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.

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.

Healing of our Memory

Many of us go through life carrying heavy burdens from our past. Maybe we cannot shake off shame and regret over our sins and failings. Maybe we struggle to believe that anyone would actually love us for who we are. Maybe we keep clinging to bitterness and resentment towards those who harmed us. Maybe we find ourselves never truly trusting anyone, never letting anyone get too close, tightly guarding our innermost self. If so, over time, we will come to feel ever more alone, misunderstood, and unloved.

The saddest aspect of these burdens is that they prevent us from trusting and surrendering to God as a loving Father, placing ourselves totally into His loving hands, and truly obeying Him in Faith. That loving surrender to the Father is perhaps the deepest holy desire of my own heart – and also that of which I am most afraid! I have always loved the surrender prayer of Charles de Foucauld, although my heart usually clutches as I speak the words. I encourage you to pray it now, and gently notice the lines that you find difficult:

Father,

I abandon myself
into Your hands;
do with me what you will.
For whatever You may do I thank you.

I am ready for all,
I accept all.

Let only Your will be done in me
as in all Your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.

Into Your hands
I commend my soul.
I offer it to You
with all the love of my heart.
For I love You, my God,
and so need to give myself,
to surrender myself
into Your hands,
without reserve,
and with boundless confidence,
for You are my Father.

What a challenging prayer! But in reality, it is just a variation of the prayer that Jesus taught us. We are so familiar with the Our Father that we sometimes forget how radical the requests are!

Why is it so hard to surrender ourselves into the hands of a loving Father? He knows our hearts better than we do ourselves. His providence is so much more trustworthy and reliable than our own flimsy foresight. He is totally in charge of our past, present, and future.

But there is the challenge! If God the Father was Lord of my past, that means that He willed for me to be harmed in those ways. And if he willed such a painful past for me, then surely it’s just a matter of time before He will harm me again in the future… Blasphemous thoughts, you say? If we tell the unfiltered truth, most of us will admit that we have often felt that way.

The unhealed pain of our past fills us with anxiety and fear of our future. It also causes ongoing pain in our present, as we “overreact” to everyday situations that keep poking at old wounds. Well-meaning Christian friends urge us to “move on,” “forgive and forget,” and “leave the past in the past.” But that is not how human memory works!

Our memory is a marvelous and mysterious gift. Without it we do not know who we are. We’ve all seen TV shows or films in which one of the characters develops amnesia. Disconnected from their past, they are disoriented in the present, and incapable of knowing who they are.

“Memory” translates the Latin word memoria and the Greek word anamnesis. Both words have a strong sense of “mindfulness” in the present – not just dredging up the past. From our Jewish fathers in the Faith we have inherited a sense of “remembering” holy events like the Passover in a way that makes those events present here and now. Every Catholic Mass prays an anamnesis prayer that calls to mind saving events both past and future: the suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, as well as his coming again in glory. We enter God’s eternal memory and the healing it brings.

Memory is the root of our identity. Memory is what makes the virtue of Hope possible. The more integrated our memory of the past, the more our hearts can expand in a deep desire for eternal life – not merely as a future reality, but as something substantial that is present to us here and now. For the Saints, the joy and peace of the Kingdom is present in every moment of surrender to the Father’s will. They become the Kingdom, visibly present and active.

I recently returned from my annual retreat. I was blown away by my reading of Wilfrid Stinnissen’s book Into Your Hands, Father. It spoke deeply to my desire to surrender to God the Father and be blessed by Him. I wept over the pages about surrendering our past and allowing it to be healed by God.

Stinnissen makes a shocking claim: “We receive a completely new past.” As you allow your wounds to be touched by the wounds of Jesus, “the healing goes back into time and transforms the very moment when you were hurt into a moment of grace.”

How is that possible, you ask? Surely you cannot change the past! True. The past no longer exists. But our memory of the past abides, and is often laden with lies. It is partial and fragmented and distorted. It needs to be taken up into God’s eternal love and truth. Jesus teaches us that He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. He makes all things new – even our memory of the past.

Remember that our painful memories are often from the point of view of a very frightened little child. Even secular therapists can be quite skilled at helping an adult to go back in time in order to coach the hurting little child into seeing a much bigger and happier picture.

Faith can do much more. If we ask and seek and knock, God will reveal Himself in our painful memories. He was there blessing us. Our sorrowful memories are then transformed into glorious ones, and we discover our deeper identity in Christ. Our wounds become like the wounds of Jesus, radiating risen glory, and a source of healing and blessing.

Healing of our Memory is not an erasing of the past – quite the opposite. It is a plunging into the whole truth about our past, found only in the Father’s love. Our past becomes more God’s past than our own. We reach a point where we truly give thanks and praise God for our past, because it is part of an amazing story of a child of God who is fearfully, wonderfully made. Healed and integrated, our memory opens us to an abundance of God’s blessing in the present, and a total freedom to surrender our future.

Holy Desires

To be human is to desire. Our hearts are made by God to thirst and to be satisfied, to seek and to find. The very virtue of Hope is defined as a desire for the fulfillment of God’s promises. Our whole human journey begins with small seeds of divine desire planted within us, slowly growing until they reach full fruition.

Perhaps one of the biggest pitfalls for Christians is to think of desire as “selfish.” True, we are ultimately called to lay down our lives in imitation of Jesus. But we cannot make a gift without first having something to give. Far from being a “selfish” thing, our desires are actually the way in which God’s grace effects the most growth in us, so that our self-offering to him will truly be for the praise of his glory.

Let me begin by making a distinction between our urges, our needs, and our desires. They often feel the same to the undiscerning heart, but are quite different once we start paying attention.

By “urges” I mean the daily temptations that entice us to grasp for things that we do not actually desire or need, things which will actually harm our relationship with God, self, and others. Typically that comes in the form of one or more of the seven deadly sins: gluttony, lust, greed, envy, anger, sloth, or pride. In the throes of these urges, we experience them as something to be grasped and possessed, indeed as something that we must have. For a visual, just think of Gollum seeking after his “precious” in The Lord of the Rings.

Resisting unhealthy urges can be a battle – a fierce battle indeed if we have been ignoring our authentic human needs. In my last post, I described those needs – on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. We can choose to disregard them. But when we do, our humanity is walking wounded, and we make ourselves much more susceptible to urges and temptations that promise us much and deliver little. Our own brain will propose the urges to us as a way of trying to feel better. Or the devil will enter in and attack. The devil is not God; he cannot create. But he is definitely the enemy of our human nature who loves to torment us, to kick us when we’re down. When we are feeling empty or desperate in our human needs, he finds it so much easier to sow his lies and ensnare us in habits of sin.

As important as it is to acknowledge our authentic human needs and distinguish them from our urges, it is our holy desires that matter the most. It is there that the grace of God meets us.

Last year, I had the joy of participating at a priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center in Tallahassee. The presenter, Dr. Bob Schuchts, focused on this theme of “Holy Desires.” He reminded us that the very word “desire” is of French origin, meaning “from the Lord.” We discover who we truly are by getting in touch with our deepest and holiest desires. It is there that we encounter God the Father’s love for us, and our own unique identity and blessing from Him.

It is through our desires that spiritual growth happens. One day, Scripture tells us, our capacity for God will be so great that we will see Him face to face and, by that experience, be transformed to become like God (1 John 3:2). The great and mighty Moses was warned that no man could see God’s face and live (Exodus 33:20). Holy desires change all that. Little by little, they help us to become ready. They stretch and expand our hearts, slowly but surely increasing our capacity to receive divine gifts. The more we desire, the more we receive. The more we receive, the more we desire. The process transforms us as we become who we are.

There is an old medieval axiom, quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur – “whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” In the case of God’s grace, He always fills us when we ask him, but our capacity to receive is limited. Saint Augustine puts it this way: “God wants us to exercise our desire through our prayers, so that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give us. His gift is very great indeed, but our capacity is too small and limited to receive it.”

In some cases, it is our selfish urges that constrict us. Until we are willing to die to self, we cannot be filled. We are coming to God with clenched fists rather than open hands. I suspect He smiles at us. We are like little children clutching our pennies when he is ready to give us hundred dollar bills. He patiently waits until we are ready to trust and surrender. In other cases, we genuinely have the desire, but need more time to grow. Even though God’s grace moves swiftly, all authentic human growth happens slowly. Little by little, his grace stretches us through holy desires, careful not to break us.

Gregory the Great describes how this transformation happens in our hearts: “When our desires are not satisfied, they grow stronger, and becoming stronger they take hold of their object. Holy desires likewise grow with anticipation, and if they do not grow, they are not really desires. Anyone who succeeds in attaining the truth has burned with such a love.”

Have you burned with such a love? Are you in touch with your deepest desires? They are God’s gifts to you. It is He who has planted them.

As God lays bare our hearts, we might be surprised to discover that what we desire the deepest is also what we fear the most intensely, namely, to lay down our life in love. As we get in touch with those deepest desires, we can start responding and growing in them, removing any obstacles and seeking the nurturing we need. Little by little, God will see to the growth and fruitfulness.