Some time ago, a friend asked me whether I thought that it is possible to be ‘spiritually gifted’.
He noted that people are gifted in many areas of life, such as in sport, in academic abilities, or artistic gifting. Is it also appropriate to think of people as spiritually gifted?
I found this a really challenging question. For many years I have been struck by the very close relationship between humility, and indeed a sense of spiritual poverty, and deep spiritual insight.
In a first attempt at some response to him, I wrote this:
There is a common idea of what it means to be spiritually gifted. In the writings of Paul the apostle, especially, there is the idea of ‘spiritual gifts’ – see especially in 1st Corinthians, chapters 11 to 13. These gifts of the Spirit are about capacities or ‘gifting’ which allow a person to serve the community (usually the faith community, but also the wider community). Some are capacities in preaching, teaching, others in administration, care, etc.
That is one sense of ‘gifted’. A widely held view is that everyone has some such gift, if they are open to it. The challenge is that many people do not see this, some may not want it!, and all find it hard to value their own distinctive contribution. Too often there is the idea of a hierarchy of gifts, as if some are more important, or more ‘spiritual’, than others.
But there is another and (to me) much more interesting sense of the term ‘spiritually gifted’.
I think here of the capacity for insight, for what we call discernment. The capacity to see with wisdom, with awareness of the possibilities that God may be creating, or opening up, in a person’s life, in a difficult situation, in an institution—that I think is a special kind of awareness.
The tricky thing in my role is the question: can you actual nurture this, can you develop it, can you help people to become insightful?
This is a question in common with all educators: can we actually teach people anything, or can we (at best) put them in the way of learning, and trust that they will in fact learn, grow, develop?
For me, all insight is a gift. In my study and experience, the genuinely saintly people have no idea that they are such (and those who claim it, usually aren’t!) To be spiritually gifted is in a sense to be humble, open to learning, to be at least available for the possibilities of oneself, of others, of situations, and to be diligent in doing what we can and leaving the rest to … well, to God.
Responding to these thoughts, my friend suggested that there is perhaps another factor here. He spoke of empathy.
For him, insight has the danger of being only an intellectual stance, an awareness of ideas or conceptual possibilities. Empathy is the ability to be aware of the other, at a deep level, and one difference between insight and empathy is that empathy moves people to action, while insight may not.
I would agree. I guess I had included that sense of empathy in my own idea of spiritual insight. But I take his point, and value the suggestion that insight without movement to action is of little value. As he says, there might be insight without empathy, but he thinks that empathy would always include some insight.
This is an interesting line of thought. My friend also suggests that people can learn to be empathetic.
I am not sure that I agree. I think we can develop our degree of empathy. We can enlarge it. But what makes a person empathetic in the first place? What brings us to empathy?
My sense is that whatever that is, we can’t teach it as such. Though perhaps life itself teaches it, usually I think through struggle and suffering.
Even then some people learn from their experiences and some don’t. Or what they learn is not empathy but how to avoid suffering, or how to get even.
Maybe life itself teaches humility, and through this discipline we may learn something of empathy and insight.
What is that gift of grace, that something which enables us to grow and become more genuinely human?
This is I think a real gift. It is mysterious, and a blessing—not only for those who receive it, but to all those around. We might well pray for such a gift, for ourselves and for others. I know I need it!