Ice to be Melted

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

Love is the ultimate purpose of our human existence. Our truest and deepest desires, planted by God, find their fulfillment as we become like Jesus and make a free and total gift of ourselves in a way that brings new life to many.

Sharbel offers a powerful image to reflect on our ultimate calling, and the ways we tend to fight and resist:

“Every human being … is like a piece of ice that someone tries to keep far from the fire so that it does not melt. What good is this piece of ice if it wants to preserve its form and its existence at all costs? If the ice does not melt, it will not be able to soak into the earth to water the land and to quench the thirst of human beings.”

I love this image so much, because I feel like parts of my heart are still thawing out after a deep freeze. Sometimes I fight and resist, but when I yield, the warmth of the Holy Spirit does amazing things. I begin to see how this divine thawing brings new life to others. The places in my heart that feel the most lost or broken are precisely the ones that God blesses and works through to bring his love to others. Whenever that happens, my soul is filled with gratitude and praise for God’s amazing plans, and I realize that it’s all been worth it.

Then, of course, some new difficulty arises, and I start the cycle of resistance and fighting all over again – at least it feels that way sometimes! Lately, the Lord has been giving me repeated invitations to draw near to the warmth of the Holy Spirit and stop fearing the fire of his love. I am meant to be melted so that I can be poured out and given.

Every year at Pentecost, we Christians pray for docility and surrender as we call upon the Holy Spirit in the Sequence:

Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.

Truly, our hearts are wounded and need the anointing of the Holy Spirit. We are dry soil that aches for the moisture he brings. We long to be washed by him. We are rigid and inflexible, and often prefer to stay frozen – yet deep down we long to be melted by him. We fight the notion of being told what steps to take, yet find that our own willfulness only enslaves us.

The great paradox of Christian discipleship is that we only find freedom in the Cross of Jesus. His dying and rising are at the center of every liturgical year and of every week of our lives. As Sharbel puts it, “The whole universe moves around the mystery of the Cross … He who does not live the mystery of the Cross cannot understand the mystery of the universe.”

We center our liturgical year around the Paschal Mystery of Jesus in Holy Week and Easter. We center every week around Sunday. But do we center our hearts around this core truth? I know for myself that I sometimes do and sometimes don’t.

Without the Cross, “love” ceases to be Love. There are many counterfeits. Sharbel offers a tribute to Love that reminds me very much of Paul’s famous words in 1 Corinthians. It is worth quoting at length:

Love is not an attachment, because it is freedom, whereas an attachment enslaves. God is freedom.

Love must not be taken solely as a human affection; it is a divine force of creation, a force of heavenly resurrection…

God is neither a feeling nor a habit nor an attachment nor an idea. He is Reality and Life, and a Creator who gives life.

Love is gratuitous, and to be given it demands nothing in return … The love that comes from a human being returns to him. When the love springs from the human being himself, he loves himself, regardless of how strong the love is. However, if a human being draws his Love from God, he is naturally oriented towards others …The human being whose love emanates from himself loves himself through others, while thinking that he loves others.

Never confuse Love and desire, Love and affection, Love and habit, Love and attachment.

There is so much to ponder in Sharbel’s words, but two points leap off the page at me: the freedom involved and the divine origins.

Love is freely received and freely given. No one takes my life from me; I lay it down freely. Until we learn to be truly receptive, like Jesus and Mary, we will struggle with making a free gift of ourselves. But as we receive the warmth of the Holy Spirit, we find a growing willingness to give freely and wholeheartedly.

Love is from on high. It becomes truly human, and we cannot become fully human without it. Yet we cannot create it for ourselves. It is a gift. Only by God’s grace can we receive it and give it. And even then, only if we are willing to die and rise with Jesus will we find the freedom to receive it and give it.

There is so much joy in our ultimate destiny – being melted like that piece of ice, poured out to bring life and fruitfulness. It is understandable that we resist, for fear of losing ourselves. May each of us learn to receive the divine gift of Love. May we allow the Holy Spirit to draw near with his fire. May he indeed bend our stubborn wills and melt our frozen hearts. May we become the gift of Love we were always destined to be.

We Prefer to Polish…

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

Jesus proclaims that we are the light of the world, and are called to allow our light to shine before our fellow human beings. He encourages us to keep our lanterns lit, blazing with his light amidst the darkness of this fallen world.

Saint Sharbel develops Jesus’ image further, warning us against the temptation to focus so much on polishing that we forget about shining!

A lamp can be quite ornate or quite simple. It can be impeccably maintained or dilapidated. It can be polished or grimy. But its ultimate purpose is to shine. A lamp that does not shine will not serve as a lamp. No amount of polishing will help.

Sharbel describes our tendency as fallen humans: “These lamps, human beings, are interested only in their appearance: they color their glass panes and cover them with ornaments, whereas God created them plain and transparent so as to protect and propagate the light.”

The tendency to “polish” is as old as the Fall.  We worry far more about the image of ourselves in the eyes of others than our actual love of God and neighbor. For some of us, this is a materialistic focus on clothing, hair, jewelry, facial appearance, home decor, vehicle, etc. For others, it is a focus on our status, career, achievements, awards, or popularity. For still others, it is a rigid grip or narrow focus on fixed way of doing things – forgetful of why we are doing them in the first place! We cling to our familiar habits because they feel safer to us. The whole point is lighting the lamp. We can find ourselves in a pattern of doing the same steps over and over again – refusing to notice that the light is barely flickering – or maybe even stopped shining a long time ago. In those cases, someone may even come along and show us what is broken in our lamp and the changes we will need to make if we want the light to shine. Even if they are right, we might find ourselves resisting, fighting, sabotaging, or passively undermining.

Although these tendencies are as old as the Fall of Adam and Eve, they find especially fertile soil in the current climate of social media. Those platforms, by design, allow us (literally) to project an image or an avatar of ourselves. We get to edit everything and decide what parts of ourselves to present. Then we return compulsively to see if people are noticing or liking the version of ourselves that we are presenting. We compare what we are presenting with what our peers are presenting. We feel saddened when someone else’s lamp seems to be attracting more attention than our own. There is often a great gap between what someone’s actual day-to-day life is really like (including those moments that only God sees) versus the pretend version on social media. Deep down, we know that to be true, but we play the game anyway. We become slaves in chains.

Whatever our own version of personal slavery is, the saddest part is that, rather than seeking freedom, we just allow ourselves to accept the chains as normal. We even spend hours of our time polishing them! That is the image Sharbel offers to describe our resistance to the liberating change that Jesus brings:

“A human being is born tied up with cords and bound with chains to which he becomes accustomed throughout his life … People get used to their chains; they cherish them as though they were an integral part of themselves…”

If we keep polishing our chains, they seem to shine. We are still bowed to the ground and carrying their enormous weight, unable to stand erect and see the face of God. Jesus is so willing and eager and capable of shattering our chains for us – but we resist! Our chains become precious to us. We let their shininess bedazzle us.

Sharbel describes the process in those who fight conversion: “Their gleaming chains dazzle their eyes so that they no longer see the Lord’s face. Their deafening racket prevents them from hearing his voice. They are so proud of the brilliance of their fetters and of their clanking that they cherish them. The chains may well gleam, but they are nonetheless alienating.”

I encourage you to ask Jesus to shine his light on you: What are the chains that bind you up? What especially are the things or behaviors or habits that have become so precious to you that you cling to them instead of Jesus? Anything that is not God can become a chain. Hopefully we have the courage and the truth-telling to recognize and confess our chains and then to heed Sharbel’s advice: “Instead of polishing them, break them; instead of making music with them, unfasten them so as to be free from them!”

If we insist on polishing our chains, we will remain slaves of sin. If we allow Jesus to break our chains, he will restore us as his lamps in the world. Even then, we may easily be tempted to go back to polishing or focusing on appearance, forgetting that the goal is for the lamp to be ablaze with the glory of Christ.

As Sharbel puts it, “Every human being is a flame created by our Lord to enlighten the world.” May we become who we are!