The Tree that Holds the Nest

Ongoing insights from the sermons of Saint Sharbel (1828-1898).

For birds, nest building is a matter of security, survival, and nurturing. They instinctively seek out a safe location and then diligently gather materials to prepare a home in which they can hatch, nourish, and protect their young.

We humans have a similar instinct, both for ourselves and for those in our care. We are hardwired for survival, and we have a deep need to feel safe and secure. Ideally, those needs are met in our early and vulnerable stages in life. Through healthy relationships, intimate and consistent nurturing, and appropriate protecting, we learn to trust God vulnerably and be secure in his protection and love. Unfortunately, many of us have a different story, and continue to struggle with insecurity well into our adult lives.

Saint Sharbel reminds us not to get so intensely focused on our frenzied nest building that we forget all about the tree that holds the nest.

One mistake is to pick the wrong tree! Animals sometimes build their nests in funny places – especially when baffled by the shape and texture of human structures. A year ago my mother kept sending us photos of the duck that had decided to build its nest beneath her water meter, right outside the living room and just two feet from the driveway. In this case, she, my sister, and my nephews were all quite interested in helping protect the eggs that held the ducklings. In other cases, picking the wrong nesting place is fatal for all concerned.

We humans easily build our nest in artificial places – food or drink, status, wealth, luxury, entertainment, sexual fantasies, social media (or the image we project on social media), addictions, and so forth. These surrogate trees feel safe to us in the moment, but they are artificial substitutes for the only thing that can bring true human security and nurture – healthy relationships, beginning with God the Father.

Even as disciples of Jesus, we can get so unduly focused on our nest that forget all about the tree that holds the nest. Sharbel exhorts us, “Care for the tree with the same care that you devote to the nest. Just as you take charge of your nests, take charge of your trees also. Care for the roots, the trunk, the branches, and the leaves.”

This is another way of inviting us to put God’s Kingdom first in every aspect of our life. If the branches of the tree are healthy and full, our nest will have plenty of protection. We do not need to exert so much energy and wear ourselves out building high walls around our nest.

Parents worry a great deal about the safety and security of their children – especially in this age of “helicopter parenting” or (my personal favorite) Zamboni parenting. Such hopes for a life devoid of risk or messiness are unrealistic and serve only to steal away our peace as we chase the impossible. I say “we” because these parents are typiclly my age and because I have done more than my share of freaking out in my role as a spiritual father in parish life. Saint Sharbel gently lifts our gaze to remind us of the true security that we can confer on our children:

“You must give life to your children. Now, there is no life except in Christ. So offer them Christ! But if he is not in you, it will be difficult for you to give him to them. If you do not sanctify yourselves, how do you think you will sanctify your children?”

There are parallel truths at the level of a parish family. How many of the feverish activities in a typical American parish are actually about connecting us with Jesus and helping our children fall in love with Jesus? How many of our parishes are dying because individuals and groups are so concerned with guarding their nests that they fail to notice how rotten or dead the tree has become?

I take the same challenges to heart as a priest, as I celebrate my 17th anniversary this weekend. Looking back over the years, I can think of many moments in which I was far more concerned with “nest building” than with abiding in the love of Jesus. In the early years, I plunged into all sorts of pastoral busyness, often finding that I had – yet again – missed my allotted meditation time or was praying the entire Divine Office at 11pm (or at a later time I will not admit!). The Lord gently and persistently invited me to depend on him and to put prayer first. Without prayer, I wither and die.

I have vastly improved my prayer habits, but I still struggle often with ungodly self-reliance or self-protection. God has revealed to me the deeper truth: he has placed me and my nest in a mighty tree by flowing waters. If I allow that tree to abide by the waters and grow, not only will my nest find protection in those strong branches, so will thousands of others. It is sometimes hard to believe in the depths of my heart that God will provide and protect. It takes so much surrender and humility to trust his branches; it feels so much easier to return to my own frenzied nest building or (at more selfish moments) simply to bury myself in my nest and ignore everyone and everything.

God wills for us to tend to the tree that holds our nest. If the branches are rotting, we may need to ask for help from wise people in our life. We may need to seek spiritual remedies such as prayer, sacraments, fasting, or penance.

Often, we need to go to the roots of the tree. If the soil and the roots are unsound, the whole tree is in danger. Getting to the roots takes determination and courage. As Sharbel explains, “the work of taking root is hidden, it will not appear, and it requires effort and asceticism.” We have to be willing to die to ourselves. It often means a great simplification of our cushy nest – something we tend to resist!

Nest building is a natural part of life, but the Lord invites us to turn our attention to the tree that holds our nest. May each of us have the humility and courage to tend to that tree, and to trust in the protection and care God will provide us there.

Untie the Ropes!

I recently read some sermons from St. Sharbel (1828-1898). I was blown away by his depth of spirituality and practical human wisdom. Drawing from his experience of monastic life, his pastoral ministry, and his final 23 years if life as a hermit, he came to understand the human heart at a deep level. Now in heaven, he seems to be one of those chosen miracle workers who (in designs known only to God) has become a “go-to” Saint in time of need.

Here in the United States, Sharbel Makhlouf is not exactly a household name. But he is immensely and intensely popular among those who know him. I first learned about him 25 years ago from my crazy Lebanese friends (you know who you are!). In many ways, Sharbel is in the Maronite Catholic Church what St. Anthony or St. Thérèse are in the Roman Catholic Church. You find their statues and shrines in churches everywhere – usually with multiple votive candles blazing and possibly even with keepsakes or personal mementos left behind. Half the pilgrims are storming heaven for help in time of need, and the other half are pouring out their thanksgiving for prayers answered. It seems that God chooses certain Saints to be heavenly miracle workers, close companions and friends to us here below, still bearing fruit in our lives as we learn from them to trust and surrender more deeply.

I remember visiting Mexico City in 2001, and noticing shrines of Sharbel in several of the churches there. These were not Lebanese churches. Somehow this obscure Arab monk and hermit had found his way into the devotional life of everyday Mexicans. The abundance of ribbons plastering the wall around him bore testimony that these Mexican Catholics had discovered a new and well-trusted heavenly friend. In that word-of-mouth culture, word got around that this is a Saint who gets things done.

Personally (and in this blog post) I am less interested in Sharbel’s miracles worked from heaven than I am in the divine wisdom he imparted while on earth. His preaching is profound. I hope to share several insights in the weeks ahead.

In one of his homilies, Sharbel offers the image of a ship setting out on a great voyage across the sea. Man is born from the heart of God and destined to return to the heart of God. Any time we allow ourselves to watch and to listen with deep attentiveness, we notice that movement – in our own heart and all around us. We hear that voice beckoning us to cross the ocean and come home.

But the ocean is scary, and our ship is still moored to the dock, held fast by many ropes. We untie several of the ropes with ease, but there tend to be one or two that we simply don’t want to untie. We resist. We insist that things will be more stable and secure if we keep those ropes tied fast.

Sharbel reminds us of our deeper truth: “The ship is destined to cross the sea and not to remain in port. It is made to navigate far and wide. It is necessary to untie all its ropes; if even one of them remains, it will prevent it from leaving the port.”

Four centuries earlier, St. John of the Cross made the same observation. A bird that has its leg tethered cannot fly free. It matters not whether it is a large chain or just a tiny thread– until it is severed the bird will not be free to fly.

Why is it so hard for us to untie all the ropes and put out into the deep? I have struggled so often with surrendering the last of my ropes to the Lord. I willingly reorder so many things in my life and make great sacrifices – but resist and resist letting go of that last thing or two. It’s a false security, rooted in ungodly self-reliance and pride.

Sharbel cuts through these lies with simple and effective words: “All security is an illusion without the peace of Christ.”

Our own best efforts usually leave a few ropes still tied fast. Sharbel encourages us to allow God’s Word, which is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, to set us free: “Let the Word of God release you from your bonds by breaking them one after the other, even if it causes you suffering. Do not stagnate in your inclinations and thoughts, even if they offer you rest and security … Do not fear to free yourself from the shore and to leave the port; give yourself up to God in order to free yourself from your chains.”

How? How can we surrender in this way when it can feel so impossible? Sharbel urges us to deep and serious prayer.  “One who prays lives out the mystery of existence, and one who does not pray scarcely exists.”

He is not so much talking about reciting prayers as allowing ourselves to enter into deep silence, to be drawn into the movement back to the Father. He describes the experience: Listen humbly. Understand deeply. Witness modestly.

When we listen attentively, we begin to understand deeply. We realize and feel the truth that we are but a drop of water amidst the great current that leads back to God the Father. Apart from that volume of water, we are but a drop; within it, we find that we can keep moving back to him. We find that there is peace amidst the great movement – one that we do not in any way control. Sharbel gently but firmly admonishes us, “Do not agree to be outside this movement.”

That movement is always there, in the depth of our heart. But we so often prefer to step outside of our own heart – seeking false rest and security in things that will never satisfy. Sharbel warns us, “Rest far from the heart is a deception.”

In God alone be at rest, my soul. When I am tempted to let myself be tied down to false ports, pretending to offer me safety, may the Lord give me the trust and fortitude that I need to untie all the ropes and set sail on this great voyage back to the Father’s heart.

Dispelling the Shadows of Shame

I have come to realize that shame is the devil’s tactic of choice in his efforts to ruin our human existence. Certainly he entices and allures, divides and distracts. Occasionally he openly attacks, but he would much rather not. In those moments we might call upon the name of the Lord and be saved. If there’s anything the devil can’t stand, it’s being defeated yet again.

Rather than an open fight, the devil much prefers to lurk in the shadows and undermine us without our even noticing. As Kevin Spacey famously said in The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”

The devil subtly shames us with his lies, keeping us from becoming fully ourselves. If we don’t unmask him and expose him, if we don’t even notice that he’s there, he can deceive us with ease, convincing us that we are unlovable, that we must avoid being vulnerable, and that we must hide ourselves from others and even from God.

Curt Thompson wrote a marvelous book on the subject entitled The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves. He offers the image of a “shame attendant” who follows each of us around, pretending to be a loyal servant, eagerly whispering his counsel in our ear. I think immediately of Grima Wormtongue from The Lord of the Rings, who kept sapping and undermining the strength of King Theoden with his whispered distortions and lies.

Shame is all about distorting our true story. We humans are storytellers by our very nature. Even though we only know some of the facts in any given situation, we generally cannot resist filling in the gaps with assumptions about the parts of the story that we do not know. This is how rumors get started. This is why twenty different witnesses can give twenty different accounts of the same event. This is why one momentary interaction in daily life can sometimes feel like just a normal human interaction and other times can send us on a downward spiral for hours or even days.

An acquaintance walks past without stopping to talk. A co-worker asks for a status report on our project that we are behind on. A parish member asks us how our struggling child is doing in school. A friend posts social media photos of amazing family activities. A spouse offers a suggestion for how to do something differently. Any one of these innocuous experiences can cause a sudden shift. We might immediately feel the urge to withdraw or isolate or procrastinate; we might lash out at the person; we might find ourselves replaying conversations over and over in our mind, trying to find just the right response.

Behind those reactions are the whispers of our shame attendant: There you go again; you always fail at those things… You’ll never be as successful as him… You’ll never be beautiful like her… Of course she would walk away from you; why would you let someone get close to you like that?… He wouldn’t understand – no one will ever really understand you… If you make mistakes like that, no one will want to be around you anymore… You’re stuck; nothing will ever changePeople will always let you down; they’ll leave you once they really get to know you…

The devil is the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning. He sees God’s glory in us and cannot stand it. Often very early in life, he begins his carefully planned attack. He sneaks in when we are the most powerless and vulnerable, and whispers lies and half-truths into our ears. He uses a few facts to begin distorting our story. This constant whisper becomes so much a part of our life that we cease noticing it. We learn to hide and isolate, for fear of feeling vulnerable.

The hiding and isolating can come in many forms: avoidance and withdrawal, shifting the blame to others, putting on a fake persona, overachieving, or addictive behaviors. Every addiction is fueled by shame. Whereas intimate relationships run the risk of abandonment or rejection, the soothing of an addiction (sugar, alcohol, shopping, pornography, binge watching) will always be there for us, won’t make any immediate demands, and will numb the shame if only for a brief time.

Perfectionism is also fueled by shame, and often goes hand in hand with addictive behaviors. Behind every perfectionist is a shame attendant whispering why failure is not an option: I am only lovable if I am accomplished and successful; I am not lovable when I make mistakes or fail; I have to…or else… When the pressures of perfectionism become crushing and unbearable, the escape of an addiction can feel irresistible.

Shame doesn’t just infect our minds in the form of negative self-talk or accusations; it also affects our emotions and even our bodies. We are a unity of body, mind, and spirit. So we typically feel shame and even carry it in our bodies. That is why our shame reactions can be so strong and so lasting in certain day-to-day human interactions. Many of us have shame-laden memories, unresolved moments in our story that we keep hidden away – moments in which we felt totally worthless or unlovable, threatened or powerless, rejected or alone or abandoned. In those memories, our body felt certain sensations. If we ever feel those again, our brain immediately sets off its “smoke alarm” (the amygdala) and warns us that we are in grave danger – even when we are not. We react. We hide. We isolate.

The solution is so counter-intuitive. We need to be seen and known, to come to the light, to be loved and to belong. It only works if I surrender and allow all of myself to be seen and accepted and loved (including the “bad” parts I would rather lock away).  If I pull back and only project an avatar of myself, a “safe” and edited version to share with others, I will never truly be known and loved – and shame can stay in the driver’s seat, ever reminding me that there are other weaker parts of me that must be kept hidden at all costs.

To be human is to be vulnerable, whether we like it or not. The whispers of shame convince us that we must not allow ourselves to feel vulnerable. So long as we are beholden to those whispers, we are unable to be healed and integrated as a whole person. We continue to experience what Mother Teresa described as the greatest form poverty – to feel alone and unloved.

And you – what are the parts of yourself that you hide from others or from God? Are you willing to be known and seen and heard by at least a few trustworthy people, and by God? He does not pull back; he loves us for who we are and he has always loved us. He has loved us “even when…” If we ask, he will also help us find others who can play that role of loving us for who we are. Those people are there to be found – we are just afraid!

Stepping out into the experience of vulnerability can be terrifying at times (believe me, I know!). But the shadows of shame take flight the more that we allow it to happen.