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In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther dramatically reformed the Christian concept of vocation, de-emphasizing the long-standing distinction between the clergy and the laity. Scholars rightly point to Luther as a key figure in this shift; however, he sometimes receives so much attention that one might easily miss the nuanced ways in which some earlier medieval writers thought about the vocation of the laity. This essay focuses on Ramon Llull (c. 1232–1316), whose work belongs to an under-appreciated strand in medieval European thought—one that expresses confidence in the ability of lay people to study complex truths. Llull’s Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men describes a conversation among three laymen (a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim) about their differing religious perspectives. Llull’s work suggests that hospitality, dialogue, beauty, and friendship provide a fruitful context for discerning questions of meaning and purpose.

Many readers of this journal will know the story well. During the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther argued that the Christian priesthood did not apply only to ordained clergy:

Here you will ask, “If all who are in the Church are priests, by what character are those whom we now call priests to be distinguished from the laity?” I reply, By the use of these words, “priest,” “clergy,” “spiritual person,” “ecclesiastic,” an injustice has been done, since they have been transferred from the remaining body of Christians to those few who are now, by hurtful custom, called ecclesiastics. For Holy scripture makes no distinction between them, except that those who are now boastfully called popes, bishops, and lords, it calls ministers, servants, and stewards, who are to serve the rest in the ministry of the word, for teaching the faith of Christ and the liberty of believers.1

De-emphasizing the differences between the clergy and the laity, Luther’s “priesthood of all believers” became a revolutionary concept. In challenging the traditional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, Luther also reformed the Christian concept of vocation. Every Christian man and woman—both clergy and laity—received a special vocation or life calling from God to serve as a priest.2

Accordingly, many scholars have pointed to Luther as the key person who challenged Christians to think about vocation in new ways: No longer were priests, bishops, and popes the only Christians with special callings. Instead, all people—whether they had received priestly ordination or not—had vocations from God to a particular set of roles in their lives. For Luther, a vocation to serve as a pastor was important, but so was a calling to be a housewife.3

Luther undoubtedly deserves attention as a fundamental figure in understanding attitudes toward the laity within early modern Christianity,4 and his significance within the Reformation more broadly is undisputed.5 But with all the attention that Luther receives in academic studies of vocation, it is easy to miss the nuanced ways in which some earlier medieval writers thought about the vocation of the laity (whether or not they employed the word vocation). The following pages do not aim to minimize the originality of Luther or to suggest that another writer made similar arguments, anticipating those made by the German reformer. Instead, the goal here is to highlight an under-appreciated strand in medieval European thought, which extended confidence in the ability of lay people to study complex truths. Understanding this earlier perspective is essential if we are properly to comprehend the history of the concept of vocation.

This essay analyzes the writing of one European figure—Ramon Llull (c. 1232–1316)—who thought creatively about the vocation of the laity, and in particular, how lay people could engage in what we might today call interfaith dialogue. Again, the point here is not to argue that Llull (rather than Luther) deserves credit for revolutionizing the Christian concept of vocation. As perhaps the most widely read author in sixteenth-century Europe, Luther certainly challenged his contemporaries to re-think the place of the layperson in the Church.6 Moreover, what Llull and Luther wrote had little in common beyond the fact that both were Christians. But this examination of Llull’s work suggests that, well before Luther, one can find medieval Catholic writers who saw lay people as capable of making essential contributions to the intellectual life of the Church. The laity had, in fact, a vocation of their own. And this, in turn, has some significant implications for how those of us who teach in the undergraduate setting can make space for our own students’ work of vocational exploration and discernment.

Ramon Llull: Life and Works

Why Ramon Llull? Though many—if not most—medieval Christian scholars came from the Catholic priesthood, Llull was a layman. As a tertiary member of the Order of Friars Minor (the Franciscans), he was inspired by the spirit of st. Francis of Assisi, but he served as neither a priest nor a friar. One might describe his vocation as that of a scholar and a missionary. Although he had no formal education, he wrote extensively in the field of philosophy (especially logic), producing over 250 works. scholars cite the Ars Magna (“Great Art” in Latin) as his most important work, designed as a method to pursue the truth through dialogue among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. He also was among the first medieval scholars to publish his work in the vernacular (everyday language), and he dedicated many years to studying Arabic in order to preach to Muslims.7

Born around 1232, Llull began life on the island of Majorca (one of the Balearic Islands off the eastern coast of modern-day spain), which King James I of Aragon had captured from the Muslim king Abu Yahya in 1229, not long before Llull’s birth. During Llull’s life, the spanish kingdoms were a land of multiple languages, cultures, and faiths. Muslims had lived on the Iberian peninsula since 711; while they had lost most of their land in spain by Llull’s lifetime, they continued to hold the kingdom of Granada (al-Andalus) in the south, and many Muslims and Jews lived under Christian dominion throughout the peninsula. With good reason, the medieval spanish kingdoms have been described as “the geographical and spiritual frontier” between the Abrahamic faiths.8 The encounters among Christians, Jews, and Muslims therefore served as the context for Llull’s life and became a fundamental part of his work.

Although Llull advocated something like what we might call interfaith dialogue, that term is accurate here only in the simple sense of respectful conversations between people of different faiths. When studying medieval Europe and much of the pre-modern world, interfaith dialogue can be a misleading concept because of its current association with a particular version of religious tolerance—specifically, one that suggests that all religious traditions represent equally valid truth claims. Although Llull argued in favor of peaceful discussions between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, he clearly considered Christianity the true religion; and throughout his life, he advocated different methods of evangelization to foster conversions to Christianity.

Experts on Llull also have noted that the Majorcan writer oscillated between peaceful and more forceful approaches.9 For instance, in The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men (1273), one of Llull’s early writings, he presents a peaceful dialogue among men of different religious persuasions: a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim. The so-called Gentile listens to the arguments of each of the first three men in order to determine the religion that he will follow. By contrast, in the treatise De fine (1305), Llull openly advocates a crusade against the Iberian Muslims and employs rhetoric reminiscent of that used to endorse the earlier crusades in the Holy Land.10 In Blanquerna (c. 1283), Llull appears to advocate both peaceful and more forceful approaches. What are we to make of these differing emphases in Llull’s writing? It certainly is possible that Llull’s views changed over the course of his life. It also may be that Llull adopted a different approach in each work in order to appeal to a distinct audience.11 In any case, the differing approaches should warn us against too simplistic an appropriation of Llull as a proto-advocate for the cause of interfaith understanding as we know it today.

During Llull’s lifetime, medieval Christians developed a range of approaches to preaching. Peter Waldo (c. 1140–c. 1205) and his followers, for ex- ample, supported the study of Christian scripture in the vernacular and evangelization by lay people who lacked formal education and embraced apostolic poverty. While none of the above was necessarily problematic—even translating scripture into the vernacular was acceptable in some medieval contexts—Waldo and his followers found themselves condemned as heretics because they never received the formal approval of local bishops. Two men who eventually became saints—Francis of Assisi (c. 1181–1226) and Dominic de Guzmán (1170–1221)— also made apostolic poverty and preaching central to the way of life that they and their followers adopted. They differed from Waldo, however, because they sought and successfully received the support of the papacy for formal religious communities: the Order of Friars Minor (Franciscans) and the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans). Llull’s approach to evangelization shares important elements with both of the methods described here. Like Waldo, he advocated preaching by laypeople; but like Francis and Dominic, he evangelized from within an approved religious community (i.e., the Franciscans).12

Although Llull wrote the Ars Magna and many of his books in Latin, he also aimed to make his work accessible to a broader populace. In the following pages, this essay examines one of Llull’s vernacular works, The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men, written in his native Catalan. Through a fictional conversation, Llull explored how inter-religious dialogue can serve as a way to pursue truth. Llull developed a model in which lay people could become evangelists in their religious traditions: they could (and should) study their faith, share it with others in friendship, and engage in a rational dialogue in order to deepen their under- standing of the truth. Altogether, I argue that Llull demonstrates confidence that lay people could appreciate profound concepts. In this sense, he was distinctive but not entirely unique; as noted above, his methods overlapped to some degree with other evangelical initiatives of the Middle Ages.

Before examining Llull’s work in detail, a word about method is in order. Although this essay draws on historical texts and is written by a historian, it is not offered simply as a traditional scholarly article in the field of history. First, the intended audience of this article is not primarily professional historians, but a broad range of scholars interested in the concept of vocation from various academic perspectives—including not only theology and religious studies, but also literature, philosophy, and the social and natural sciences, as well as pre-professional disciplines. second, although I write as a historian of Europe, I make no claim to be an expert on the work of Ramon Llull. I approach him as a generalist, attentive to the value that his writing offers to a wide range of scholars interested in conversations about meaning and purpose in higher education.

A Vocation for the Laity

Llull opens the Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men by identifying his target audience: “since we are writing this book for laymen, we will here discuss this science [knowledge] briefly and in plain words.”13 I propose that in starting with this point, Llull emphasizes his conviction that all people—not only the clergy—have a calling to pursue religious truth. specifically, those individuals who know truth carry an obligation to share it with others who are ignorant:

since for a long time we have had dealings with unbelievers and have heard their false opinions and errors; and in order that they may give praise to our Lord God and enter the path of eternal salvation, I who am blameworthy, despicable, poor, sinful, scorned by others, unworthy of having my name affixed to this book or any other, following the manner of the Arabic Book of the Gentile, wish to exert myself to the utmost—trusting in the help of the Most High—in finding a new method and new reasons by which those in error might be shown the path to glory without end and the means of avoiding infinite suffering.14

Like other medieval Christian writers, Llull disparages himself in the above passage: “I who am blameworthy, despicable, poor,” and so on.15 In doing so, he underscores the fact that he was not an influential bishop or cleric; that is, he had not been entrusted formally, through his position, with the salvation of souls. Nevertheless, in spite of his humble status as a layman, he sought to “exert himself to the utmost” and show others “the path to glory.”

Throughout the text, Llull’s three “wise men”—a Jew, a Christian, and a Muslim—serve as primary speakers. The fact that he described the Jew, the Christian, and the Muslim as “wise men” leaves their status ambiguous: are they clergy or laymen? When Llull introduces the men, he never uses words that explicitly identify them as clergy. There is one moment—when the three wise men meet the Gentile—in which Llull mentions “the peculiar bearing of the three wise men and their peculiar clothing.”16 While this language could suggest that three men are clergy, it need not be the case. In medieval Europe, dress could serve as a sign of religious distinction for Christians, Jews, and Muslims as a whole—not only for clergy.17 Because we know that Llull directly addressed his book to laymen and because he did not clearly identify the wise men as clergy, it seems plausible that he saw these three wise men as lay people. Finally, the fact that he wrote the book in Catalan underscores the fact that a wider range of people could read it—not only the clergy and other scholars who knew Latin. since it is possible that Llull anticipated a lay audience, it stands to reason that he also envisioned his protagonists as lay people.

Friendship as a Calling

Llull’s Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men can be described as a story about friendship, in which several laymen take the time to listen carefully and learn from one another. Their conversations always are civil—even friendly—in tone, which is notable because Llull lived during an age known for the conflict of the Crusades (and, as noted above, also wrote treatises that invoked the crusader’s logic).18 But whatever his attitudes may have been about evangelism and violence, he here proposes something distinctly humane.

Throughout the story, Llull offers the wise men as models of how to engage in fruitful conversations about religion with people of different backgrounds. When the reader meets the wise men near the beginning of the story, Llull describes the scene as follows:

Three wise men met upon leaving a city. One was a Jew, the other a Christian, and the third a saracen [Muslim]. When they were outside the city and saw each other, they approached and greeted each other in friendly fashion, and they accompanied one another, each inquiring about the other’s health and what he intended to do. And all three decided to enjoy themselves together, so as to gladden their spirits overtaxed by studying.19

Before Llull begins the heart of the book—arguments for religious faith—he makes it clear to his reader that these discussions must take place in the context of friendship. Llull did not see friendship between these people of different religions as a shallow enterprise; as we will see, they did much more than engage in small talk. Instead, Llull saw these friendships as the basis for exploring truth together: while he did not see divisions between faith traditions as good in themselves, they could nevertheless inspire a fruitful intellectual journey.

In the prologue, Llull invites his readers to take the time to know the deepest feelings and needs of their fellow travelers. He offers a detailed account of the Gentile, the story’s protagonist, emphasizing his emotional struggles:

By divine dispensation it came to pass that in a certain land there lived a Gentile very learned in philosophy, who began to worry about old age, death, and the joys of this world. This Gentile had no knowledge of God, nor did he believe in the Resurrection, nor did he think anything existed after death. Whenever the Gentile thought about these things, his eyes filled with tears and weeping, and his heart with sighs and sadness and pain, for he was so fond of this worldly life, and he found so horrible the thought of death and the notion that after death he would be nothing, that he was unable to console himself or stop crying, nor could he drive the sadness from his heart.20

In this passage, we learn that Llull’s Gentile is a person with concerns and fears. The Gentile is “so fond of this worldly life” that he worries about losing it. He experiences “sadness and pain,” and he weeps, “unable to console himself,” unable to “drive the sadness from his heart.” The Gentile is one of the “unbelievers” that Llull described in the introduction of the story, and Llull offers his readers a sympathetic portrait, arguably to suggest to his audience that they should approach their peers with a similar sensitivity.

Since Llull hoped that his readers would “give praise to our Lord God” and come to know “the path to glory,” one might assume that he wrote a straightforward argument for conversion to Catholic Christianity. His story, however, is far from a polemic on the superiority of Christianity. Instead, the text repeatedly demonstrates the value of friendship as a basis for productive conversation. For instance, in the first chapter of the book, the three wise men work together to argue that God exists and that humans can hope for life after death. After identifying the shared points of their traditions, each wise man makes an argument for his own faith tradition, beginning with the Jew, then the Christian, and finally the Muslim (thus proceeding in chronological order, starting with the oldest religious tradition). Throughout the text, Christianity does not emerge as the clear winner. Llull’s tone is far from combative; he also gives adequate accounts of the faith traditions that he personally does not embrace. In fact, one modern scholar describes him as offering “reasonably sound” knowledge regarding Judaism and Islam.21

Although the largest portion of the text offers an exploration of each distinctive faith tradition, Llull is eager to highlight what brings the different men together. Though each man is rooted in his particular religion, Llull depicts them as having a common goal: unity. “‘Think, gentlemen,’ the wise man said to his companions, ‘of the harm that comes from men not belonging to a single sect, and of the good that would come from everyone being beneath one faith and one religion. This being the case, do you not think it would be a good idea for us to sit beneath these trees, beside this lovely fountain, and discuss what we believe?”22 In this passage, and in others throughout the story, Llull refers to an un-identified “wise man.” Rather than attribute the desire for unity to, say, the Christian wise man, Llull chooses not to reveal to the reader which of the three wise men expressed this thought. In doing so, Llull gives the impression that the wise men agreed on this point and that any of the three men might have expressed this wish for unity.

The story’s end indicates, similarly, that Llull wished to avoid a polemical argument demonstrating the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and Islam. In the epilogue, the Gentile announces that he has chosen a religion, but the reader never learns which one. Rather, the three wise men leave before the Gentile shares his decision:

But before the three wise men left, the Gentile asked them in astonishment why they did not wait to hear which religion he would choose in preference to the others. The three wise men answered, saying that, in order for each to be free to choose his own religion, they preferred not knowing which religion he would choose. ‘And all the more so since this is a question we could discuss among ourselves to see, by force of reason and by means of our intellects, which religion it must be that you will choose. And if, in front of us, you state which religion it is that you prefer, then we would not have such a good subject of discussion nor such satisfaction in discovering the truth.’ With these words, the three wise men returned to the city from which they had come.23

Instead of staying and listening to the Gentile’s conclusion, they choose to leave so that they can continue their own discussion and search for truth. Altogether, the story is anything but a tactless polemic for conversion to Christianity. Rather, Llull emphasizes the value of embarking on the search for truth with friends who value the same pursuit.

Putting the Call into Practice

Although Llull evidently valued friendship and a shared sense of purpose among the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim wise men, he recognized a need for a pragmatic strategy in order for lay people to pursue truth. How did Llull propose that the laity carry out this work? We can find some clues in the ways that the characters in his story engage in conversation about religious truth.

First, each person had to find the conversation appealing. Thus, for Llull, physical beauty serves as a key factor that can attract lay people toward the truth.

And in this wood there were many wild beasts and many birds of different kinds, and [the Gentile] therefore decided to remain in that secluded place to see and smell the flowers, and because he thought that the beauty of the trees, of the springs, and of the rivers banks might bring him some relief from the grievous thoughts which so tormented and afflicted him.24

When Llull introduces the Gentile, he is a suffering man, struggling to make sense of what will happen after death. The beauty of the forest appears to lift him out of his sadness, at least for a time. Llull sees beauty as important not just for the Gentile but also for the wise men:

And they came to a lovely spring watering five trees, the same five trees depicted at the beginning of this book. Next to the spring, there was a very beautiful lady, very nobly dressed, astride a handsome palfrey, which was drinking from the spring. The wise men, upon seeing the five trees, which were most pleasing to the eye, and upon seeing the lady, who was of agreeable countenance, went up to the spring and greeted the lady most humbly and devoutly, and she most politely returned their greetings.25

Although the wise men already had started a conversation among themselves, “each inquiring about the other’s health,” Llull uses the beautiful lady to bring them into a more meaningful discussion.

The appeal of beauty, however, is temporary for Llull: “The Gentile picked flowers and ate fruit from the trees to see if the scent of one or the taste of the other would bring him some relief; but when he remembered that he had to die, and that a time would come when he would be nothing, then his pain, tears, and tribulations were multiplied.”26 Both for the Gentile and for the wise men, beauty serves to spark the discussion, but it cannot replace it. For Llull, although beauty points toward the truth, it is not sufficient by itself for the continued pursuit of truth.

Having met the Christian, the Jew, and the Muslim, the beautiful woman challenges them to go beyond her charm and think about more profound topics. To do so, she speaks to them about the nearby trees:

The wise men asked the lady her name, to which she replied that she was Intelligence. And the wise men asked her to explain to them the nature and properties of the five trees, and what was the meaning of the writing on each of their flowers. The lady replied, saying: ‘The first tree, on which you see twenty-one flowers, represents God and His essential, uncreated virtues, which virtues are written on the flowers, as you can see.’27

After describing the flowers of the first tree, Lady Intelligence describes four more trees and their flowers. she offers ideas about the practical applications offered by this new knowledge: it provides the men with concepts to understand God, virtues, vices, and eternal life:

These conditions govern the flowers, which are principles and doctrine to rectify the error of those who have no knowledge of God nor of His works, nor even of their own beliefs. Through a knowledge of these trees, one can console the disconsolate and calm those in anguish. And by these trees one can subdue temptation and purify the soul of guilt and sin; and by the use of these trees—for someone who knows how to pick their fruit—a person can escape infinite pain and achieve everlasting peace.28

At this point in the story, the wise men had not yet met the Gentile. Lady Intelligence, however, appears to be preparing the men for that encounter, in which they would have a chance to “console the disconsolate,” “calm those in anguish,” and lead their new acquaintance to “escape infinite pain.” In other words, studying the trees’ flowers is not an end in itself: Llull desired that his lay scholars apply their new-found knowledge in the service of religious conversation (and ultimately, for Llull, religious conversion).

Inspired by the discourse given by Lady Intelligence, the wise men come to a revelation, realizing that this new knowledge can serve a lofty purpose:

‘Ah! What a great good fortune it would be if, by means of these trees, we could all—every man on earth—be under one religion and belief, so that there would be no more rancor or ill will among men, who hate each other because of diversity and contrariness of beliefs and sects! And just as there is only one God, Father, Creator, and Lord of everything that exists, so all peoples could unite and become one people, and that people be on the path to salvation, under one faith and one religion, giving glory and praise to our Lord God.’29

For the wise men, the trees and their “flowers” come to represent a new vocabulary—a new set of authorities that could serve as a basis for the men to converse with one another and pursue the truth. This vocabulary would not require them to abandon their own traditions, with their distinct scriptural and religious authorities (e.g., the Qur’an, the papacy). They simply recognize here that in a discussion between a Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim, appealing to one’s own religious authorities would fail to persuade someone from a different tradition. Llull, therefore, has the wise men come to the following conclusion, adopting a new vocabulary as a foundation for discussion between people of different beliefs: “since we cannot agree by means of authorities, let us try to come to some agreement by means of demonstrative and necessary reasons.”30 This wise man’s words highlight important elements in Llull’s strategy, which identifies a set of new concepts (not specific to any particular religious tradition) and then proceeds to seek the truth through “demonstrative and necessary reasons.”

Llull’s engagement with a lay audience—focusing on matters of beauty, dialogue, and the search for religious truth—suggests that he had a strong sense that the laity should care about and be willing to pursue such matters. Like many other medieval writers, he does not use the word vocation to describe this work; nevertheless, he seems to advocate something that resembles what we would today call a vocation or calling. This is, again, not to question the significance of the Reformation in general, or Luther in particular, in emphasizing the vocation of the laity. But it does suggest that, several centuries before Luther, some medieval writers were already deeply interested in the topic—and offered certain pointers in a similar direction.

Implications for Higher Education Today

What can this examination of The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men offer to scholars today, with respect to conversations about meaning, purpose, and vocation? I believe that Llull’s work calls us to draw on our medieval inheritance, both in thinking about our own vocations and in supporting students to think productively about their life callings. While Ramon Llull ultimately focused on Christian evangelization, many of his ideas have relevance for contemporary teachers who wish to place vocation at the center of their work with students, including in their classrooms.

My own interest in the academic study of vocation developed while teaching in the first-year seminar program at Alma College, a co-ed private liberal arts institution affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (UsA), enrolling approximately 1,400 students in rural Michigan. Virtually all first-year (non-transfer) students take this seminar during their first semester, in sections of 15 to 20 students. The goals of the first-year program are as follows:

  • Establish an appreciation for the liberal arts;
  • Develop skills in critical and creative thinking;
  • Build a responsible, inclusive community within the class and the college; and
  • Encourage attention to self and well-being, individually and with campus support.

Given the program’s broad orientation—and the fact that it does not operate within a single academic discipline—I increasingly oriented my sections of the course toward fundamental, interdisciplinary questions (e.g., What is a good life?). I saw the program as an opportunity for students to think about the purpose of their college education—a space to reflect on their education as personal formation, and not only as professional training. The most recent version of the course was organized around the widely cited insight of the late author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”31 A “good life” involves not only one’s own desires but also the needs of the wider world. In essence, the course invited students to think about the related subjects of personal fulfillment and serving one’s community.

While many colleagues and I saw the need for a course that challenged students to think about fundamental questions, student reactions were mixed. On many occasions, we had productive discussions; at other times, however, students seemed indifferent or resistant to engaging in conversations related to the meaning and purpose of their education. Having taught in the program seven times between 2014 and 2021, I became convinced that, in order to foster productive discussions about questions of personal values, more work was needed to help students enter into deep conversations. For me, part of what it meant to be a professor at a small liberal arts college was the need to provide hospitality in the classroom—to create a space in which students felt comfortable and motivated to reflect on meaning and purpose with their peers.32

Hospitality was key in those circumstances, and it is key in other contexts as well. In 2022, I began a new position at the Lumen Christi Institute (LCI), an academic center for Catholic thought, serving the University of Chicago and the broader community. LCI organizes seminars, lectures, conferences, and non-credit courses with the aim of fostering a dialogue between the Catholic intellectual tradition and the secular university. Now, as I work in program administration, I continue to find myself thinking about hospitality. As an institute focused on intellectual life, how can we create conditions under which thoughtful conversations can take place? What does it mean to be a hospitable host for this work?

Here, Llull’s Book of the Gentile does much more than offer insights on medieval European history, literature, and relations among Christians, Jews, and Muslims during the age of the Crusades. His work also offers an insightful roadmap for scholars who are pursuing their own vocations and seeking to foster the exploration of vocation among their students. I believe that Llull’s work encourages readers to see friendship as a fruitful context for discerning questions of meaning and purpose.

The three wise men share important ground: they all believe in God and hope for an afterlife. Llull’s work suggests that, because they are friends who share similar commitments, the wise men are able to push each other toward deeper understandings of their lives and callings. Furthermore, those conversations flourish when the friends have identified a shared purpose. The three wise men, in this case, desire that everyone be “beneath one faith and one religion.” Although they all had different views on what that religion should be, they devoted themselves to the task of searching for that truth as a common project.

Recent scholarship on the topic of friendship has drawn conclusions that appear to affirm Llull’s story line. As Paul Wadell notes, “the study of theology is best undertaken in the company of friends”33 —as is the case for the three wise men. Developing this line of thought, Wadell argues that Christian friendship calls for an openness to strangers. Though strangers might see the world in radically different ways, the other’s views can lead one to a deeper understanding of truth.34

In Llull’s story, one could argue that the differences among the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim wise men actually lead them to be productive: because they have different beliefs, they are drawn into an engagement with one another, and into a pursuit of truth that will bring them closer together.35

Llull’s text also offers some practical tips for his readers as they pursue their callings. First, the story suggests the importance of adapting to changing circumstances. The three wise men only had begun to consider the notion of using reason and dialogue to bring others “under one religion and belief” and appeared ready to begin a wide-ranging discussion in pursuit of the one true religion. However, before they could begin that idealistic conversation, the Gentile appears, thwarting their plans:

Scarcely had they begun their discussion, however, when they saw coming toward them the Gentile who was wandering through the forest. He had a long beard and long hair, and he came like a man exhausted, and he was thin and wan from the pain of his thoughts and the long journey he had made. His eyes streamed with tears, while ceaselessly his heart sighed and his mouth moaned.36

Reflecting on more than ten years in the classroom, I could not help but read this passage as a parallel with the many occasions when I found myself busily and—often, urgently—preparing for a class, only to hear one of my students knock on my office door with a pressing concern. Llull’s story reminds us that, although we may have good plans for serving others, we have a calling to be present to those whom we encounter; their needs often may lead us to reconsider and adapt our plans. In the first meeting with the Gentile, the three wise men had not yet been able to put their heads together and identify a shared path toward the truth. With the Gentile present, the wise men put aside their own plans and decide instead to listen to the person before them, recognizing the calling to offer hospitality to the person who needs their help.

Besides suggesting the need for flexibility, the story of the Gentile also underscores the fundamental role of the physical body when engaging in intellectual conversations. In the passage below, the Gentile has just stumbled upon the three wise men: “And because of the great anguish of his suffering, he was thirsty and needed to drink from the spring before he could talk to or greet the three wise men. When the Gentile had drunk from the spring and had recovered his breath and spirit, he greeted the three wise men in his language and according to his custom.”37 The inclusion of two references to water in the lines above could suggest a kind of baptism for the Gentile, as he is on the cusp of learning about God from the wise men. But regardless of whether Llull intended it to symbolize baptism, the moment reminds the reader of the fact that—even for educated people who desire intellectual conversation—one must attend to the physical body to prepare for deep conversations about life. Llull seems to suggest that, without the water, the discussion would have been impossible. A broader interpretation might suggest that meaningful conversations are possible by attending not only to the mind, but first to the needs of the body.

One last note sheds additional light on the physical as a foundation for the intellectual. Before the Gentile and the wise men begin their deep and wide-ranging conversation, Llull describes the trio’s actions and clothes as they greet the Gentile:

And the three wise men returned his greeting, saying they hoped that the God of glory, who was Father and Lord of all existing things, and who had created the whole world, and who would resuscitate the righteous and the wicked, would protect, console, and help him in his suffering. When the Gentile heard how these three wise men greeted him, when he saw the five trees and read what was written on their flowers, and when he saw the peculiar bearing of the three wise men and their peculiar clothing, then he began to think things over and to wonder greatly at the words he had heard and at what he saw.38

At this moment, before the direction of the impending conversation becomes clear, Llull shows that the mind of the Gentile began to open to new ideas (“he began to think things over and to wonder greatly”). It must be noted that the Gentile became receptive, not only because of what he heard, but also because of what he saw. In this case, the actions of the wise men speak as loudly as their words—a salutary reminder for those of us dedicated to the life of the mind.

Then and Now

Ramon Llull’s work provides us with an interesting example of a medieval writer who, well before the Reformation, believed that the laity were called to particular forms of reason, dialogue, and the pursuit of truth. Whether he understood this work as a vocation may be open to question, but there are clearly strong family resemblances between his understanding of the work of the laity and what we would today describe as a vocation or calling. Beyond that historical point, however, Llull offers some important insights for those of us dedicated to conversations about meaning, purpose, and truth.

Llull’s story reminds us that we have a great deal of work to do before these conversations begin. Much of this work might be described as hospitality: How do we greet one another? How can we use beauty, in its many forms, to build an attractive foundation for meaningful discussions? How do we attend to the body language and the physical needs of the people with whom we engage in conversation? Llull’s Book of the Gentile exhorts the reader to pursue profound conversations. In the context of higher education, this means listening to our students’ questions and concerns, answering them thoughtfully, helping them continue their search, and—ultimately—extending confidence to them by respecting the choices that they make.

Cite this article
Daniel Wasserman-Soler, “Lay Vocation before the Reformation: Faith, Reason, and Friendship in the Middle Ages (and Today)”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 52:4 , 51-66


  1. Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, accessed January 16, 2023,
  2. On the concept of the “priesthood of all believers,” see Uche Anizor and Hank Voss, Representing Christ: A Vision for the Priesthood of All Believers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016). While the concept is attributed to Luther, he did not use those specific words.
  3. Regarding Luther’s views on women, see susan C. Karant-Nunn and Merry E. Wiesner Hanks, Luther on Women: A Sourcebook (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2003). For a few recent examples of scholarly assessments of Luther’s part in the history of the concept of vocation, see Kathryn Kleinhans, “Places of Responsibility: Educating for Multiple Callings in Multiple Communities,” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David s. Cunningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 99–121; Margaret Mohrmann, “Vocation is Responsibility: Broader scope, Deeper Discernment,” in Vocation across the Academy: A New Vocabulary for Higher Education, ed. David s. Cunningham (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017), 21–43; and Paul Wadell and Charles Pinches, Living Vocationally: The Journey of the Called Life (Eugene, OR: Wipf and stock, Cascade Books, 2021), 42–47.
  4. Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation, trans. Carl Rasmussen (Eugene, OR: Wipf & stock, 2004).
  5. For evidence of Luther’s continuing ability to fascinate scholars and modern read- ers, see the long list of publications released around 2017, on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. A sample of English-language works follows: Mark Ellingsen, Martin Luther’s Legacy: Reforming Reformation Theology for the 21st Century (New York, NY: Palgrave MacMillan, 2017); Elisabeth Gerle, Passionate Embrace: Luther on Love, Body, and Sensual Presence (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017); Brad s. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Mar- tin Luther, the Reformation and Conflicts that Continue to Shape our World (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2017); Craig Harline, World Ablaze: the Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017); Thomas Kaufmann, Luther’s Jews: a Journey into Anti-Semitism, trans. Lesley sharpe and Jeremy Noakes (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017); Martin Luther, The Ninety-five Theses and Other Writings, trans. William R. Russell (New York, NY: Penguin, 2017; Jason Mahn, ed. Radical Lutherans/ Lutheran Radicals (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017); Terra schwerin Rowe, Toward a Better World- liness: Ecology, Economy, and the Protestant Tradition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017; Heinz schilling, Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval, trans. Rona Johnston (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  6. According to the Universal short-Title Catalog (, Luther was the most printed author in Europe between 1450 and 1650, with 6,440 titles to his name. This number includes reprints of his works as well as translations into other languages. The following “top” authors include—in order—Marcus Tullius Cicero (4,914), Desiderius Erasmus (4,679), Philip Melanchthon (3,949), and Aristotle (3,440). Readers should note that the UsTC catalog is updated frequently, so the numbers of editions noted above likely will be different at the time of publication. It is imperfect to claim that Luther was the most widely read author, based on the number of printed editions of his works; this number accounts only for editions printed, not for number of copies printed or sold.
  7. For a brief, accessible introduction to the life of Ramon Llull, see Ernesto Priani, “Ramon Llull,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta (spring 2021), For a more extensive introduction to Llull’s life and works, see Anthony Bonner, ed., Doctor Illuminatus: A Ramon Llull Reader (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993) and Mark D. Johnston, “Ramon Llull and Lullism,” in The Routledge Hispanic Studies Companion to Medieval Iberia: Unity in Diversity, ed. E. Michael Gerli and Ryan D. Giles (New York, NY: Routledge, 2021).
  8. J. N. Hillgarth, Ramon Lull and Lullism in Fourteenth-Century France (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1971), 217–220.
  9. Anthony Bonner, “Llull’s Thought,” in Selected Works of Ramon Llull, ed. Anthony Bonner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 54–55. see also Hillgarth, Lull and Lullism, 120.
  10. Robert Irwin, “Ramon Llull: A Chronology of His Life and Times,” in Ramon Llull, Blanquerna, trans. E. Allison Peers, ed. Robert Irwin (New York, NY: Dedalus/Hippocrene Books, 1986), vii.
  11. Bonner, “Llull’s Thought,” 54–55.
  12. For translated primary-source excerpts on Dominic, Francis, and Waldo, see Julius Kirshner and Karl F. Morrison, eds., University of Chicago Readings in Western Civilization: Vol. 4, Medieval Europe (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1986), particularly chapter 4: “Authority, Conflict, and Repression: The Mendicant Orders and the Attack on Heresy.” For a broad overview of the context in which these authors lived, see Jennifer Kolpacoff Deane, A History of Medieval Heresy and Inquisition, 2nd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).
  13. Ramon Llull, “The Book of the Gentile and the Three Wise Men,” in Doctor Illuminatus: a Ramón Llull Reader, ed. Anthony Bonner (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), 85. In the Middle Ages, “science” was linked with the Latin concept of scientia (knowledge) rather than the modern idea of science as a set of specific fields of knowledge.
  14. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 85.
  15. For another example of a rhetoric of humility in Christian writing, see Hildegard of Bingen, “Letter to Odo of soissons,” in Hildegard of Bingen: Selected Writings, ed. Mark Atherton (New York, NY: Penguin, 2001). see also Alison P. Weber, Teresa of Avila and the Rhetoric of Femininity (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990).
  16. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 91.
  17. Olivia Remie Constable, To Live Like a Moor: Christian Perceptions of Muslim Identity in Medieval and Early Modern Spain (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).
  18. For an overview of the Crusades, see Thomas F. Madden, The Concise History of the Crusades (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013). see also Carole Hillenbrand, The Crusades: Islamic Perspectives (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000).
  19. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 88.
  20. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 86.
  21. Bonner, Doctor Illuminatus, 16.
  22. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 90.
  23. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 167–168.
  24. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 86.
  25. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 88.
  26. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 87.
  27. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 88.
  28. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 90.
  29. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 90.
  30. Llull, “Book of the Gentile.”
  31. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973), 95.
  32. In thinking about classroom hospitality, I have been influenced especially by the work of Rachael Baker and her colleagues at Calvin Julie Yonker, Hannah Hooley, Rachael Baker, and Amy Wilstermann, “Building a Thriving Research Team,” Vocation Matters, March 23, 2021, scholars have written about hospitality in the college classroom for many years. see, for example, Rebecca Burwell and Mackenzi Huyser, “Practicing Hospitality in the Classroom,” Journal of Education and Christian Belief, 17, no. 1 (2013): 9–24, and Janis Haswell, Richard Haswell, and Glenn Blalock, “Hospitality in College Composition Courses,” College Composition and Communication 60, no. 4 (2009): 707–27.
  33. Paul Wadell, “Friendships,” in Unsettling Arguments, ed. Charles R. Pinches, Kelly s. Johnson, and Charles M. Collier (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2010), 266.
  34. Wadell, “Friendships,” 271.
  35. We need not limit our concept of friendship to relationships among peers (e.g., student-student, teacher-teacher). The notion of friendship actually can help teachers to re-think their mentoring relationships with students in fruitful ways. A friend “seeks another’s good and finds joy in doing so”; a friend “makes space” for the other and gets to know the other. see Wadell, “Mentoring for Vocation: Befriending Those Entrusted to Us,” Journal of Catholic Higher Education 36, no. 2 (2007): 103–120. see also Younus Mirza, “Mentoring for Vocation: A Form of Friendship,” Vocation Matters, June 30, 2018, https://
  36. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 90–1.
  37. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 91.
  38. Llull, “Book of the Gentile,” 91. As mentioned above, this passage’s reference to “peculiar clothing” leaves it open as to whether the three wise men are clergy or laymen.

Daniel Wasserman-Soler

Daniel Wasserman-Soler is executive director of the Lumen Christi Institute in Chicago, Illinois.