At a recent Sunday liturgy, the Church heard Jesus speaking to His disciples about a fire that He desires to see set ablaze on the earth (Luke 12:49-53). This fire is made known through a metaphorical baptism that will come through Christ’s anguish. This baptism into His life will cause a division among people to the point that it may tear apart households. In this passage, the Church is presented with a discomforting image of Jesus. I dare say that during our current times we need to lean into this image of Jesus – He is a Jesus who makes us uncomfortable.
Why uncomfortable? Because this earth is not our home. We are called to a new heaven and a new earth. The image of fire carries with it many different points of understanding about the Church. The Carmelites, through their ministry in and to the Church, have turned to this image of the divine fire as a means of speaking to the hearts of the faithful in hope of their conversion. It is a conversion that calls us, like the people of Israel, to turn back to the one, true God and live the life He offered to them and offers to us freely.
Elijah and a Healing Purification
Fire as a means of portraying conversion has existed in the Carmelite tradition from our beginning because of the original hermits who settled on Mount Carmel. In their settlement, they tied the Order to the witness of Elijah, making him their spiritual father. Before and leading up to the time of Elijah, the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the pagan prophets of Baal not through force but through seduction. Can we, the faithful, today say that we are any better than they?
God sent the Prophet Elijah to convert His people from idolatry to faith in the true God, their savior. Idolatry is a sin of spiritual dullness. Not dullness in the sense of boredom, but dullness in the sense of a lack of brightness and vividness in the soul. Idols offer immediate gratification for the banal hungers of the human person. With immediate gratification, the human person grows dull and may choose to no longer seek the satisfaction of the deeper desire for God that exists in the human heart. The fire of zeal that animates that deepest drive is left uncared for because of the distracted satisfaction human idols offer us. The eyes of the idolater became dull and then blind like that of Isaac who desired the savory food that Esau offered. In blindness, Isaac could no longer see clearly his own innate desire for God.
Elijah confronted the spiritual blindness of idolatry in his time. The people of Israel could no longer see clearly the wickedness they had succumbed to nor the pain it was causing them. It took an encounter between the true and false prophets to heal the sight of Israel. It was the fire that came down from heaven at the command of God’s faithful and faith-filled prophet that brought about a purification of sight for Israel. In regaining their spiritual sight, it was then possible for the people to once again respond to the call of the Lord and purify themselves by ridding the Promised Land of the false idols and their prophets that Israel had let roam in their lands – and hearts – freely.
St. Elizabeth and the Fire of Love
It is from this idea of a purifying fire that St. Elizabeth of the Trinity offers even deeper clarity about the divine fire of Jesus. She wrote, “Our God is a consuming fire; that is a fire of love which destroys, which transforms into itself everything it touches.” Knowing this divine fire as a means for the purification of the human person is a necessary thing. Recognizing that fire for what it is, however, allows the soul to embrace it with joy.
As St. Elizabeth notes, the Bible attests to the fire with which our Lord desires to set the world ablaze with is His love (Numbers 11:1; Luke 3:16; Acts 2:3-4; 1 Corinthians 3:13; 2 Thessalonians 1:7). St. Elizabeth writes that there are two divine acts that this love causes in our lives: an act of destruction and an act of transformation.
The act of destruction was already hinted at above through the culminating moment of the Prophet Elijah’s life. However, purification is a term that encapsulates both destruction and transformation. All idols (false gods) consume those who worship them, for that is how they gain life, through theft. Thus, when a person is being consumed by his idols, the bonds of idolatry must be destroyed so the divine life can once again fill the heart that was torn away from it by the heart’s idols. Yet, much damage has been done to the heart during its acts of idol worshipping. Idols make the human heart stony and brittle, unable to hold anything without shattering. A heart that is freed from its petrifying idols can now be transformed by the love of God, which is made known to us via the image of fire. In her wisdom St. Elizabeth is echoing the insight that God offers to us in the Book of Wisdom Chapter 3, verse 6, “As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.”
God’s Grace and His Sight: Wisdom from St. Therese
A soul freed from its stony prison and transformed by the fire of God’s love can now see with the eyes of God, who, through His love, desires us to become like Him. This reality is called by the Fathers of the Church “divinization” and is not merely a future reality but one that occurs in the here and now. The reality of the divine life in us and for us now was spoken about by St. Therese of Lisieux: “Everything is a grace,” she said in one of her last conversations in June 1897, near the Solemnity of Pentecost.
In the light of God’s love, with eyes that can now see by that light, one can perceive the providence of God. In reflecting upon this wisdom of St. Therese, Fr. Anastasius of the Holy Rosary, O.C.D. wrote, “Sometimes it is said: I want to become a saint in spite of my difficulties. However, if everything is a grace, why not rather say: I will become a saint by means of all my difficulties.”
The substance that makes up the cross we are called to carry is the wood of our suffering. As Christ’s Cross is burned in the fire of His love (depicted fittingly in the traditional image of His Sacred Heart), our cross too is meant to be placed in that fire. It is a fire which transforms and illuminates our suffering. In the light offered by God’s fire of love, even those things that appear as burdens are revealed to be means by which His love has entered our lives making it possible for us to be consumed by His love.
I know this reality very personally. As of this writing, it has been two months since I received my prosthetic leg. I lost my left foot and part of my leg in March of 2019. At times, when I sit in my cell and the pain that occurs from the use of a prosthetic once again wafts over me, I simply look at the crucifix above my bed and ask, “Why God?” Recently, God has seemed fit to respond with a simple, “Martha, Martha.”
My “why” is not merely a simple question but an expression of all my desires of what I wanted to do and what I felt I could do for God and His Church. God’s response reminds me that I fret about many things, and, like Mary, I need to accept the place He has given me. It is through His love that I was able to move once again to that place of peace from which my own desires had foolishly brought me. Via this encounter, I am beginning to understand St. Therese’s wisdom that “everything is a grace.” For it is God’s Will, not my will, that is meant to be done.
Our True Home
Above, I wrote that “this earth is not our home.” This statement is not a veiled remark about escaping from our responsibilities while on our earthly pilgrimage. I wrote that statement because the new heaven and new earth are not only a future reality but one that is tasted now. Love is revelatory. Inasmuch as we live in, by, and through God’s love on this pilgrimage of life, His love transforms the earth. When one experiences God’s love through His bride the Church, his world begins to change. Just as structures of sin arises from individual sins, the new heaven and earth arises from lives lived in divine love.
Pope Francis reminds us, in his encyclical letter, Laudato Si, that this earth is our common home. It is in the here and now that we are afforded moments of love that make it possible to see what God is doing in this home, through us, to prepare us for our eternal home. We play a part in the transformation of our earthly home because He has allowed us to be the people who spread His fire of love that sets this world ablaze.
Your blood flowed in streams and still seeps from all your wounds. The last drop is not yet spilled. True, the pallor of death already covers your body, but in your eyes I still read the glow of the fire of your love that burns like a fever that consumes you until it is fulfilled. ~ Bl. Titus Brandsma, O. Carm. (A reflection on Albert Servaes’ First Station of the Cross)