Surprised by Fire

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I didn’t know about a connection to the royal wedding until just now. Rev. Michael Curry’s sermon at that historic event has an ancient and deeply spiritual heritage.  Here is a second passage from Richard Rolle’s 14th century spiritual classic, The Fire of Love.  The prologue is one of the few places where Rolle speaks of the personal aspect of his experience plainly, not using generalities about “they” and “those” who experience the fire of love. 

Note the similarities to the brief, intermittent experiences of C. S. Lewis with which I began this blog.  Lewis wrote of his childhood experiences of Joy as “…an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction…. [I]t might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want.”  We also cannot ignore the momentous conversion experience of John Wesley, when he felt his “heart strangely warmed.”

I will write more in an afterword below. You want to get right to Rolle.

The Fire of Love: Prologue

I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire.  I was astonished at the way the heat surged up, and how this new sensation brought great and unexpected comfort. I had to keep feeling my breast to make sure there was no physical reason for it! But once I realized that it came entirely from within, that this fire of love had no cause, material or sinful, but was the gift of my Maker, I was absolutely delighted and wanted my love to be even greater. And this longing was all the more urgent because of the delightful effect and the interior sweetness which this spiritual flame fed into my soul. Before the infusion of this comfort I had never known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there.

Yet as some may well remind us, there are people on fire with love for Christ, for we can see how utterly they despise the world, and how wholly they are given over to the service of God. If we put our finger near a fire we feel the heat; in much the same way a soul on fire with love feels, I say, a genuine warmth. Sometimes it is more, sometimes less: it depends on our particular capacity.

What mortal man could survive that heat at its peak–as we can know it, even here–if it persisted? He must inevitably wilt before the vastness and sweetness of love so perfervid, and heat so indescribable. Yet at the same time he is bound to long eagerly for just this to happen: to breathe his soul out, with all its superb endowment of mind, in this honeyed flame, and, quit of this world, be held in thrall with those who sing their Maker’s praise.

But some things are opposed to love [caritas, i.e., divine, unselfish love]: carnal, sordid things which beguile a mind at peace. And sometimes in this bitter exile physical need and strong human affection obtrude into this warmth, to disturb and quench this flame (which metaphorically I call “fire” because it burns and enlightens). They cannot take away what is irremovable, of course, because this is something which has taken hold of my heart. Yet because of these things this cheering warmth is for a while absent. It will reappear in time, though until it does I am going to be spiritually frozen, and because I am missing what I have become accustomed to, will feel myself bereft. It is then that I want to recapture that awareness of inner fire which my whole being, physical as well as spiritual, so much approves; with it it knows itself to be secure.  

–From Prologue in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

Afterword

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Rolle says here that he uses “fire” metaphorically because it both burns and enlightens. Who would want to experience a “burning” sensation? Yet when we desire something or someone deeply, the sensation is more like a burning than anything else, isn’t it?  —As thousands of poems and pop songs testify.  Not a “heartburn” that you simply want to go away; more like a boiling that says “Something has got to happen; either I am going to explode in song and dance or I am going to quench this fire.”  God is the greatest object of desire, the deepest satisfaction of the soul. It makes sense that desire for Him would be greater than any other desire.  I tend to think of desire-love as eros, following C. S. Lewis’s description in his book The Four Loves, and thus second-rate compared to agapé or divine, self-sacrificing love, which does what is best for the beloved, not seeking satisfaction of one’s desire.  But Rolle and similar mystics bring me up short.  How can this fire of love be a divine form of love if it is desire? 

So this is a paradox.  Perhaps we might say that this “fire of love” is a kind of “eros” transfigured, desire for something that nothing in this world can satisfy but still cousin in its bodily sensations to earthly desires.

And this seems to be what Rolle is indicating.  Augustine or others are often credited with writing “Each person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill,” and Pascal did say something along these lines.  But actually, the thought originated with Rolle in this book: “Since the human soul is capable of receiving God alone, nothing less than God can fill it; which explains why lovers of earthly things are never satisfied” (chapter 11).

And this is a fire that drives us to agapé, which is action not feeling.  It drives us to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Have you every experienced the fire of love?

P.S.:  I began this series not having watched any of the Royal Wedding. I just learned that the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry gave a “fiery” (at least for a royal wedding) sermon on The Fire of Love.  Though his focus was not our love for God, many of his thoughts are still relevant.  And since I will probably get 396,481 new visitors to this site, I will link and tag it here, nudge nudge, wink wink. (“OMG, he’s sold out.”)

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