“All of my friends in our group are so smart, and I’m not.”
“You are an artist!”
“But no one can see that,” she pointed out matter-of-factly. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does,” I said. “That is your Gift.”
My friend was on the couch and I was washing dishes when our conversation about grades, report cards, and scholarships evolved into that exchange. I plopped on the table to dangle my legs and continued, “It matters because—”
Because I’ve been wrestling with the same experiences myself the past few weeks. The frequent realization of being the friend who starts others out on their journeys and then steps back to freely let them fly, or who steps into someone’s life for a period of time when they need it most and then shifts again to the background as paths race on.
Or the idea of certain film roles—script supervising, storyboard artist, craft services, scoring, production assistant, assistant director—that every film professional knows are obviously not as glamorous or professionally appealing as directing or writing or acting or even as mentionable as producing. Roles that even though they are hidden are indispensable.
That hiddenness, I’ve realized, is the catch. There is something amazing about being there for other friends. There is something exhilarating about being part of an awesome project no matter the mention in credits or awards or cast memories. At the same time though, we humans struggle for recognition, whether out of pride or out of a natural desire to be loved and appreciated. Know we are needed.
I just finished all five seasons of BBC One’s The Adventures of Merlin. That show is amazing! Sure, maybe some of the special effects are a bit corny. However, the character development, the intricate arcs of story webbing, the humanity, the palpable choices of each character, and how everything ties together to bring forth Albion and Arthur’s fate are phenomenal. More than that, I found a particular aspect of myself in the character of Merlin and an important view I needed to hear.
For those who don’t know the show, The Adventures of Merlin digs deep into the legends and faerie ideas – which Tolkien and Lewis also draw upon – that magic has many sides and that it is the hearts of men who chose whether to use it for dark purposes or healing. Merlin—a lanky, unathletic boy with dark hair, a funny grin, and a bumblingly talkative attitude—was born with such magic. In fact, Kilgharrah the last dragon reveals to Merlin that his destiny long foretold is to become Emrys, the most powerful wizard ever to walk the earth, and to aid King Arthur in uniting the land of Albion as the United Kingdom. Along the way to this victory, Merlin is also to be both the destiny and the doom of Morgana, Arthur’s half sister who chooses to use her magic in a lustful bloodbath for power and revenge culminating in her desires for the death of Arthur and the throne of Camelot.
Portraying Arthur and Merlin as teenagers on their way to becoming legends, the TV series follows Merlin as he struggles to be the serving boy (aka hidden protector) of Camelot’s once and future king still a prince. Unable to reveal who he really is because of King Uther’s ruthless cleansing of sorcery due to suffering at the hands of black magic, treated as an idiot servant by Prince Arthur (though secretly he thinks Merlin is his best friend), Merlin still faithfully and unassumingly assists and protects Arthur again and again.
It is Merlin who ultimately makes Albion and saves the battle on the Plains of Camlann. When he reveals this to a dying Arthur though, the King of Albion at first refuses to belief that his simple servant is Emrys the Wizard and then cannot get past the fact that he had an outlawed sorcerer in his court the whole time even though this person with magic gave his whole life to use it for Arthur and Albion. And still Merlin continues to care for Arthur and fight off Morgana’s Saxons in an effort to bring him to the Lake of Avalon before he dies.
I poured that out to my friend, and we let our conclusions bubble on.
Some of us are born to be hidden powers. Our gifts may be relatively unnoticed, but they are still a backbone for the faces of God in the culture. It is an undeniably awful struggle sometimes. However, God keeps us small and hidden so that when the time comes he can reveal us to shame the proud as we echo Mary’s Magnificat (cf. Luke 1:46-52):
My soul magnifies the Lord;
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on his lowly handmaiden.
From this day all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit,
he has put down the might from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
What could be a more precious gift than that?
Then there is that moment in the Agony in the Garden. Stifling, midnight blackness in which we creep forward to see Christ dripping blood, alone and crushed under the weight of the Passion, taunted by Satan that no mortal man can carry such a Cross. As Merlin says to Gaius, “It’s lonely to be more powerful than any man you know and have to live like a shadow.”
Not that any of us have that much power, but each of us does carry a certain power uniquely ours that sets us apart and often alone when we are one of the little, hidden souls. It is that hidden aloneness though that magnifies our gifts. Merlin uses such knowledge to comfort Arthur when King Uther dies, staying all night outside the door during Arthur’s vigil and telling him, “I didn’t want you to feel that you were alone.” If we weren’t so small, hidden, and alone sometimes, we would not know what it was like. We would not sneak from the shadows to comfort the faces of Christ in the world around us, wipe those eyes, heal those wounds, instill a courage more powerful than anything else in the hearts around us.
During the Agony in the Garden, an angel came to Jesus bringing a vision of saints. No one knows which saints they were or what He saw, but because they comforted Him he was able to continue with the Passion. I like to think they were the hidden souls whose actions and gifts no one really knows the full extent about, that in their experience of working in the shadows and contending with the darkness they understood exactly what He needed in that moment.
Hidden power is the most potent, as long as we do not use our gifts only for recognition. The last Merlin episode (The Diamond of the Day: Part II) holds a beautiful ending to Merlin’s hidden service which demonstrates this. (SPOILER ALERT: read ahead at your own risk.)
Arthur is dying. Morgana’s treachery prevents them from reaching Avalon in time. Yet the whole fruitless journey is a touching pilgrimage where Arthur discovers exactly how humble and selfless Merlin is.
As Merlin saves them by sending Saxons in the other direction, Arthur objects, “You’ve done this before. All these years, Merlin…you never once sought any credit.”
“That’s not why I do it.”
Arthur asks again as Merlin feeds him, “Why are you doing this? Why are you still behaving like a servant?”
“It’s my destiny,” replies Merlin. He adds moments later, “There will never be another like you, Arthur. And I also do this…because you are my friend and I don’t want to lose you.”
In the end, Merlin is the one who kills Morgana with Excalibur and brings lasting peace to Albion while Arthur looks on. The most beautiful instant of all though comes just after that, moments before Arthur dies. Merlin is holding Arthur who shushes him and says, “Merlin…everything you’ve done. I know now. For me, for Camelot. For the kingdom you helped me build…”
“You’d have done it without me,” Merlin interjects.
“Maybe,” Arthur denies his spoken word by shaking his head knowingly. “I want to say something I’ve never said to you before…Thank you.”
Those last two simple words spoken in a quiet glade with no others present are the only thing that can answer why we should use our gifts no matter how hidden they make us feel. Not to feel power, not to feel recognition. To further the Kingdom of God.