December 11, 2017

Simcha Fisher: Blessed are the ungifted. Everything’s a gift.

All the saints had something special, right; something I don’t have? PHOTO: Ben Francis, cc 2.0

Timothy Jones, one of my favourite living American painters, is also a high school teacher, and his kids produce spectacular results. He once told me,

A lot of the kids are surprised to learn that there are steps to making a work of art. They think you just come out of the womb with this talent, that you pick up a pencil and it’s magic. There is an element of that, but there are also a whole lot of ways to systematically help yourself.

I’ve heard this same thought expressed so often by enormously talented and successful artists: Yes, there is such a thing as talent; but what is truly indispensable is hard work, discipline, and persistent development of skill. You can have all the natural talent and gifts in the world, but if you don’t sit down and do something with them, you might as well have been born without any talents at all.

But note, I’ve heard this thought expressed by enormously talented artists. Is it possible they’re giving themselves too much credit for their hard work, and not enough credit to pure, unearned, inborn genius? Check it out: J.S. Bach once said, “I have worked hard. Anyone who works just as hard will go just as far.”

Yes, well, anyone who has listened to Bach knows that this is the purest baloney. Bach IS music. Cellist Pablo Casals says it this way

The miracle of Bach has not appeared in any other art. To strip human nature until its divine attributes are made clear, to inform ordinary activities with spiritual fervour, to give wings of eternity to that which is most ephemeral; to make divine things human and human things divine; such is Bach, the greatest and purest moment in music of all time.

I wholeheartedly agree. The music of Bach is not something that, say, Barry Manilow could have achieved if he simply put in more hours. You can gather tinder all day and stack it like an expert, but without a spark, there will be no flame.

I used to fret over this problem a lot as a child. I obsessed over a book of saints, where the common thread seemed to be that these people had been different from the very beginning. Tiny Ludwiga could lisp the Pater Noster long before she even learned to say her own name; pious Edelbert would toddle away from his nurse every chance he got, only to be found once again sound asleep under his favourite spot, the tabernacle in the village church. 

“How the heck can I compete with that?” I used to think. I’m sure this wasn’t the author’s intent, but the clear message I got was: If you want to be a saint, you’d better be born that way. There were a few stories of vile sinners who repented and turned to sainthood late in life, of course, but even those converts seemed like they had some kind of coal burning from the very beginning, as if the decades of sin were just some kind of disguise. Deep down, the saint in shining robes had been there all along.

And that … is actually correct. 

Each one of us, every single one of us, is born with the genius, the miraculous, unearned, inborn talent of sainthood within us; and every single one of us is also called to a life of hard work, discipline, and the persistent development of our consciences and wills.

It is a mystery why some people seem to take to a life in Christ so easily, willingly and eagerly gravitating toward prayer and self-sacrifice and acts of charity. It is a mystery why some people seem to have so many struggles, so much to overcome, so many unfair trials and obstacles, making even the smallest bit of spiritual progress feel unnatural and burdensome.

But if we’re talking about spiritual progress as a question of genius vs. talent, inborn gift vs. hard work, then we’re talking nonsense. It is God who judges souls, and His ways are not our ways. We can stroke our chins and wonder whether Bach would still have been Bach if he had been a lazy bum; but his music speaks for itself. It is magnificent beyond words, and after a while, we stop caring how it came to be, and just thank God that it is. 

Salvation, on the other hand, is not so easy for outsiders to objectively judge. Some sinners mimic sainthood very well, and some saints appear to be nothing special. Fr Maciel deceived the great saint John Paul II into thinking he was a good and holy man; and God alone knows how many great and shining souls are completely unknown to the world, who looks at them and thinks, “Just another nobody.”

So if you want to please God, do look for that inborn gift, that living spark that we have each received; and do work hard to develop and encourage it. Don’t worry much about the skills and talents that other people seem to have for achieving greatness or closeness to God. Work with what you’ve got. When you do right, thank God, and leave it to Him to decide how much of it was due to your diligence and how much was purely His gift. In the end, it’s all gift, all of it. Even the work. 

Photograph used under licence – Creative Commons 2.0

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