“Fire, the Prayer of Flame, Lent 2019” (3/31/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
In the beginning of a letter, St Catherine of Siena says, “I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you bathed, immersed in the blood of Christ crucified, and hidden in his open side. In the blood you will discover fire (because it was shed for love), and in his open side you will find hearty love [a strong love]. For Christ shows that everything that he does in us is done with such hearty love. Then your soul will be set ablaze with a fire of holy desire, a desire that is an impulse of love” (T158, vol 2, p 307).
These are very fine images to bring into our prayer. Images we not so much reflect on or imagine, but images we enter into. They are symbols we can enter into that set the atmosphere of our prayer: Being bathed and immersed in the blood of Christ-crucified and discovering fire within this blood. For Christ’s redeeming love does engulf us and penetrate into every dimension of our being, as if we were immersed in his blood that is aflame with God’s love.
Last week, the one-word title was “Blood,” and now it’s “Fire.” What am I up to? I’m trying to figure that out myself. I guess when talking about prayer, we’re going to have to use symbols along the way. Symbols tend to be multi-faceted and polyvalent, drawing together many different meanings and perspectives, all into one. And they are just beyond our conceptual grasp or mastery. We will happily keep some conceptual clarity and doctrinal precision but when wrestling with prayer we’re also going to have to use symbols in our discourse.
In praying, we enter into a mystery. We enter into an interaction with the greatest mystery of all, God himself. In the art of prayer, not all is clear-cut. In the art of prayer, moreover every aspect of us is brought into play, our whole being. Not only intellect and will, but also intuition, affections, imagination, the heart. Every dimension of our being is taken up into the mystery of prayer and encounters the even greater mystery of God.
That’s why when the Saints and mystics speak of prayer, they often end up moving into symbolic discourse. How are they going to describe the indescribable? How are they going to speak of the unspeakable? What can they say most adequately about the mystery?
Last week it was “Blood.” This week it is “Fire.” If one knows St Catherine of Siena, he might have been able to guess, just from these titles, that it was a Dominican giving these talks. Blood and Fire are perhaps Catherine’s two favorite words and often appear together. In her letters they sometimes come out as almost random shouts from the depths of her soul. Blood! Fire! How else can she express what the Lord is doing in her soul? How else can she express her burning desire for the salvation of souls? She says, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze.” But I guess for that to happen, we first must be set ablaze.
Like last week, we’ll begin with St Catherine, but then we’ll look at some other Saints too and piece together something about prayer in terms of fire. Mainly I want to highlight two aspects of fire as it’s used in the tradition. Fire, as purifying; and fire as unifying. Purifying and unifying. These are good themes for Lent, as we journey towards Easter. I’ll actually focus more on the unifying aspect of fire, but even as fire unites it also purifies.
And that’s what the Saints say about God. The closer we draw to Him, the more God’s pure holiness burns away our impurities. That’s why in the life of prayer, when we are actually drawing closer to God, it can feel at times like quite the opposite. Because with this union comes purification. There can be a simultaneous joy and desolation in the midst of this. As one of Flannery O’Connor’s characters says, “Even the mercy of the Lord burns.”
In another letter St Catherine says, “I Caterina, poor miserable servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, encourage you and send you my greetings in the precious blood of God’s Son. I long to see you with heart and affection consumed in his consumed and blazing love. This love of his consumed and burned and destroyed all our sins on the wood of the most holy cross. And this sweet fire has never stopped and will never stop burning…[Even in our weakness and sickness because of sin,] the medicine for our sickness is none other than this fire of love, a love you can never exhaust.” (T 246, vol 2, 252-3).
Catherine presents before us an important lesson for prayer. Our own fervor and ardor fluctuates. It goes up and down throughout our days. And it can sometimes feel like God’s own love is fluctuating with ours. If we were left to ourselves, we might conclude that. But we know by faith that this is not the case. But that God’s love is constant, stable, unchanging. Despite our own interior states and fluctuations, the fire of God’s love is always blazing forth. In Catherine’s words, “This sweet fire has never stopped and will never stop burning…[God’s love is] a love you can never exhaust.”
It’s like what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (12:28-29). God is a fire of love that always blazes forth and so we have a kingdom that cannot be shaken, however much our own souls may shake and sway with the wind of daily life.
The purifying aspects of the fire of love show up throughout St Catherine’s writings. But she also has some very rich descriptions of the unifying aspects of the fire of God’s love. She adapts the Lord’s words from John 15:5, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches” and has the Lord say, “I am the Fire, and you are the sparks” (vol I, p 42-3). The Lord is Fire and we are sparks that shoot off from this Fire and can return to this Fire in the union of love. We shouldn’t push the image too far, but there’s something to the comparison. “I am the Fire, and you are the sparks.”
In speaking of the soul’s union with God, St Catherine also uses the image of a log burning in fire (T 137; I, 181-2). Along with other writers, John of the Cross uses the same image. John says, “the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it as beautiful as the fire is itself. Once transformed, the wood no longer has any activity or passivity of its own…It possesses the properties and performs the actions of fire: It is dry and it dries; it is hot and it gives off heat; it is brilliant and it illuminates…It is the fire that produces all these properties in the wood” (DN II, 10.1).
For these Saints, fire as a symbol of union with God is so effective because the fire and the wood remain distinct, as do God and the soul. Yet the wood comes to take on the properties of the fire, drying, giving off heat, and shining. Similarly the soul comes to take on the properties of God in drawing closer to him, becoming more and more godlike. The wood takes on the activity of the raging fire as it too blazes forth, while remaining dependent on the fire all the way through. And so the soul shares the operations and attributes of God in this union, remaining dependent on God all the way through.
Among the church fathers, the image used is that of iron in the fire. St Basil the Great says, “Just as iron thrown into the midst of a fire does not lose the nature of iron; and yet, having been inflamed by the blazing fire, it will have received the entire nature of fire, and in its color, heat, and activity is changed into fire; so, by reason of the communion which they have with [God] who is holy by His very nature, the powers of the soul receive His entire substance and possess, as it were, an innate holiness. The difference between them and the Holy Spirit is this, that the Holy Spirit is holiness by nature whereas holiness in them is by participation” (J. Arintero, vol 1, 31-2).
We might wonder, As the piece of iron or wood shares in the very properties of the fire and the very activity of the fire, what might that mean in terms of the soul’s union with God? More specifically, what might this mean for prayer? John Cassian, who collected together the wisdom of the hermits and spiritual fathers of 5th century, describes what he calls fiery prayer or the prayer of flame. He says much of our prayer consists of supplication, intercession, thanksgiving, and making prayers. Yet he says, “these four kinds [of prayer] sometimes offer opportunities for richer prayers.…Frequently very fervent and fiery prayers arise.” Cassian says sometimes these souls “are rapt by their fervent heart to that fiery prayer which can be neither seized nor expressed by the mouth of man…Conceiving [various things] at one and the same time and rushing through them all, like a kind of ungraspable and devouring flame, [he] pours out to God wordless prayers of the purest fervor” (IX. 15).
Cassian is clear that other kinds of prayers are necessary and we need to return to them, but at times our prayer catches fire. It’s the prayer of flame. This is God’s action and properties exerting their influence. Like the wood in the midst of fire, the soul glows with God. God’s own operations and activity predominate in the soul. It’s a receptive kind of prayer, receptive to what God wants to do. And receptive to God himself. Our prayer at times can be set aflame by the God who is a consuming Fire.
How does it come about practically, we might wonder? Well it is a grace that we can receive only when God wills. Yet there are ways we can dispose ourselves to receive such graces. Cassian mentions certain occasions in which this prayer can come about, this “fiery…wordless prayer,” as he calls it. He says, “Sometimes, while we have been singing, the verse of some psalm has offered the occasion for fiery prayer. Now and then the melodious modulation of a brother’s voice has excited minds to intense prayer…Likewise, the exhortation of a perfect man and a spiritual conference have frequently aroused the disposition of those present to very abundant prayers…The recollection of our own lukewarmness and negligence has also sometimes introduced a salutary ardor of spirit into us. And in this fashion there is no doubt that innumerable occasions exist when, by the grace of God, the lukewarmness and sluggishness of our minds can be aroused” (IX. 25-26).
From this list from Cassian on things that may lead to this “fiery…wordless prayer,” we can see it involves fairly common experiences. Some words from a psalm or Scripture can stir up this wordless prayer of flame. As can the devotion of someone else, a sermon, or a recollection of our own negligence.
In the 7th century, there was a hermit named Isaac of Syria, who seems to build on this tradition and his own experience when he speaks of a “contemplation…clothed in fiery intuitions.” So the fiery, wordless prayer of Cassian is described a little more exactly in Isaac’s phrase, “contemplation clothed in fiery intuitions.” Wordless prayer could give the idea of a completely blank mind and emptiness. But no, it’s fiery intuitions at play here. They are intuitions you cannot quite describe or put into words, not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because they surpass what can be put into words. And the fact that they are ‘fiery’ highlights they are intuitions aflame with charity. They are affective intuitions.
Isaac also describes this “contemplation clothed in fiery intuitions” as “a state of continual wonder.” It’s a state of adoration of the God who so surpasses us that we can only try to reach out towards him through fiery intuitions. As Issac says, “his mind stands still in awestruck wonder, and his heart follows God as a captive.” These are some choice phrases Isaac of Syria gives us, ‘awestruck wonder with our heart following God as a captive, and a contemplation clothed in fiery intuitions’ (Hom #49).
And the advice given by the spiritual masters is the same. When our prayer has not caught fire, we continue praying the psalms, reading the Scriptures, meditating on some mystery of Christ’s life, using words and concepts. Yet when our contemplation does become clothed in fiery intuitions or we spontaneously fall silent in awestruck wonder with our heart following God as captive, we yield. We yield to God’s work of grace in our souls, we gently give way to the gentle flame growing within.
Like a fire just getting started, we might breathe gently on the flame and add just a little kindling, an intuition, a concept or two as kindling on the fire. It’s a way of cooperating with grace. These intuitions in our meditation on the Faith can then become more and more fiery intuitions in awestruck wonder over the surpassing beauty of the Lord.
Sometimes the fire is vigorous. But at other times the fire is a bit more calm, steady, and still. This can be just as good of a fire. You may look at the flame of one of these candles here on the altar and think that nothing is going on. Doesn’t the flame just look inert and lifeless? Perhaps it seems like that…until you touch it! Then you realize the energy that’s alive in the flame.
Prayer can be like that, one’s attention rapt in awestruck wonder, may be rather still, calm, and steady. Until someone touches it! Until someone presents a need or something to be done for the glory of God, then you see the energy of charity that was always burning in that still flame, a flame steadily burning for the Lord. Even if it’s buried under a heap of ashes at times, that steady flame of love can be burning. Charity can go on quietly doing its work in the depths of the soul. Our love for God at times is shown through persevering in prayer, through faithfulness, through abiding with the Lord even through the difficulty. Abide in me, and I in you. That too is love. Abide with the Lord in the darkness and the desert. That too is prayer aflame with love.
St Teresa of Avila says that love consists in a strong determination, in striving, in asking and desiring. She says, “Perhaps we don’t know what love is. I wouldn’t be very surprised, because it doesn’t consist in great delight but in desiring with strong determination to please God in everything, in striving…and in asking Him for the advancement of the honor and glory of His Son and…the Catholic Church. These are the signs of love.” She says at other times, these souls “would be right if they engaged for a while in making acts of love, praising God, rejoicing in His goodness, that He is who He is, and in desiring His honor glory” (IC, IV.1.6-.7). These phrases about striving, praising, rejoicing, desiring get at a certain inclination of the soul.
Simone Weil, I think captures all this in one simple sentence. She says, “Love is a direction and not a state of the soul.” Experientially she’s right. We could quibble with her and say, Well since charity is a virtue, a habit of the soul, it is in fact a state of the soul. That’s true. But I think we know what she means on the level of experience, “Love is a direction and not a state of the soul.” Love is not so much a pleasant experience, or a good feeling, or a state of consciousness. No, it’s a direction of the soul, always aiming at God, tending toward him, striving with determination, desiring, pressing forward toward God. Love is the direction the soul is moving in. Love is a flame that always reaches upwards in the direction of God. The burning of love at times may not seem to be doing much, but in fact it can still be burning and reaching up towards God. The flame burning upwards in the direction of God. Looking at the flame, it might not seem like much is going on…until you touch it.
I’ll close with one of the stories from the desert fathers. In it, a monk approaches one of the renowned spiritual fathers, the abba. The monk has been living the monastic life and doing all the right things, and he wants to know what more he can do. The answer which you’ll hear as we close, I take to be: keep doing your daily duties but work on suffusing them more with the fire of love. These ten candles on the altar are a good symbol of the Abba’s answer and a good symbol of our little flames of love, always trying to reach upwards toward God. So here’s the story: “Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, ‘Abba as far as I can I say my Office [of prayers], I fast, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?’ Then Abba Joseph stood up and stretched out his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’