On at least a weekly basis, Sister Mary Lou and I sit in her office while she tries to get me excited about writing, which she says I have a gift for. She asks me to put something together for a newsletter, or for my blog, or for a magazine or newspaper, and I practically writhe on the floor, moaning that I hate writing. And then she asks me why, and I just keep on petulantly insisting that I don’t know, and a few days later the cycle repeats.
I really don’t know why I dread writing so much, but I do. It even makes me nervous to know that someone’s read a text message or Christmas card I’ve written.
There’s no major trauma around it: teachers and mentors and online commenters have almost always told me I’m a good writer, and on one level, I believe them. But I don’t really see it myself. As far as I can tell, I’m an adequate writer—or, maybe, I’ve just read enough good books to know what constitutes a well-formed paragraph. So maybe a part of why I don’t like writing is because it seems inevitable that the people who have been so encouraging will eventually realize that the talent they see is a lot shallower than they thought. And it’s not only a question of quality, but of content. Most of the time, when Mary Lou asks me to write something for an audience, I tell her I have nothing original to say, no thoughts or ideas that haven’t already been expressed, and more clearly, by someone else. None of my insights seem urgent or unique. Why would I want people to hear what I have to say, if they could hear someone else say it instead?
Usually she tells me the problem must be fear of criticism, and I rabidly deny it. But, you know, as I write this, I have to admit she’s probably right. At its core, my distaste for writing is, basically, garden-variety, boring, human insecurity. I’m always sure that this one is going to be the piece where it becomes clear that I’m pretentious, or egomaniacal, or deeply unkind. Writing anything feels vulnerable, and while “vulnerability” has practically been elevated to the eighth heavenly virtue in the popular consciousness––and I understand that it really is crucial for healthy relationships––sometimes it’s just difficult. Sometimes I don’t want people deciding whether or not they think I’m a good writer. Sometimes I don’t want people to be listening to me. Sometimes I don’t want people to know what I think, because... I’m not exactly sure what I think.
This is all awfully self-centered, isn’t it, though? All about me and what I want and how I’d like to be perceived and what I’m comfortable with.
The other night, I was reading through my journals from my summer internship with Benetvision and Monasteries of the Heart in 2015. I was struck again by something that Mary Lou told me then: “Your gifts are God’s will for you.” Impressed, I had dutifully scribbled it down, but then, sensing that it was important and weighted with responsibility, I pretty quickly tried to put it out of my mind.
We spent a lot of time that summer talking about gifts—that was kind of a foretaste of the conversations we have now. Mary Lou would ask me what I thought my gifts were and I would get embarrassed and say, “Well, not patience, not generosity,” or something like that. She would sometimes say, “You have a gift for writing,” and I would say, “Oh… I don’t think so.” It was completely novel to me, this idea that you have to be in tune with your gifts, that that was part of being truly humble. It seemed to me that the holier—and politer—thing to do was to deny them, avoid them, and focus on improving everything about yourself that needs improvement. I still get stuck thinking like that, obviously.
But over the last few years, so many Sisters have explained to me that Benedictine humility is about knowing who you are and accepting it: the bad, of course, but the good, too. According to Radical Spirit, it’s about “realizing that life’s singular purpose is becoming what I was created to be—co-creator with the God of Life.” So it’s true what Mary Lou said: Our gifts are God’s will for us. The gifts don’t come from within us so that we can ignore or efface or belittle them. They’re given to us so we can, maybe, bless other people with them. So we can use them to build up the Reign of God.
Fine. I can accept that as good, solid, spiritual wisdom. But I’m going to be working on developing humility for my entire life, and so far, I still don’t like writing, gift or no gift. It still makes me horribly nervous. This is something like the seventeenth draft of this blog post.
But maybe there’s starting to be a little bit of growth in this area. Something happened last week that helped me see how unimportant all my overthinking and agonizing is.
Benedictines for Peace was holding a vigil for a man who died of an untreated asthma attack while incarcerated here in Erie, and one of the Sisters asked me to translate part of Psalm 10 for the prayer portion of the event. Translating the psalms out of Hebrew, coming up with a few versions in English—some more literal, some more interpretive—is something I do pretty often. It’s a form of lectio for me, and it helps me love the psalms, which seems important if I plan to keep on praying them every day. It isn’t as hard for me to share my translations with people as it is for me to show them other things I’ve written (because, after all, the psalms aren’t really my work) but on the other occasions when my translations were used for prayer, I still felt pretty self-conscious about it. So I agreed to do it, but grudgingly.
And as the crowd of people who loved that man and wanted justice for him prayed together, reading aloud the translation I wrote of Psalm 10, maybe finding an ounce of comfort or hope in the words I’d chosen, I realized that this was a moment that really had nothing to do with me. It was about the mourners, and what they needed. If I was able to write something that benefited them, even the tiniest bit, who cares whether or not it was comfortable for me?
Of course there’s always room for improvement, in writing and in how I treat other people and in everything else. But any effort might help someone, and refusing to try doesn’t benefit anyone at all.
All of this is to say: Humility is hard. Writing is hard. I’m still learning. I’ll keep trying.
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A blog by Jacqueline Small
What happens when a woman in her mid-twenties begins to work, pray, and share life with a community of Benedictine sisters? What questions arise and what wisdom emerges? This blog will offer peeks into one young seeker’s experiences. Jacqueline is a staff member of Monasteries of the Heart and an oblate of Mount Saint Benedict Monastery. She holds a Bachelors degree in Sociology from Swarthmore College, a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Masters in Social Work from Rutgers University.