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.