When our children were little the family made an annual pilgrimage to the Sisters of the Precious Blood to visit their Crib. After suitable refreshments the sisters invited grown ups and children to pick up a card from two baskets that were placed at the foot of the Crib. Written on these cards were the name of a saint and the particular charism or gift with which they were associated. One year I picked out a card that read ‘Maximillian Kolbe – Courage’. This was an invitation to pray for this gift throughout the coming year. I have ever been grateful for that direction in my prayer.
Christmas and Epiphany have at their hearts the giving and receiving of gifts, drawing us into the mystery of the Gospel ‘to those who receive, who believe in his name he gave power to become children of God.’(John 1) Receiving enables faithful living and serving.
It seems counter intuitive to pray for gifts, but the seeking of gifts is at the heart of the economy of God’s love. The Christian life is an exchange of gifts: ‘give and gifts will be given to you pressed down, running over poured in to your lap.’(Luke 6: 38) This is enacted most powerfully at every Eucharist. God is a God of Grace, a God of gift, and one of the gifts we are given is the discernment to seek and plead for the gifts of grace we need. St Paul writing to the Corinthians urges them ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts’ and ‘pursue and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.’ The Sisters’ prayer cards were an unexpected way of opening up this ‘earnest desiring.’
The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola are founded on the seeking of different ‘Graces’: the grace to know our place in creation, to know ourselves as a loved and redeemed sinner, to know Jesus intimately and to know the joy of the resurrection. Sometimes spiritual direction is centred on discerning the particular gift a person needs for the Lord in their present circumstances. The question ‘what gift do I need?’ is crucial to opening up an awareness of the ‘one thing that is needful’, the heart of our need for mercy and grace. This in turn exposes the spiritual poverty that is at the first the beatitudes.
Our children now have children of their own and are ambivalent about Christmas gifts – ‘I don’t really need anything’ said one son the other day. That can’t be true. He made not need a coat or a book, but there are myriad spiritual gifts he needs. God knows our needs before ever we ask or think of them, it is in opening up or hearts to God that we discover the gifts we should ask for. The Sisters’ prayer card was providential for me for I never realised that I need to ask for courage, but I did and still do. God urgently wishes to share his gifts with us and will use many ways and many people to open up a ‘gift list’ for each of us. Let us never be timid to ask: ‘Ask and it will be given to you,’ (Matthew 7:7) that is the Lord’s Christmas promise.