Hard Gifts

Hard Gifts

By Anna Dalton (Cohort 7)

My year as a Fellow has challenged me more than I thought it would. When I came into this year, I thought that I knew what it meant to surrender. I thought that I understood, at least a little, what it meant to say “Yes” to what was put before me. But as I began my year of service, I found myself holding onto anxieties, a desire for control, and a fear of my inadequacy. I was frustrated with myself for not giving my disciples what I thought they deserved. I was frustrated with myself for how difficult I found community life. I was frustrated that this year of service wasn’t shaping up to be the heroic act I had commended myself for making. 

 Somewhere in that bumpy beginning, I remember calling my mom and complaining to her about something small. She spoke to me the words that I dreaded growing up, “It sounds like this is a great thing to offer up!” When I was younger, these words annoyed me. I always felt shame for my complaints, for my inability to see the “silver lining,” for feeling any negative emotions. This year has slowly changed that for me. My anxieties, my fears—I have felt that gentle nudging to give these, too. I am learning that to offer something to one you love is to trust that they will see the goodness in it, even if we can’t. 

Anna (second from left) with her community members in Central Park.

  This slow shift in me accelerated a bit after a particularly challenging Monday. I had spent a good amount of time preparing for El Camino and I was excited to tackle the whole lesson. When class started, though, my disciples were tired from a long day in the classroom. I was determined to get through what I had to teach them that day. Needless to say, the day ended with me picking up broken crayons and stepping on already smashed Cheez-Its. I remember just standing there and feeling like I was failing. I looked at the classroom and muttered, “Well, Lord, this is for you. I hope you like it.”

 Looking back, I think there was a small grace in that moment. Those doubly-crushed Cheez-Its were all I had to offer Him. It was not the gift I wanted to give. I’d much prefer that my disciples remembered the prayer we had practiced together countless times that week. But this was what I had to give Him at the end of the day.  Since then, I’ve been learning that when we offer something up, we’re not white-knuckling a hard thing for the sake of some neat spiritual acrobatics. We’re not enduring self-deprecating thoughts to shield Him from the realities of our littleness, our emotions, our desires. The words “offer it up,” used to make me think of gritting my teeth and getting through something for my or someone else’s sanctification. But I’m learning there’s more to it than that. When we offer ourselves to Him, we surrender what we are holding onto and trusting that He sees in it what is good. We can give Him hard gifts and trust that they are gifts. If He really does want all of us, He wants our complaints about grading Math assignments, the struggle to stay awake at Mass, the infuriating Cheez-It crumbs on the floor. And we can give them to Him and trust that they are, indeed, gifts.

It hasn’t necessarily been fun to give my small, hard gifts. But it is honest. It is vulnerable. It is saying, “Lord, this is not how I want to be seen. This is not what I wish I was holding in my open hands. But it is Yours. I am Yours.”  With this shift has come a greater one. I’m learning that the more I offer myself and my actions back to Him in every form, the more securely I rest in the knowledge that I am already His. In turn, I’ve begun to see more frequently that everything in front of me is a gift from the Father. They might be hard gifts, painful healing, or challenging joys—but they are gifts from the Father to the ones He loves.  

The way I handle my disciples’ tricky Mondays can be my offering, my gift to Him. The more vulnerable I become before Him, the more surely I see that He receives me. I think that the more I see this receptivity, the more I begin to trust in the giftedness of everything and everyone around me. My antsy-because-it’s-Monday disciples become a gift to me as I begin to see the ways that I have grown in humility, integrity, and patience through them. As I frailly receive my disciples’ request for love in sometimes confusing ways, I have been shown the Father’s faithful reception of me in my own stubbornness and woundedness. My disciples have been a gift to me as I have learned to love them in my weakness. They have been a gift to me as I have learned to see myself and my actions as gift, too. 

Anna with her roommate Kelly pray at St. Rita’s parish in the South Bronx.

Hard gifts given and received are not always what we envision.  I am finding that growth doesn’t always feel good. Being asked to love people well doesn’t come as easily as I thought it would. I have been shown my weakness and smallness in surprising ways. My disciples, my roommates, and my formation directors have gently shown me my smallness in ways that I did not know I needed. These have been hard gifts. But thank goodness we don’t always get to choose gifts for ourselves. This new invitation to vulnerability and to see everything as gift? I didn’t know that I needed that, but I am so grateful for the gentle ways it has been shown to me this year. I won’t hide that this year has been hard. But this year has been a gift. I wouldn’t trade it back if I could. 

About the Author:

Anna graduated from Benedictine College in Atchison KS, where she studied English and Theology. She currently serves as a Seton Teaching Fellow at Brilla College Prep Elementary School, working with first during the day and teaching catechism after school at El Camino. She blesses her students and our mission by her authentic desire and willingness to sacrifice to serve the Lord and her gentleness of spirit.