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.