Last Sunday's Gospel, of the parable of the talents, can make for uncomfortable reading for anyone keenly aware of their limitations or lack of achievements. Even without living in a world increasingly driven by league tables, competitiveness and an emphasis on success, we can worry about being under-achievers or squandering what talents we know we have. It's also easy to get fixated on certain types of talents, so that academic distinction can be valued over practical skills, or people with softer, less glittery gifts such as bringing out the best in others or sensitivity to the vulnerable can be overlooked.
And today I find myself wondering how Philippine Duchesne, whose feast is today, would have felt upon hearing or reading this parable. She was only too acutely aware of her limitations and failures, even without being equally aware of others' successes. As her endeavours fell apart or came to nothing - while others prospered - she must have felt even worse than the servant with only one talent. He, at least, kept his talent intact, had something to give back, whereas she - whose only desire was to love and do great things for God - must have felt she returned absolutely nothing. When she described herself as a worn out tool, a useless stick, fit only to fill a hidden corner out of sight, this wasn't done out of overwrought hyperbole, but a raw, gut-wrenching sense of utter failure and general uselessness.
That was enough. She struggled to learn and communicate in English, was beset by setbacks and at the centre of many misunderstandings. Others were better, more successful headmistresses and administrators, founders, leaders and fundraisers... but it was Philippine who possessed that greatest of all gifts, the one thing necessary. Others outshone her during her life, but it was Philippine whom her sisters treasured in her old age, and it is Philippine now whose example and legacy we celebrate. Far from being buried or squandered, her 'single talent' blazes out and proclaims the God she so passionately loved and yearned for.
May Philippine pray for us, and especially the probanists who have just begun their long retreat, that we too may focus our hearts and minds on the one thing necessary, becoming filled with a passionate love of Jesus, fired by deep contemplation and ardent missionary zeal.