By now most people will have consumed, exchanged or read the gifts received at Christmas. Receiving gifts is not always easy. It can be humbling, embarrassing, and sometimes we cannot understand why someone would want to give us this particular thing. It doesn’t seem to us that this gift meets our needs or interests. We all have received gifts that we have never used or opened or read, despite another person discerning something in us that said; ‘this is just the thing for him or her.’
This sense of confusion and the consequent setting aside of gifts is also true in our spiritual life. God, who is the God of Grace, is always showering us with gifts. Yet more often than not we are not able to receive them properly or put them to use. Reflect on your own experience: how often have you said to yourself ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ or ‘I would love to be able to help there but I haven’t got what it takes?’ This can happen in exactly those situations where you sense a strong sense of vocation to do something. Even worse is when we find ourselves thinking, ‘I used to be able to do that but I can’t now.’ When this diffidence or lack of confidence surfaces in conversation with people, I will ask, ‘Who told you that?’
On many occasions people have thrown a spanner into someone’s inner mechanism – perhaps by being critical, perhaps by not realizing that encouragement is needed. The power of other people’s opinion over us is truly terrifying. In the Christian life gifts are distributed throughout the Body of Christ and it is part of the vocation of the whole Church to recognize and encourage the development and use of gifts. A measure of the spiritual vitality of a church community is ability to discern and develop the gifts in its members.
This corporate encouragement of gifts can go a long way in helping individuals receive them and put them to work. However, the individual has still fully to receive the gift; they have to recognize it as something that is integral to them. They have to realize that if they continually reject the gift they will always be something less than the person God wills them to be. At the very depths of a person who senses they have a gift to give, and are paralysed in the giving, there is often a fear that they will be unable to live with the consequences of putting the gift to use. The gift appears unbearable and indeed some gifts are if they are carried alone.
Spiritual gifts – such as those listed in 1 Corinthians 12, or gifts related to creativity – are unbearable when an individual tries to exercise them in their own strength. The vocation to exercise such gifts is an invitation to a closer partnership with the Lord. It is with him that we must always begin in both asking for gifts and seeking discernment about their expression. Always bear in mind a saying of Catherine of Siena: ‘When a person becomes the person God wants them to be they can set the world on fire.’
Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House