Of books and trees and hearts



“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” In using this expression, we’re often speaking about an external appearance that doesn’t do justice to the true beauty that lies within a person or idea. We’re told that, sure, the outside isn’t much to look at, but just wait until you get to the inside, to the core. That’s where the real beauty is.

As we move into our Lenten season, with its increased focus on improving the interior life, I’d like to turn this metaphor around. What if the cover of the book is actually beautiful, and it’s the pages inside that are the “unattractive” part? What if the surface looks great, nearly flawless, but what lies beneath needs some help?

Several years ago, I was away on a silent retreat. As God often does when we seek him in the silence, away from our usual routines, he very quickly made me aware of an area in my life that he wanted me to address. I saw with clarity that I had been adding much stress to my life in trying to present an idealized image of myself and my family to the world. Out of pride and vanity, my focus was far too often on the “cover of the book.” I was rarely letting other people or God inside my heart, into my weakness. The Lord was challenging me to contemplate this during the retreat — and asking me to change. Great.

With all of this swirling around in my head, I went out for a long walk on a wooded driveway that wound around the retreat house property. Lost in my reflection, I prayed a Rosary and breathed in the crisp, cool air of a blue-skied winter day. Things were quiet along the path as I prayed, meditating on the mysteries of the Rosary and lost in my own thoughts.

So I was startled to look up and see, right beside me on the path, a giant, majestic oak tree lying on the ground. With the exception of its horizontal position, it looked strong and mighty and beautiful. And I wondered why someone would have cut it down.

It wasn’t until I walked past it and came around the other side that I saw it. The tree had been hollowed out. Whatever disease or critters had attacked it, clearly this tree had, quite literally, been eaten away from the inside and had fallen down on its own. This tree, which looked so perfect on the surface, had rotted at its core. And no one could have seen it — until it was too late.

The parallel to my own struggles was not lost on me. I stood there, thinking of God’s retreat challenge. What was happening to me inside while I spent time concerned with outside appearances? He was asking me to look inward.

Photo By Ben 44 / Shutterstock 140374858

Like that oak tree, we can look so strong and mighty and beautiful — and yet still be falling apart on the inside. The world sees our outer strength, but deep inside we can be a mess.

We all have wounds inflicted by others — things people have said and done to hurt us in the past that have left scars. We also have self-inflicted wounds, due to our own choices or our own sinfulness. And we know that when our souls are wounded by sin, our relationship with God is damaged, or even ruptured.

We can try to go on like it’s OK, but it’s simply not. We can keep things inside, hidden, and make the surface look pretty. We can believe the lies of the world and seek to present a picture of perfection to others that is not reality. We compare ourselves to each other. We compare our families. We try to look strong and mighty and beautiful. We also can try to hide from God. But he sees inside, in our hearts, where there is need for healing.

This Lent, healing can begin. We can pray that we are less concerned with the superficial. And we can ask God to mend our wounded hearts. During Lent, as we fast and pray, as we approach the Way of the Cross, Jesus draws us so close — if we let him.

And he offers us one of the greatest gifts we can receive: true healing through the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Oh, what a powerful confession I experienced at that retreat many years ago! And we each can seek that same grace and renewed relationship with the Lord. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

Indeed the sacrament of Reconciliation with God brings about a true “spiritual resurrection,” restoration of the dignity and blessings of the life of the children of God, of which the most precious is friendship with God. (CCC, 1468)

Maybe we have built up a hardy exterior like the thick bark on a tree that makes it look so mighty but hides the truth. Maybe we have been more concerned with the cover of our book than with the pages inside. Maybe, then, the Lord is challenging us to look inward. And asking us to change.

This Lent, let’s take this beautiful opportunity to be real with others and real with God. To open our hearts in order to build relationships and seek forgiveness and healing where it is needed. Then surely, beneath the outside cover, the pages of our story will tell of an experience of renewal that leads to the purest Easter joy.

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