As I wander through the stores this time of year, coveting this or that notebook, drooling over a new package of pens, fawning over folders, it is the box of plain yellow pencils that makes me stop to ponder. They are stacked up, looking very old-fashioned next to their mechanical brethren hanging above. In their rather plain cardboard box, they nestle together, and I wonder what they have seen in their pencil lives.

I too am an unsharpened pencil. Not so long ago, I began my Catholic journey under the tutelage of a wise priest with my devoted beau hand-in-hand with me. It’s all too easy, once I begin a new clambering path of wisdom, to think myself better than those around me. It’s all too easy to give in the hypocrisy that my God is better than your God, that my knowledge is more complete than your knowledge, that my Church is better than your Church. It’s all too easy to turn right into a Pharisee.

Once I am sharpened, however briefly, there is always the reminder of humility and service. I might be at the top of my game, knowing it all and sailing through life, when a long algebra assignment hits, forcing me to calculate and use up all my sharpness, and most of my eraser too. It is only a visit to the Sharpener, through Mass or Adoration or prayer or a buffet of all three, that can revitalize me. Sadly, I don’t always realize that I need that; I don’t always listen to the whisper in my ear, pointing me back to Him.

That box of plain yellow pencils speaks to me of the potential within us all, of all God must intend for us. Those pencils could be the instrument for all sorts of brilliance, for unthinkable inventions, for solutions of worldwide proportion. They shout to me of what I could be, and what I could encourage others to be. They make me think of civilization and math and long essays. They inspire work from me, work of a sort that I can only do at the beginning of a project, when my heart is still in it.

But a pencil is no good until it’s sharpened. I’m reminded, then, even as I think of all I can do with that unsharpened pencil, of just what being sharpened involves. It involves giving up my selfish inclinations and remembering that I am the tool, not the finished product. Being sharpened is a reminder that I am not aiming for anything of this world, that I am on a journey to become a saint, and that unlikely as I might find the end result (myself as a saint?!), God is the one who’s driving.

I have a hard time remembering that I’m only the instrument. I think of all a pencil can do – express inner genius, communicate life-altering sentiments, change the world with the product of its lead – and I forget that someone has to USE the pencil first. Who is using me? Am I letting the right force sharpen me, guide me, lead me?

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
– St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)