“Fire upon Earth and Prayer that Catches Flame” (8/18/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
Jesus says, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” These are Jesus’ words to us even now. And these words bear within themselves the very fire they describe. These words are ablaze with fire—the fire of divine love. Heaven and earth will pass away, but these words will not pass away, and they are ablaze with the fire of love.
Our second reading points us to this fire too. It speaks of Jesus and the Cross He endured out of his blazing love for us. We are to consider the Cross so that “we may not grow weary and lose heart.” By considering the divine love aflame in Jesus heart on the Cross, we too will catch fire. This chapter from Hebrews will eventually end with the words, “our God is a consuming fire.” Jesus even today wishes to set the earth on fire, and how he wishes it were already blazing! He desires to spread the divine love blazing in God into our hearts and throughout the whole world.
St Catherine of Siena 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). God’s blazing love leaps out into our hearts, so he is the Fire and we are the sparks. How does this happen? One key way is through prayer.
John Cassian, the 5th century monk who collected together the wisdom of the desert tradition, 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. 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 compunction over 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. 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 that 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. Abide with the Lord in the furnace.
So in the Lord’s plan and ardent desire to set the earth ablaze with divine love, your monastery is a little like a furnace. Sorry if it gets a little hot in here at times. But it’s supposed to. It’s a furnace of divine love. Of course, we’ll get a little burned.
Our opening prayer of Mass today actually captures all this perfectly, as it spoke of the warmth of God’s love, and our desires always reaching beyond what can be grasped, comprehended, felt, or entirely experienced. So I’ll close with this prayer. In it imagine that steady flame of fire, always reaching upwards beyond itself. “O God, who have prepared for those who love you good things which no eye can see. Fill our hearts, we pray, with the warmth of your love. So that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire.” Amen.