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.

Living Torches

The emperor Nero was a troubled soul. In A.D. 64, following the great fire that destroyed much of Rome, he cast the blame on the Christians and put many of them to death. The Roman historian Tacitus paints a disturbing picture: “Some of the Christians were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night. Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer.”

Crucified and set on fire. One can only imagine the devil’s delight, just like that first Good Friday. But the devil cannot create. He can only twist or pervert the good things God makes, attempting to mock his Creator’s good designs. God can always untangle the devil’s knots, not only restoring things to their original goodness, but even bringing forth new and unimagined blessings.

As we approach Pentecost, those early Christian martyrs in Nero’s gardens can become a holy icon of our life in the Holy Spirit. If we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, if we surrender our hearts to undergo that dying and rising with Him, we shall be set ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit. We shall become living torches who light up the night of this world, bringing comfort, joy, and peace to all around us.

Do not quench the fire of the Holy Spirit. That is Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians.  The Holy Spirit is to be a flame constantly ablaze within us, drawing in and consuming all the lesser flames of our disordered and unruly passions.

When we prepared for our Confirmation, many of us learned about the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The 7 Gifts are easily misunderstood. Well-meaning catechists tend to use gimmicks or clichés to attempt to make them interesting. The deeper truth is that those Gifts are perfective (seven being the biblical number of perfection). When they are activated in us, we are truly possessed by the Holy Spirit. He becomes the primary agent, and we are willing co-operators.

Without the gifts of the Holy Spirit taking over, even the best parts of ourselves will get in the way. There is that wonderful scene at the end of “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor. The main character, the self-satisfied Ruby Turpin, discovers she is not quite so Christian as she had thought. Furious at God and not wanting to take an honest look at herself, she screams out to Him, “Who do you think you are?” In response, she has a vision. The twilight cloud in the sky overlooking the field is set ablaze, almost like a fiery bridge into heaven. Leading the procession are many of the kinds of people she would least expect to find in the Kingdom. By contrast, her own kind, the rule-following and decent kind, are the last and the least. And “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Our self-regulated attempts at virtue and holiness, our managing and controlling, protecting and striving, tend to quench that fire of the Holy Spirit.

So does codependency. Christian churches are often full of do-gooders who will jump in to help others with their problems, but resist being vulnerable and receptive themselves. Remember the story of the five foolish virgins, who ran out of fuel for their lamps – in contrast to the wise virgins, who kept their lamps well-stocked, so that they could burn brightly at the coming of the bridegroom. If we do not learn how to receive vulnerably, if we do not abide in the Lord and depend daily upon him, the fire of divine love within us will burn out. Yes, we are called to give and share, but it is the Holy Spirit that is given and the Holy Spirit that is shared. The work does not depend on us. We need only cooperate and yield.

In God’s mercy, he will offer us many invitations to surrender. Most of the time, the invitation comes in that still small voice, gently inviting us into communion. Yes, occasionally the invitation may come à la Flannery O’Connor, in the form of a violent interruption or intrusion, something that splits open a crack in our otherwise impenetrable armor. Moments of crisis can become moments of great opportunity. There is also the very human factor that some of us have to hit rock bottom before we will even think about surrendering. God knows what we need and deeply desires us to be aided by the Holy Spirit.

In whatever fashion those graces come, there is no avoiding the Paschal mystery. We must be crucified with Christ in order to rise with him. That victory needs to be extended to every part of our heart. That death with Christ opens up a space for the new life of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we give all over to God and approach him with empty hands that he can truly fill us. That includes the shameful and feeble parts of our heart that we would rather keep hidden away. It includes our most noble and virtuous parts, which are not quite as amazing as we would like to think. It includes every part of us. Then the Holy Spirt can truly take over. We can burn brightly as God’s living torches.

In our humanity, we shrink back from any form of suffering or dying. Our instincts tell us we will be annihilated. But this pain and this death is different. The fire will not consume us. It heals, unites, and purifies us as it burns. We become like the burning bush that Moses saw. We will be perpetually ablaze, and nothing of value in us will be definitively lost.

As we approach Pentecost, like those disciples in the Cenacle, we join with the Virgin Mary in prayer and beg the Lord to set us ablaze with the Holy Spirit. May we all become his living torches, shining for the world to see.

Kerygma

Your new vocabulary word for the day is kerygma.

Kerygma means “proclamation.” It is a very simple proclamation, and it changes hearts. Kerygma happens when one follower of Jesus, moved by the Holy Spirit, becomes a herald of good news, and the hearts of the hearer(s) catch fire as they hear the message. When the kerygma happens, one follower of Jesus becomes the instrument whereby the hearer actually “hears” the gospel as good news, and is moved to heartfelt repentance, responding with a resounding “YES!” that starts showing itself in a new way of living.

Kerygma moments happen again and again in the Acts of the Apostles. Peter or one of the other disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, stand up and boldly proclaim the Good News that Jesus has risen from the dead. It’s such a simple message. Jesus died. He died because of your sins and my sins. Jesus has risen from the dead. He has the power to forgive you and forgive me. He has the power to save you and save me from death. All we need to do is repent of our sins, get baptized and place our trust in Jesus instead of ourselves. Then we can begin following him together on an amazing new journey.

Peter and the apostles, the guys who snoozed and snored while Jesus was sweating blood in the Garden, the guys who left Jesus all alone to die, the guys who denied him and abandoned him – yes, those guys –become heralds proclaiming Good News. Each time they proclaim the simple message of salvation in Jesus, hearts are moved to repentance.

Whether it moves 3,000 hearts (as on the day of Pentecost) or whether it touches just one heart at a time, the power of the kerygma is real. It’s a life-changing experience. God wants all of us to “hear” the good news in a personal way that re-orders our entire life. We change and become “all in,” surrendering ourselves to Jesus.

Notice that it has nothing to do with Peter or the other apostles being smart, or educated, or talented, or strong (they were none of those things!). Indeed, it was precisely their ordinariness and their human weakness that made the Gospel message so compelling to the hearers. These were changed men. Whatever it was that they had, the hearers wanted to experience it.

There are a few core reasons why the kerygma works.

First, it is a work of the Holy Spirit. We are cooperators, but truly led by the Spirit in the process. The same Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is at work both in the heart of the one proclaiming and the one(s) hearing. And he does his work! He is the principal agent of all evangelizing. We all have access to that Holy Spirit through faith and baptism.

Secondly, the kerygma works because the disciple who is proclaiming has actually been transformed by his personal relationship with Jesus. He’s not just talking about Faith. He’s proclaiming Jesus. Not as an abstract idea, but as a real person who has really changed his life. The change is obvious to the hearers. It attracts them. It’s an open invitation. They hear the Holy Spirit gently whispering in their own hearts, “Wouldn’t you love to have that experience for yourself?”

Thirdly, there is always freedom in the kerygma. Whether it’s Jesus himself proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom, or those early disciples proclaiming the Resurrection, they respect the freedom of the hearers. There is no forcing or pressuring, no nagging or manipulating, no guilting or shaming. If the hearers aren’t interested, so be it. Those who proclaim the kerygma only want followers who want to follow.

How different this all is from the everyday experience of so many Catholics during the last several decades. The majority of Catholics these days are simply NOT interested in talking openly about their personal relationship with Jesus. As for those who are willing (myself included), it is with deep sadness that I admit that many of us have too often been led more by fear than by the joy of the Holy Spirit. I confess that out of a fear of failure or rejection I have engaged in pressuring, manipulating, shaming, or other methods that were totally NOT used by the early disciples. It’s so hard to trust the Holy Spirit, to wait for God’s timing, and to respect human freedom – especially when it’s our own children or spouses or friends, and especially if we tie the outcome to our own personal worth, somehow thinking were are a failure if they say “no.”

I have definitely learned, slowly but surely, to be both patient AND bold. If the person is not yet ready to hear the kerygma, so be it. But when I notice that the Holy Spirit moving, as at Pentecost, when I sense the person asking “What must I do?” THEN is the moment to proclaim the Good News of Jesus – and in a truly personal way that speaks to her experience. THEN, perhaps for the first time, that person can see Jesus as his Savior.

It is such a privilege to be a herald of the kerygma. You get to be the person who announces good news of great joy to persons who are longing so deeply for it – and it changes their lives forever. What a joy!

But there’s a deeper question. Have I ever really “heard” the kerygma myself? How can I give what I have not myself received? There, I think, is a big part of why we Catholics (yes, even we priests and bishops) have struggled so much to be bearers of good news to a world that longs for good news. We may possess a great store of knowledge, we may faithfully follow many rules. Perhaps we even had an amazing experience of Jesus long ago. But if we are not perpetually being renewed in the Joy of the Gospel, if we have not truly internalized the kerygma, if others do not see in us that Jesus is truly “Good News,” then who will care?

I encourage each of us to ask today, what has been my own experience of receiving the kerygma? When has my heart burned with joy at receiving the good news?

For me personally, there have been many “kerygma moments.” I remember the first time I went to Confession at the age of nine, how honest I was despite my deep fear, and what an incredible joy I felt afterward. I remember many moments on retreats in which God comforted my heart, deepening my desire to trust and surrender to him. I remember the witness of my friend Peter, a seminarian in his late 30’s. During a few years of intense personal struggle for me in the late 1990s (moments in which I felt very unlovable) he kept gently gazing and speaking good news into the places of my heart that feared and doubted. The Holy Spirit was very much at work, consoling my heart at a time when I deeply needed it. When Peter explained that “a good friend is someone who sees right through you – and loves you anyway” I not only grasped the words intellectually; I truly “felt” their truth. It changed me.

I remember Peter tragically and unexpectedly dying that fall of 1999, after only five months ordained as a priest. I remember surviving a fire a month later, losing nearly all of my possessions. Truth be told, I would have gladly thrown them all away to have Peter’s friendship back.  Then I remember astounding graces and spiritual encounters during the Jubilee Year 2000. I received deep healing as others prayed over me and stood with awe and gratitude as others receive astounding graces and healings when I prayed over them. God knew what my heart needed and gave it to me; he assured me yet again that I could trust him and surrender.

Even then, there were parts of my heart that I was keeping locked away and out of sight. I simply wasn’t ready yet to receive totally or to surrender totally. I continued through life as a perfectionist, secretly fueled by shame, secretly insecure about not being good enough or loveable. Too often, I tried to “get life right,” to try harder or work more. I slowly got more disconnected and burnt out, losing sight of the good news of Jesus and of my identity as a beloved child of God.

Theologically, I knew the teachings of Scripture – God loves us while we are yet sinners. Salvation is a gift. We cannot earn our way to receiving love. But that was not what I was believing internally. There were layers of my heart that had still never heard the Gospel proclaimed. I was not yet ready.

Eventually, the trials of life wore me down. A few years back, I reached a point of recognizing that my life was totally unmanageable. I wanted to be well. I was ready to die to self. I allowed myself to surrender and to become vulnerable in ways I would previously have thought impossible. I began letting myself be “seen” by a few trusted people – letting all of myself be seen, mind you.  It has allowed me, more and more, to believe with all my heart that I am truly a beloved child of God – no matter what. Now that I no longer felt like I had to perform (or at least much less frequently felt that way) I discovered, to my amazement, that old habits of sin melted away.

I still have a long way to go, but the more I have internalized the kerygma, the more I have discovered that the Holy Spirit is opening up new opportunities for others around me to receive the good news. I find myself more frequently able to show kindness and mercy because I have been learning what it is to receive it.

It’s an old axiom of the first universities in the Middle Ages: nemo dat quod non habet (“a thing can’t give what it ain’t got”). We will not be able to proclaim Good News to others if we are not allowing Jesus to be good news for us.

What about you? Have you experienced the kerygma? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you remember any “kerygma moments” in which someone proclaimed good news to you and the Holy Spirit totally changed your heart.

If you can think of those moments, I encourage you to revisit them with gratitude and allow you heart to be touched once again.

If you cannot think of any, would you like to be moved by the Holy Spirit in that way? Would you also like to experience the joy of the Gospel? If so, you can ask God for that. And you can seek out someone who has experienced it, and ask that person for help. The Risen Jesus and the Holy Spirit just might surprise you with what comes next.