Tuesday, September 16, 2008

BECOMING AWARE OF OUR GIFTS (CHARISMS)

“A person who likes what he does will always be happier than one who feels himself ‘a square peg in a round hole’”. These are words of advice I received from an old priest who used to talk to me all the time about “charisms”. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says: "Every one has his proper gift [charisma] from God; one after this manner, and another after that" (I Corinthians 7:7). ‘Charisms’ are the spiritual graces and qualifications granted to every Christian to perform his task in the church. Whether as seminary students or priests, a key to being happy with our chosen state of life is knowing what we want to be and do. “Being aware” of our charisms and gifts, and “being awake” to our interests, goals, visions, and dreams for our formation and ministry are indispensable in keeping our hearts in the right place. But it’s a “key”, not a “magic formula” to secure happiness and fulfillment.

However, it is quite easy to fall into either of two extremes here. On the one hand, we could be too preoccupied with our charisms and talents and their ‘realization’ that we become frustrated and disillusioned when we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t always allow to us utilize and develop them to the full. On the other hand, we can also be cynical at the outset and simply tell ourselves that since there’s no guarantee that we can get what we want anyway, then there’s no reason to even consider what we want as part of what could give us happiness and joy in our chosen state of life.

Both attitudes are really unhealthy, and run counter to what it means to be a faithful follower of Christ. Many years ago, a seminarian expressed his disappointment to me at not being able to give all his time to his academic pursuits when he was so convinced that his intellect could be his greatest contribution to the church as a priest. Another lamented the fact that he wasn’t being allowed to pursue his musical interests more, when he was as a matter of fact, good at it. But being good at something is one thing, insisting that because we are good at it—because we are aware of our talents, because we know our skills—then we must always have the assurance that things will go our way, and we will get what we want in realizing them, is another.

This is a sure recipe for frustration and disappointment. For it is a basic reality of our lives as seminarians and priests that we live under obedience. And although the present climate in the church really doesn’t seem too keen on using the term anymore, it is in fact, one of the promises of ordination. And formation in the seminary requires a good deal of it. True, it’s a promise one doesn’t formally make until his day of ordination, but that doesn’t mean we can’t already strive to live and build it up day after day while yet in seminary. Besides, whoever said it would be completed and perfected on the day we’re ordained, such that the struggle to live it would come to an end? The struggle to live under obedience only takes on a more public form at our ordination—becoming something for the sake of service to the people of God. It doesn’t begin nor end there.

While yet in the seminary, our ‘obedience’—if it is to be genuine—must take the form of struggling to live with the tension that necessarily accompanies our deep knowledge and acceptance of our uniqueness as persons as well as our charisms, with the rightful demands of the seminary program that seek to develop not a few of these gifts, but as many of them as possible. Maximization of an individual’s potentials should be the chief aim of formation, allowing the student to view the grand vista of the many possibilities his God-given talents would allow him, for his own good and for the good of the church. But this should also be the motivation of each student. To focus on just one gift and to insist that it be the sole aim of one’s formation is myopic and while it might give the impression that one is developing a particular gift to the full, it’s actually quite minimalist since it prevents him from discovering that there might be greater possibilities for personal growth that he is overlooking.

Even as a priest, one is never guaranteed that one’s personal charism will always be fully utilized. This has been a source of frustration for some priests, but it has also been a blessing to many who have found other, or should we say ‘additional’, strengths, while remaining fully aware of where their happiness truly lies. What is important is that we “do know” what we want, that we are “aware” of what we’re all about as a person, as a man, and as a priest. Being men who have given our word to minister wherever the church needs us, it is vital that we are “awake” to this foundational component of our vocation—our “charism” as an individual.

But because we do in fact live lives in the service of the church’s needs, it is also absolutely important that we do not equate our ”full knowledge” and “appreciation” of our gifts with being able to “fully actualize” them. We must avoid equating “knowing what we want”, with “getting what we want”. These are two different things. And while they sometimes coincide, they won’t always do. And while coinciding doesn’t always guarantee that we’ll be happy and fulfilled, neither does the fact that they sometimes don’t, amount to immediate unhappiness.

In fact, being fully aware of our gifts and charisms, rather than making us disappointed that we aren’t always able to realize them, should instead makes us stronger and more courageous in undertaking whatever task the community, the people of God, the church, asks of us. It is not so much the realization of one particular talent that is important within this context, it is rather the knowledge that one in fact has a particular gift, a God-given ‘potential’, if you will—understood in the old scholastic way as a “power” to accomplish something. That is encouragement enough to say with St. Paul, that because we are followers of Christ, we can be “all things for all people”, and that “in Christ [we] can accomplish all things”.

On a more practical note, when it comes to being asked to do something, whether in seminary or later on as a priest, it is important to keep in mind that in some instances, appreciation, i.e., one’s ‘liking his assignment’, will in fact be there at the outset—as when we’re given our ‘dream assignment. This is an ideal situation, and one who finds himself in it should thank God that at this particular point, he has been blessed to find himself “at the right place at the right time”. But it’s an ideal situation. In most instances, our appreciation for the assignment could very well come at the end, or sometime later—as when we find ourselves “growing into the job” and learning to love it despite our initial apprehension and dislike for what is “unknown territory”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)