I had my major conversion experience the summer after high school. As a result, I was a particularly zealous Catholic (though perhaps not the wisest) during my time at college. During those years, I made it a point to attend daily mass at noon. And of those hundreds of masses I attended, I am sad to say that I don’t remember most of the homilies given.
But one has always stuck with me.
The priest sat in a chair in the small chapel area and spoke in a soft, deliberate tone. He then told the story of Abba Joseph of Panephysis, an early Church Father and desert monk. One day, another monk named Abba Lot came to see him because Lot was struggling. The story goes thus:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “Why not be turned into fire?”
The priest at mass told this story without fanfare or drama, yet I have never forgotten it. Something about it struck a chord with me. Here I was, running around as a young Catholic doing all of the things that I thought were necessary for a good Catholic to do: daily mass, daily rosary, adoration, confession, prayer groups, retreats, etc. And to be sure there those are all good things. But the question still hits me:
Why not become fire?
As I have gotten older, I have understood this question to be at the heart of the Christian life. Habit and routine, even of the spiritual and religious kind, make life easier. But they also have disadvantages. The first is that we can go on “auto-pilot” and lose that intentionality and intensity of the spontaneous. When you are in a conversation with someone and they give the prefunctory responses to your problems without really listening, we know that their hearts are not in it. It can be the same with us in our spiritual habits where we “rattle on the pagans do.” (Matt 6:7).
But the other problem is that we think that the activity is the end in itself. If we asked the average Catholic about what makes them a good Catholic, how many would say things like “I go to Church on Sunday, I went to Catholic school, I give to charity, etc.?” And all of those are good things. I think of my instinct to answer that question by laying out a laundrey list of the prayers I pray or the activities to which I give my time.
But these activiites are the means and not the end of the Christian life. What is important is what is at the heart. As CS Lewis wrote, “A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits etc.) can do the journey on their own.” (Letters of CS Lewis, 18 July 1957)
The crutch is good, but the goal is the healthy leg. The activities are good, but they are there to help transform us into who we are supposed to be.
And we should be fire.
We recently celebrated Pentecost. And in His wisdom, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles like fire. Fire is something that blazes and heats in a dramatic way. But even more than this, it sets the things around it ablaze. The activities we do, like those of Abba Lot, help nurture that fire and kindle it in others. But if there is no fire at the heart of our lives, then all our actives are just rearranging the dry kindling.
Have you taken time in your prayer to feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in you? Do you let that fire burn inside so that you almost shake with His powerful love?
All of the things we do should be a window into that fiery furnace in our hearts where the eternal flame of God sets our lives on fire!
Veni Sancte Spiritus!
Copyright 2023, WL Grayson