On the feast of St Agnes

I intended to write about being a failure, to title this post something like—very straightforwardly—‘I am a failure.’ But then I came across the collect at vigils (the office of readings, to be really precise), which reminds us that God chose ‘what is weak in this world to shame the strong.’ I am not sure there is much in my particular form of weakness to shame anyone else. Yet the line made me stop and think about the relationship between weakness and failure, and that habit of God’s to choose the small and insignificant (like young Samwise Gamgee or Lucy Pevensie) to carry the day.

There are a whole array of measures against which I can count myself as having failed—the sorts of measures used to measure success in various areas of life. What does it mean to be a ‘successful’ parent? Really, I expect that true success in parenting doesn’t show up until after the parents are no longer around to appreciate it. So we settle for other measures, like our children’s achievements, whether these be on the field (or the pitch, if you prefer), or in the classroom, or in good citizenship (as it was called when I was at school). So far, I am not getting any points there. My kids are still growing up, and they’re not leading the field in any of those areas. I hope and pray that they will grow up to be content, and kind, and truthful.

Then there’s my career. I had a conversation years ago with a colleague in which we agreed that our careers had been non-traditional. For me, that means having survived at the edges of academic, on the margins of university departments, from the beginning. (Just now it looks like being squeezed out entirely—isn’t that a sign of having failed?) my colleague’s non-traditional start has recently found her photographed next to the Pope with a small group of other important people. Perhaps I should reconsider my term. Something like ‘anemic’ might be a more apt descriptor for my academic ‘career’.

So it goes. One of the very worst things that a person can do, of course, if compare herself to others. But boy do we do it a lot. Apparently one of the mums at my kids’ primary school used to keep a list of the top ten best-looking dads. It is, unfortunately, both soul-crushing and an extremely tough habit to break. Obviously I’ve failed there, too. Still succumbing to the temptation to measure my life against others’.

What does all this have to do with St Agnes? Just this: her main claim to fame is having died well for her faith. She was only 12. She hadn’t had a chance to do anything else—no academic achievement, no successful family of career, no works of service. Just a love of God and a willingness to give her life for what she believed. We usually think of martyrdom as the high bar. But I don’t think it is, necessarily. The living sacrifice to which all Christians are called is the long, drawn-out version of St Agnes’ martyrdom.

Bearing all the petty insults and inconveniences, and all the unpleasant people, and all the disappointments that will never be noticed by anyone may be harder than the once-and-for-all death at the executioner’s hands. At least I think it is for me, and I suspect I am not alone in this. So my prayer today is for all those who feel like they’ve failed, like their work or their lives don’t make a difference, for all those who are living hidden lives faithfully and will, in the words of George Eliot, ‘rest in unvisited tombs.’

St Agnes, pray for us!

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