A Swallow of Fire

THE HEAT WAVE continues its relentless assault.

I have spent the day in prayer, answering mail, doing laundry.

Friends downloaded a list of every country on the face of the earth so I can pray for each nation by name.

What a joy to be a member of the human family!

It is not the seemingly obvious wars between nations, as destructive as they are in their own right, which in reality have the greatest number of casualties.

It is that other war, raging in each soul,  in the spirit of each nation, which takes the greater toll.

On the battlefields of mud, soaked with human blood, the physical end comes with physical death.

The casualties of spiritual warfare, unless crying out for His mercy, risk facing an eternal fate.

St. Paul encourages the Corinthians, and all of us, that while we are engaged in the true battle against visible and invisible evil we are well armed {cf. 2 Cor.10:3,4} and speaking to the Ephesians advises us on how to be protected as well {cf.Ep.6:16,17} – simply put, not to rely on our own strength!

Of course this means we strive to live in reality, to live the Beatitudes, to live with and for Christ, to be filled with life, with love – to love!

ONE DAY Father Lot went to Father Joseph and told him, ‘ As far as I can, I keep my rule. I eat little, I pray and am silent. I work with my hands and share my bread with the poor. As best I can, I strive to purify my heart. What else should I do? ‘ Then Father Joseph stood up and stretched out his arms, and from his fingers shot tongues of fire. ‘ If you want, ‘ he said, ‘ you can become a living flame. ‘

To become a living flame: that is the Gospel proclaimed by Jesus the Master……There is no secret about the nature of that fire. It is simply love. Love is the fire the Son of God came to cast on the earth…the burning passion for His Father and for us that bore Him to the Cross and through it to His Resurrection. Love is the fire the risen Lord pours into the hearts of all those who follow Him, those who hear His voice today as well as His first friends.

This love is more than a human word or metaphor. It is the living Spirit of the living God, alive in us. It is the Holy Spirit who pours God’s love into us and makes us living flames. If we want, then, we can become living flames of love because, as Jesus has promised, we shall receive abundantly.

……we are not on fire. Why not?….we are uncertain that such extravagance is either possible or desirable…we are honestly not sure how to ask for the Spirit, even if we do sometimes see clearly that we can have no real joy outside the fire of His love. [i]

Preparing for Holy Mass this evening my heart was moved to celebrate the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, so as to become open to that very fire.It came to my heart during thanksgiving after Mass that part of the reality of Divine Fire is its purifying aspect. Who wants to be purified, to be burned?The Sacrament of Confession is the purifying fire of His Divine Mercy, so we know the burning is tender, effective, and the fire of His Love more intense, enduring, than His purifying action, because His Mercy is His Love!A purifying and humbling experience of all this for a priest, notwithstanding the personal aspect when he himself is penitent, is in the celebration for the disciples of Christ of the Sacrament of Confession. { True nowadays many say ‘ of Reconciliation’, but that sounds so ‘negotiating’, whereas there is nothing ambiguous about confession!}What is so deeply moving is to be there, fully experiencing the beating, tender, listening Heart of Christ.The Heart of Christ Priest.Listening with love, to the plea of His little ones, the poor, the humble, the trusting of His Mercy.Men, women, children of all backgrounds and with their sins from the seemingly venial to the most grotesque of human depravity and yet, when they come, their trust in Him is exquisite.There is perhaps nothing we understand less about the God who permits evil to exist than His mercy towards those who co-operate with, or initiate, evil.How often am I pleased when people remain behind the grill rather than sit in front of me, for I do not wish any to see me weep.I weep not because of the weight of their sins, but from being touched in the depths of my heart by their humility.Protestants who have lost, and Catholics who have abandoned this Sacrament will argue they can confess their sins to God directly.Mostly that is an illusion.It is true the ever present God hears all prayer, answers all prayer IF it is directed to Him.

Perhaps one of the most scary yet consoling teachings of Christ [cf. Lk. 18:11]  touches directly on this point – scary because the one man prays “to himself” – consoling because the one who most resembles the majority of people simply trusts his plea for mercy will be heard.

It is but one of the teachings from Jesus about how God our Father judges the human heart.To whom am I confessing once I have taken up my solitary position?No, at least for an ego like mine, the danger is too great I would be rationalistically confessing to myself.With Sacramental Confession even though I know the priest is in the person of Christ, and it is Christ I confess to, the veil of the human being Christ places before me adds the necessary touch of purification which offers to me and all penitents the opportunity to, in truth, embrace the humility of the Publican.The Nuns prepared us wonderfully for First Confession at school and the parish priests stressed the mercy of God, as well as the seriousness of sin.I recall they did their job so well confession was something more anticipated than feared.There was some fear within me, but it had more to do with the newness of the experience than any doubts about the immensity of His Mercy.Such fears would come later, when deliberate sinning of the truly serious kind was my constant addiction.The emphasis was on mercy because, unlike today when the clear teaching of the Church is so often ignored and the sequence of first confession and first communion too frequently is reversed, confession was presented as proper, humble prelude to communion.The importance of the proper sequence has been brought home to me as a priest on more than one occasion when children, making their first confession, will tell me how long they have waited to confess thus and so because it burdened them.Their joy once absolution is given radiates on their faces.That’s what I mean about the blessing and the humbling grace of being a confessor, you are drawn not to the sins but to the marvellous reality of a soul restored to right relationship with the Blessed Trinity.Sometimes penitents weep during confession as they experience the grace of true contrition and the flood of Divine Mercy pouring into their beings.

Those who go to God have a great struggle, first exhaustion and THEN ineffable joy. Those who wish to light a fire get smoke in their eyes and shed tears; then they obtain the desired result. We too must light the divine fire with tears and hardship. The more one aspires to the love of God, the more will one value this work……If anyone does not destroy the passions of the soul with the fire of such tears, he will never be able to acquire charity…..in real life charity is a living thing which begins with conversion, then is purified and grows towards unattainable perfection, always drawing nourishment from the same sap: the grace of God and humble human sincerity.

My first confession left me just so exhausted but unburdened in a way I had never experienced in my short life.This was how confession was for me for a few years, until I entered the period of prolonged addiction when it became a terrible thing, for I knew I was being less than truthful and shame seemed to render me almost mute.The problem was not within the sacrament, nor with any of the priests who were, with one unfortunate temperamental exception, compassionate and understanding.The problem was with my increasingly neurotic self. But I would still come out of the confessional as determined as I could be to keep the promise to avoid the ‘ near occasions of sin ‘ and ‘ to amend my life ‘ and, at least for a day or two, such would be the case.

WRITING THIS I am reminded of one of my favourite stories from the Desert Fathers, a teaching of the great Abba Anthony, for today I took some time to cull more of my possessions and was caught up in the struggle, to risk not having, to risk having to trust Him to provide what is needed:

A BROTHER renounced the world and gave his goods to the poor, but he kept back a little for his personal expenses. He went to see Abba Anthony. When he told him this, the old man said to him, ‘ If you want to be a monk, go into the village, buy some meat, cover your naked body with it and come here like that.’ The brother did so, and the dogs and the birds tore at his flesh. When he came back the old man asked him whether he had followed his advice. He showed him his wounded body, and Saint Anthony said, ‘ Those who renounce the world but want to keep something for themselves are torn in this way by the demons who make war on them.


{ Here I am moved to insert my favourite of all Abba Anthony’s sayings, because it has always struck me as a vision of our own era and what the world tells Christians, is this:


[l]  }

  The great day arrived!After Baptism there is no greater experience than to receive Jesus Christ Risen, Glorified in the Most Holy Eucharist where He is Real, Present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity!In the whole realm of human belief systems, be they religious or philosophical, even in the whole area of the sciences where there remain aspects of the material universe which are still beyond empirical certainty, yes, in many respects even beyond the most audacious capacity of human imagination — and yet as tangible, accessible, consumable as a morsel of bread and sip of wine — there is the mysterious reality of the Holy Eucharist.Theologians, philosophers, scientists, and to a certain extent artists, have struggled from time immemorial to make sense of matter.Matter, anti-matter, visible to the naked eye matter such as rocks, invisible matter such as certain forms of energy, invisible to the naked eye, detectable by our capacity to invent instruments that can ‘see’ for us; the origins of matter, the transformation of matter from a type of static, or potential energy state such as coal or oil in the ground, to fuel for cars or heat for cooking, warmth for comfort; even the vegetable matter from the garden which becomes fuel for the human body, energy for the inquisitive, reflective mind.For the authentic theologian matter becomes an aspect of contemplating the Divine, especially within the mysteries of Incarnation, Resurrection, Sacrament; for the philosopher matter is material for debate, speculation; for the scientist matter is to be discovered, studied, re-shaped, used, searched for clues about origins and destinies — hence the tension between science and philosophy — between physics and metaphysics; for the artist matter is a resource for use in creative expression:

What is the difference between ‘creator’ and ‘craftsman’? The ONE WHO CREATES bestows being itself, He brings something out of nothing — ex nihilo sui et subiecti, as the Latin puts it — and this, in the strict sensem is a mode of operation which belongs to the Almighty alone. The CRAFTSMAN, by contrast, uses something that already exists, to which he gives form and meaning. This is the mode of operation peculiar to man as made in the image of God. In fact, after saying that God created man and woman ‘ in His image ‘ (cf.Gn.1:27), the Bible adds that he entrusted to them the task of dominating the earth (cf.Gn.1:28)……….God therefore called man into existence, committing to him the craftsman’s task………With loving regard, the divine Artist passes on to the human artist a spark of His own surpassing wisdom, calling him to share in His creative power…..

Why the reference to artistry when contemplating the Holy Eucharist?Once the Father had created matter, breathed Himself into the matter of human flesh, thus transforming what to that moment was only material matter into matter with a spiritual immortal soul, the mystery of the human person, where it is the soul which gives form to the body, the spiritual is determinate of the material, became, and, for a time all was well and beautiful, upon the earth, within and around the created, living, human beings, Adam and Eve.Then, through the sin of Adam, evil, darkness, ugliness entered creation, and the pinnacle of creation, man, became in absolute need of redemption.Only God Himself could redeem what was now lost, indeed recreate what had been desecrated. To bring this about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity took created matter upon Himself through the power of the Holy Spirit and the co-operation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and:ET VERBUM CARO FACTUM EST…..[Jn.1:14]Not only did He become a man, a living human being but He lived among us at a particular time in history and in the Most Holy Eucharist and the Ordained Priesthood STILL lives among us and with us!The Incarnation, mystery of the two natures — the created nature of matter, the human nature — and — the un-created nature, the divinity, in the One Person Jesus Christ.How can this be?Wonderfully it is a mystery!The night before He died for us, Jesus took other created matter, some bread and some wine, and in virtue of His forthcoming death and resurrection declared of the bread: THIS IS MY BODY………of the wine: THIS….. IS…….. MY BLOOD……... [Lk.22:19,20]At each Holy Mass, each Divine Liturgy, celebrated by the authentically ordained priest in apostolic succession through the laying on of hands by the Bishop, which is the calling down of the power of the Holy Spirit, in an unbroken line reaching across the millennia directly to that moment in the Upper Room with the Apostles being commissioned/ordained by Christ, the same event takes place, the same reality becomes!How can this be?Wonderfully it is a mystery!Both mysteries, the Incarnation and the Holy Mass wherein the bread and wine BECOME the Real Person Jesus, for no longer is there bread, no longer wine, but the Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity of Christ Himself, are the work of the Holy Spirit.All creation, all redemption, all sanctification is, ultimately, Trinitarian!Matter becomes not merely transformed, that is reshaped beautifully by a craftsman but in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar matter is transubstantiated— that is matter becomes in its very substance, its essence, its being, that which it was not.True the accidental, the external, the texture of the original matter remains as what is visible to the eye, tangible to the taste — but it is a type of illusion because the externals do not directly reveal the truth — though the shape of what still appears as bread and what still appears as wine, seem to indicate this is bread and wine, it is the truth that the reality is they are NOT what they appear to be!Since the actual real is always invisible only the eyes of faith can see the Real Presence.Holy Eucharist must be experienced. It cannot ever be adequately explained because love cannot be explained. Eucharist IS LOVE HIMSELF!I found an old photo of me taken right after my First Communion.In those days, with the total fast from all food and liquids from the midnight hour until communion time, it would have occurred probably at the six or seven o’clock morning Mass.I am dressed in a white shirt, white tie, white shorts, white socks, my brown shoes painted white for the occasion and a white bow is around my left arm.I am standing ridged; my hands clasped in the manner the Nuns taught us.What I had never noticed before is that I am bathed in light and it is the only photo of my childhood wherein I appear happy….no, not happy for that is a mere human emotion….I am clearly filled with that which is a gift of the Holy Spirit, joy! Imagine swallowing the sun, whole, and all that light then pours out of you, all that fire permeates your entire being.Imagine and then you will have a slight inkling of one’s First Holy Communion.