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!

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