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!

Do Not Idolize the Means

Happy Feast of Saint Sharbel! Every July 24th we remember this wise monk and shepherd who lived in Lebanon from 1828-1898.

Holiness is the true goal of our life, the entire purpose of our human existence. As we all aim for that ultimate goal, Sharbel identifies one of the subtlest and most common pitfalls – making an idol of the means. Even incredibly good and beautiful things like prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can become hindrances if we idolize them: “Prayer sanctifies you; do not sanctify it. Fasting strengthens you; do not make it a god. Mortifications purify you; do not adore them. Your singing is designed to praise God, but do not glorify it.”

God himself gave us these means. He commanded penance and fasting; he inspired the psalms that King David sang; he invites us to gather and worship him. These means serve us well when we receive them in gratitude, and give them back freely to the Lord, the true object of our desire. But if we make an idol of the means, we fall into the trap of the Pharisees.

Echoing Jesus’ words in Matthew 23, Sharbel warns us not to confuse the temple with the living God who dwells in it: “The safe can never be more important than the treasure it contains, nor the glass more important than the wine it contains, nor the bakery more important than the bread, nor the tabernacle more important than the Blessed Sacrament.”

Even with something as wonderful as Scripture, Sharbel warns not to idolize the means: “Christianity is neither the religion of the temple nor the religion of the book. Christianity is the person of Jesus himself.” An important distinction! We call Scripture “the word of God” – and so it is, but only because by means of it we encounter Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Word. All Scripture points to him. Sharbel compares Scripture to a mirror that reflects God’s light. As wonderful as the mirror is, our true destiny is the light itself. It is quite possible to cling to verses of Scripture while keeping Jesus at a safe distance from the depths of our heart.

It is also very possible to turn to God or to religious practices as an attempt to escape the pain of our problems. Sharbel cautions, “Do not seek refuge in God in order to flee from yourself … Do not let the world push you toward God. Allow God to attract you.”

Allowing our fear to give way to love – this is what distinguishes the disciple from the Pharisee. The disciple of Jesus discovers God in the deep yearnings of his heart, and refuses to numb those desires, no matter how painful the waiting can be.

It is in the desire of our heart that the Father attracts us, drawing us more and more deeply into Jesus (John 6:44). As we encounter Jesus, the Holy Spirit transforms us, casting out the spirit of fear that binds us up in slavery, and maturing us in the glorious freedom of the sons and daughters of God (Romans 8).

Without desire, our conversion will hit a wall. We will either get stuck in the land of religious idols, or (when they fail to satisfy) we will revert to our old idolatry of sin. I know, because it’s been my story! For too many years, I was more often motivated by fear than by desire. I toggled back and forth between firm and resolute observance of all the rules and then numbing myself out with addictive behaviors. In both cases I was motivated by fear rather than by love. I was avoiding authentic vulnerability, trust, surrender, intimacy, and the deepest desires of my heart. God has been inviting me to leave the ways of fear behind and to discover him in the depths of my heart, where he has always been present.

Granted, fear can be a great motivator – especially in the very first motion of turning away from evil. But it will never fuel a full conversion in Christ. Only desire can propel me away from the orbit of my past life of sin. If I do not open up in vulnerability and trust, if I do not allow myself to feel the depths of desire (which can be painful!) I will not grow in love.

Sometimes it feels so much safer to cling rigidly to the means – especially those that God made so good and beautiful. Clinging to them, I can avoid vulnerability, resist surrender, and bury my unfulfilled desire. When I idolize the means, I feel in control. Unfortunately, without vulnerability there is no love. Without surrender, there is no faith. Without desire, there is no hope.

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Not because he is a God of fear, but because all our illusions melt away in his presence. Our pretending and protecting hold no sway. He tolerates them with great patience. He respects our resistance – because he always respects our dignity and freedom, which he gave to us. He patiently waits. He entices and attracts, turning even our stumbling into wonderful opportunity. But only we can say “yes” and allow his love to be awakened deeply within in our heart.

Often, when the real growth begins, it is in ways we never expected. We spend so much of our time trying to force a path of holiness that is not for us. We grasp at means that may work well for others, but do not match with our own story. Sharbel invites us to discover our truest and deepest identity, and embrace the means of holiness most suitable to the situation God has placed us in. “The cedars and the oaks do not grow in the sand of the seashore, nor banana and orange groves among the rocks on the mountain. Do your work with the available tools, and flourish and bear fruit where God has planted you.”

Our deepest desires have always been there. The Father put them there in the first place. We just need to get reconnected with them, allow ourselves to feel them, to grow in them, and (propelled by them) to return to the Father. As this process unfolds for each of us I think we will find that we are experiencing what the poet T.S. Eliot once described in these words:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

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.