What should we do with gifts?

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A homemade gift
I was the kind of kid who not only watched the BBC childrens’ programme Blue Peter, but also tried to make the things that they showed. One time, they showed how to make a pen pot and letter holder out of a toilet roll tube and a cardboard box. Of course, their version looked wonderful, because they brought out ‘Here’s the one I prepared earlier’, covered with a slick, glossy paint.

Well, I followed all the instructions. I covered the cardboard box and the tube with paper, painted them and stuck them together. So far, so good. I thought it would make a really good Christmas present for my parents. However, things went wrong when I tried to paint it. I chose brown and navy blue as I thought that they would give me a sophisticated, office sort of colour, but my cheap paint blocks produced a hideous, streaky colour which wasn’t quite what I had in mind.
I wrapped it up in Christmas paper and presented it to my Dad. I had to explain its function, and hoped that he’d be able to use it even if it didn’t look like the Blue Peter version.

A few months later, I was going through my Mum’s bottom drawer where she kept tights and socks (no idea why) and I came across my pen pot, broken into two pieces and clearly unused. I put it back so that my parents would never realise I had seen it, but I carried away a feeling of hurt. It wasn’t the best pen pot, but I’d put so much into it, and it would have been nice if it had been used.

What should we do with gifts?

I am not telling this story, because to complain about my parents or air some unhealed wound from childhood. I have been through the same thing many times as a mother: ‘what a beautiful pot!’, to the hideous item in coiled clay which will be displayed for a while before being quietly cleared out.

The reason I remembered this incident is that I have been thinking about gifts, and come to the conclusion that the most hurtful thing we can do is refuse to use a gift. Even my dog gets depressed when I don’t accept her sometimes over-zealous protection (barking at almost every dog which crosses our path).

The parable of the three servants

I was set off on this train of thought by the weekend Mass reading on the parable about the master who leaves his three servants money (Matthew 25:14-30). One was given five talents, one was given two and the other one. The servants with the greater gifts traded with them and made more money. The servant who had the smaller gift just dug a hole in the ground and buried it.

The priest’s homily was all about how we’re reluctant to use the gifts God gives us, maybe out of fear, or maybe because we don’t want to appear vain.
What he said hit me right between the eyes. I cried all the way through Mass. It was one of those occasions when the presence of Christ in the Eucharist got under my skin into my deepest self and showed me my faults and my fears. I think that some of this goes on at a subconscious level, so it is something difficult to put into words.

Barriers to using gifts

Part of the reason I cried is because I don’t have a job and I don’t quite know what if anything to do about that. At times I can almost convince myself that because I don’t have a job, I don’t have anything to offer, no gifts to share. I’ve taken a few steps to try to get some occasional work, and now I just have to wait.

I need to pray not just for myself, but for others who are unable to work and find it difficult to share their gifts: mothers who struggle to find work after taking time to look after children, those who’ve lost their jobs and are unemployed, those with health problems, young people who don’t believe that they have any gifts.

Suppressing gifts

The other thing I cried about is that I know suppress one of my gifts out of fear of rejection or fear of it just being about my ego. That gift is my desire to write. The Presbyterian part of my mind has, at times, almost convinced me that wanting to write is sinful and that I should stop it altogether. When I write, even if I write a blog about faith, I do it sneakily, hoping that God isn’t looking.

Some time ago, I had actually convinced myself that God wanted me to stop writing and went to Mass to hand myself over to God, but I had to rethink; the reading was this parable about the three servants and their talents.

I even took this to confession and told a priest that I was worried that writing was a sin and that I was prepared to give it up. After a long pause, the priest told me that writing was a gift God had given me and that I should use it as long as I didn’t write something which would harm anyone else.
So I’ve decided to stop being afraid of rejection and try to get some of the stories I write published.

Even if my gift is only worth one talent rather than five or even two, it’s not an excuse for burying it. I might think that my talent isn’t good enough in comparison with others, but God has given it to me for a reason.

It’s my part to do what I can to use and share my gift. What happens then is in God’s hands, whether I have many or few blog followers, or whether people want to publish or read my stories. I just have to try my best and trust and try not to let that spiky thing called the ego come into it.

This week I came across a quote by the Scottish writer Muriel Spark, famous for ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’. She was brought up Presbyterian, but became Catholic in mid-life. When asked what she had achieved as a writer, she said:

‘I have achieved myself. I have expressed something I brought into the world with me…’

I hope that we can aim to build a society where every person has the opportunity and confidence to express what is uniquely them; the gift they brought into the world with them.

A final word

I have been thinking a lot about Nazanin Radcliffe, the mother of a small child who was living and working in Britain, but was jailed when she returned to visit her family in Iran. She is currently being held without charge in solitary confinement. I’d like to share a petition for her release Free Nazanin Radcliffe

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St Margaret of Scotland

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Today is the feast day of St Margaret of Scotland. Until I became Catholic three years ago, I knew her simply as Queen Margaret and to be honest, I’ve had very mixed feelings about her. Whenever anything is written about the decline of Gaelic, fingers are pointed at Margaret of Scotland.

Sometimes I think, read, write and even dream in Gaelic, but the language which I have learnt and love is spoken by less than 2 % of the Scottish population. It was once a national language spoken by all sections of society from the Scottish royal family down to the ordinary people. Placenames show that it was spoken in almost every corner of Scotland from the Borders through to the Western Isles.

Was Queen Margaret to blame for 1000 years of language decline?

Queen Margaret was born in Hungary and returned to England as a child where her brother had a claim to the Anglo-Saxon throne. After the Norman invasion in 1066, she set sail for the continent with her family, but a storm caused them to be washed up on the shores of Scotland. They were welcomed by King Malcolm Canmore (Ceann Mor or big head in Gaelic) who fell in love with the beautiful Saxon princess.

He eventually persuaded her to marry him and they had eight children together. He adored her and it is said that the language of the court was changed from Gaelic to Saxon to make her feel more comfortable. Many people say that this was the first step on a slippery road which led to what was once a national language being on the UNESCO definitely endangered list.

Because of this, I haven’t felt particularly warm towards St. Margaret. However, Scottish saints are quite thin on the ground and I feel that I should take another look at history.

Gaelic in the years following Queen Margaret

Is it fair to blame one lady for one thousand years of language shift? Both Queen Margaret and her sons encouraged Norman and English families to settle in Scotland, but many of them became Galicised (such as clann Fraser or na Frisealaich). Robert de Brus was one of these Normans encouraged to settle in Scotland by Margaret’s son David 1st.  He married a Gaelic speaker and his son Robert the Bruce, possibly Scotland’s most famous king, grew up speaking both Scots and Gaelic.

The 12th to 14th centuries, after Queen Margaret’s death, were a time when Gaelic culture enjoyed a golden age with the Lordship of the Isles, a semi-independent kingdom on the Western seaboard of Scotland.

Gaelic was spoken by the Scottish Royal family until almost five hundred years after Queen Margaret’s arrival in Scotland. King James IV (1473-1513) was the last Scottish King to speak Gaelic.

Other factors contributing to the decline of Gaelic

Many other things have contributed to the decline in Gaelic, such as the Iona Statutes in 1609 which stated that Gaelic chiefs had to send their eldest sons to be educated in the lowlands. They learnt a foreign English-based culture and eventually come to despise the culture they had been born into.

The schools act in 1872 brought in English as the sole medium of teaching. This was later modified in the early twentieth century to allow some teaching of Gaelic at the teacher’s discretion. However, Gaelic was still marginalised. My grandmother was fortunate to have a teacher who taught her to read and write her native language, but a generation later my father was taught to be ashamed of it. This was a major factor in not passing it on.

I’ve wandered a long way from St. Margaret of Scotland, but the point I’m trying to make is that it would be ridiculous to blame an 11th century Queen with Saxon origins for the fact that I grew up hearing Gaelic being bounced around above my head between adults without being able to speak or understand it myself. Many, many other things contributed to that situation, and my story is by no means unique. I know many people my age who have Gaelic speaking parents, but grew up unable to speak it themselves.

A queen who became a saint

So what made Queen Margaret a saint? She and Malcolm had eight children which just about qualifies her for sainthood in my opinion! However, she found time to do a lot of other things.

She rebuilt the Abbey set up by St. Columba on the island of Iona. She set up a free ferry from Queensferry in Edinburgh, so that pilgrims could cross the Forth and visit the relics of St. Andrew in St. Andrews. She fed the poor and introduced reforms to the Scottish church to bring it into line with the way things were done in the rest of Europe.

What was most important wasn’t just what she did (she sounded as if she was a very busy lady), but the fact that she tried to live a life of devotion and prayer.

Significance

Sometimes I feel so insignificant, so small and powerless and recently, even useless.

What do you do? Are you working? It’s a question people often ask.

The current answer is ‘no’. I don’t do anything, but that isn’t true. I am a mother. I shop, I cook, I clean and organise the house. I liase with the school, I help with homework, read bedtime stories, give hugs and support my kids when they are troubled.

 And yet, here in Western Europe in the early twenty-first century, that is seen as not particularly important, because I am no longer have a career or a job outside the home. No-one pays me to look after my children, although if I looked after other peoples’ children that would be seen as a job.

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Becoming a full-time Mum

I once had a job which I was passionate about. When I met people, I could say. Yes, I do this and I’m contributing to something important. It was something I took for granted until I became a mother and I had to put in a Herculean effort just to continue working part-time.

When kid number three was on the way, it seemed like a good time to stop. I’d achieved what I wanted, and felt that I needed a different kind of job and a new challenge. Apart from anything else, the childcare costs were going to exceed what I brought in. It was time to stop juggling and concentrate on the family.

Trying to get back to work

I’ve never regretted that decision, but I underestimated how difficult it would be to start again once all the kids were at school. Having given up one career, I had to retrain to do another one. That required a lot of hard work and humility (more than I had in me at times).

I gave it all I could and it still wasn’t enough. For a long time I blamed myself and my weakness and failures. Perhaps I just wasn’t a strong enough character or the right type of person. Maybe I had intrinsic faults which meant that I couldn’t do this job.

Over time, however, I’ve come to realise that it just wasn’t meant to happen. God allowed me to get so far and no farther. There is no point over-analysing what went wrong or labelling myself as a failure. One of my children became ill and needed me. It felt like a return to the intensity of mothering a child in the baby phase or the terrible twos. For a while, I tried to juggle medical appointments and work, but it became too difficult.

Unable to work

I stopped working and joined the ranks of those who are not ‘economically active’: those who are too old, too young, too sick or too stretched caring for loved ones to be able to work.

At this point in my life, I cannot use my time and energy to produce something which anyone else wants to buy. In our society, almost everything has a price tag and we often mistreat things which we can’t market or sell, such as the air or the oceans and forests. However, no-one would argue that these things don’t have a value, even if we sometimes only realise it after we’ve polluted our environment.

Believing that I have a value

My struggle recently has been to believe that God loves me and values me even if I am not successful or busy or paid a wage. I am alive, breathing, present in the moment and through faith I believe that there is value and purpose in my life.

Recently I left the supermarket with two heavy bags of shopping. I felt a little sorry for myself that I was the one who had to go and buy the milk and bread when it ran out and that I no longer had a car to help bring it back. I stopped in the sunshine for a few moments and made a decision. I could tell myself a sad story about how well I’d done at school and how hard I’d worked to build up a first and then a second career, and how, after all this, I didn’t have a job. Or I could stop analysing the past and predicting the future and instead just enjoy this moment.

I tried this little Catholic trick of St Francis de Sales which I heard about through Father Mike Schmitz website and offered the walk to God. Many people would just see me as a middle-aged lady walking uphill with her shopping in the daytime when most people have more important things to do. However, by turning to God and accepting the situation, I felt that each step I took was significant. By being willing to be who I was in that moment, with circumstances I would never have chosen, I was letting God be God, and that can change everything.