immortality! Surely these are riches worth seeking! Harry comes to know that the package contains the Sorcerer’s Stone.

In our vocation, we too seek a treasure—the treasure of union with God and of serving him according to his will. This may not be entirely clear to us as we begin our vocational journey. Our vision may be so clouded that we see only “an insignificant little package” where the treasure really is. We may go off on erroneous side paths in seeking it; we may think that the treasure we seek is something other than what it is, but if we are faithful, the Lord will gradually clarify for us what it is he wants us to seek.

Confrontation with evil

Because of an incident of serious disobedience, Harry and his friends are punished by being sent into the forest at night with Hagrid to do they know not what. In the forest, they are exposed to great danger. They find the blood of a unicorn, and ultimately, the dead unicorn itself. Harry is told that it is a terrible thing to kill a unicorn, and that anyone who drinks its blood will be cursed as a result (p. 260).

But there, right before him, by the side of the dead unicorn, Harry meets a hooded figure who is drinking the unicorn’s blood. This figure looks at Harry and a most horrible pain flashes through his scar. He is terrified, but, in the nick of time, he is saved from personal encounter with this figure by a centaur. The hooded figure turns out to be Evil Personified, Voldemort himself, the one responsible for the death of Harry’s parents. Voldemort is desperate to get the treasure, the Sorcerer’s Stone, and as things develop, Harry reaches the conclusion that Professor Snape is out to get the Sorcerer’s stone to give it to Voldemort, and that Voldemort is waiting in the forest to receive it. And now Harry is aware that he is in great personal danger, that after Snape steals the Stone, Voldemort will come and kill him (p. 260).

In the process of becoming aware of our vocation and struggling with our acceptance or rejection of it, we too will encounter evil. Our encounter may not be as dramatic as meeting Evil Personified, but there will be times when we are tempted to sin, when we may feel we are in great personal danger. “Drinking the unicorn’s blood” may bring a curse, but it seems to give some strange power too. We may be tempted to go after power, at whatever cost, to avoid the vocation to which God is calling us.

Crucial point in Harry’s vocation

Harry does get back safely to the school, but throughout the period of final exams, he experiences stabbing pains in his scar, the meaning of which he does not understand at this point. Nevertheless, as time passes, he comes to the conclusion that he cannot just sit around and wait for Voldemort to come and finish him off. He realizes that part of his vocation is to prevent Voldemort from coming back into power! And with this realization, he vows that he will never join the forces of evil. With this vow, Harry commits himself to do what he must do (p. 270).

In our vocation search too, there may come a time, first of discouragement, when all seems lost, and we feel all that we can do is to let the Voldemort of our lives come and kill us. Then we need to trust in God, to pray with all our hearts in spite of our discouragement, and if we do, we will be graced with the realization that the Lord is on our side. Like Harry, we are being urged to vow that we will never join the forces of evil.

Community during the moment of decision

As a basic step toward overcoming Voldemort, Harry decides to go seek the stone. His three friends, however, refuse to allow him to go alone, and so each one goes as far as he or she can in helping him. Neville, the youngest, shyest, least capable, does what he can by standing up to his friends. But he is seen as a liability, and Hermione casts a spell on him through which he is paralyzed and cannot go further.

After many difficulties, the remaining children, Harry, Ron and Hermione, reach a room where living chessmen block their way. Ron, the master chess player, directs their way through the game, but ultimately realizes that, to allow the others to proceed, he must allow himself to be taken in the chess game. So he sacrifices himself in order to free the others to go forward.

Hermione and Harry continue on their way and come to a room on fire. There they find a liquid that will protect people from the fire. However there is sufficient liquid for only one person. Harry is certain that this battle is his, so he sends Hermione back to bring a message to Dumbledore, then drinks the liquid of protection and goes alone to his destiny. So too in our efforts to follow our vocation, friends may help or hinder us. Some will try to prevent our even beginning to follow our call. Others may help us up to a point. But they too are working out a response to their vocation, and we have to recognize the moment when our paths diverge and when each one of us must act in such a way that we may have to go it alone. If we are truly trying to follow God’s will, however, he is directing us. We may have to do the difficult, the very difficult, even the seemingly impossible, but the Lord is with us, and he will direct us even through the most difficult situation.

Moment of crisis

Safely through the fire and inside the last chamber, Harry meets the person he least expects to meet—the stuttering Professor Quirrell! As it turns out, the seemingly weak and harmless Quirrell is the villain, not Professor Snape! Harry realizes his rash judgment of Snape as Quirrell tells how he was the one trying to kill Harry, whereas Snape, in spite of his personal dislike of Harry, was trying to save him. Now Harry is alone with Quirrell, and Quirrell assures him he will be killed that very night (p. 289).

But they are standing in front of a mirror—the mirror— the Mirror of Erised. Harry had already encountered this mirror in Hogwarts—had seen reflections of his parents and family in it, and had been much drawn to it. Dumbledore, however, had warned him that what he saw in there were dreams and that it was dangerous to lose oneself in the world of dreams. Harry had, therefore, removed himself from the mirror and its attractions and had devoted himself to the real world and to the development of his calling.

Now Quirrell is very attracted to the mirror. Quirrell is convinced that the mirror will somehow lead him to find the Sorcerer’s Stone (p. 289), and in it, he sees himself with the stone, presenting it to his master. But he does not know how to use the mirror. At that moment, Voldemort’s voice is heard, urging him to use Harry to get to the stone, (p. 292), and so Quirrell takes Harry to the mirror. There Harry sees his own image, holding the blood red stone—and then he feels something heavy drop into his pocket. He has the stone. His task now is to prevent Quirrell from getting it!

But where is Voldemort in all of this? As Harry wonders, Quirrell slowly upwraps the turban around his head and turns around. There, instead of the back of his head, is another face—the face of Voldemort! Voldemort can live only in others—Quirrell has allowed him to take over his person! In the ensuing struggle for mastery, Harry’s scar screams with pain as Quirrell tries to get the Sorcercer’s Stone from him. As he tries to seize Harry, however, Quirrell burns his own fingers. He cannot touch Harry without being burned. And mercifully, in the midst of the struggle, Harry goes down into darkness.

In our vocation journey, we can meet someone as twofaced as Quirrell, or we ourselves can be the two-faced one. We can choose to turn away from the greatness of our task, lose ourselves in a dream world, or sell ourselves to evil. The crucial moment of our vocation is that moment when we make the decision to face the demands that our vocation will make upon us and to accept it. We will go after the stone of our own vocation, whatever the cost may be. The cost may indeed drag us down into darkness, but in the long run, we will be brought to resurrection by the Lord.

Resurrection Three days later, reminiscent of Jesus’ three days in the tomb, Harry comes to in the hospital wing of Hogwarts. To his relief, Dumbledore is with him, and he helps Harry understand what has happened. Dumbledore had arrived on the scene just in time to prevent Quirrell/Voldemort from getting the stone from Harry. And, Professor Dumbledore tells him, the Stone is not, after all, the greatest of great treasures. Immortality in this life, gold and wealth, are not the highest points of life. They are great, but there is something greater. To reach that true greatness, we must go down through the doors of death to come to a new and better life, incomprehensible to us now, but a life which will give us true immortality. To prevent others from seeking to put all their efforts into the less-thangreatest immortality available in this life, Dumbledore tells Harry, the stone has been destroyed. Just as Harry did, so we too have to grow in understanding the center of our vocation. Success in this life, fame and wealth, are not what our Christian vocation is all about. We are called to follow a crucified and Risen Lord, and if we do, crucifixion will surely bring us to death, but we will also rise to a new and better life.

Clear in this vocation account is the realization that our vocation is not immediately obvious from the very beginning. We begin where we are, but we are always invited to grow. As we make our way through life, thinking we understand clearly, with each new experience, we come to realize there is more to the journey than we had ever suspected. We make mistakes. We may be guilty of personal wrongdoing, of rash or mistaken judgment. We reach goals along the way, but our vocation story is a growth story—each accomplishment is an invitation to new growth. But if we persevere according to what we know at each stage, all the while trusting in the Lord, we will eventually come to our vocation, which will bring us to new life in him.

Kathleen McDonagh, IWBS, a Sister of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament, has taught on every level from primary grades through graduate school. She served as vocation director for her congregation for six years. Presently she is Director of the Office of Consecrated Life for the Diocese of Corpus Christi, Texas; translates the writings of her congregation’s foundress, Jeanne Chezard de Matel; and writes and teaches on de Matel’s charism.

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