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.”)

Joyful Heat

What the 14th-century mystic Richard Rolle has to say is not merely inspiring but challenging.  In it we find the same axis that is throughout the Bible, the unyielding fact that you cannot love both the world and God.  At least not very well.  Like me, you may find yourself busy with both but getting the best of neither relationship. 

Of late there has been a refreshing current in Christian thought, a return to the doctrine of creation and God’s judgment “it is good.” But the hard words remain: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (I John 2:15-17). “Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God?” (James 4:4).  “You cannot serve both God and Mammon [money]” (Matthew 6:24). In our current, unprecedented material prosperity, it is well to remember these verses and the teachings of Richard Rolle.

For a 14th century man much is known about Richard Rolle. All I will say here is that he was a student at Oxford when a Master’s degree was a seven-year program, but he abandoned his studies. He stole two cloaks from his father and ran away from home to be a monk. Theft! An inauspicious start to a holy life, as many have noted. 

The Fire of Love

Further, perfect souls who have been caught up into this friendship–surpassing, abundant, and eternal!–discover that life is suffused with imperishable sweetness from the glittering chalice of sweet charity.* In holy happy wisdom they inhale joyful heat into their souls, and as a result are much cheered by the indescribable comfort of God’s healing medicine. Here at all events is refreshment for those who love their high and eternal heritage, even though in their earthly exile distress befell them. However, they think it not unfitting to endure a few year’s hardship in order to be raised to heavenly thrones, and never leave the. They have been selected out of all mankind to be the beloved of their Maker and to be crowned with glory, since, like the seraphim in highest heaven, they have been inflamed with the same love. Physically they may have sat in solitary state, but in mind they have companied with angels, and have yearned for their Beloved. Now they sing most sweetly a prayer of love everlasting as they rejoice in Jesus:

Oh honeyed flame, sweeter than all sweet, delightful beyond all creation!

My God, my Love, surge over me, pierce me by your love, wound me with your beauty. 

Surge over me, I say, who am longing for your comfort. 

Reveal your healing medicine to your poor lover. 

See, my one desire is for you; it is you my heart is seeking.

My soul pants for you; my whole being is athirst for you. 

–From chapter 2 in The Fire of Love by Richard Rolle. Translation and copyright 1972 by Clifton Wolters. Penguin Classics.

*Not today’s common usage of “charity” but from caritas (Greek agape), which means the type of love that is unconditional, giving, self-sacrificing, divine.

 

Exodus 19: The Deadly Presence of Holiness

This is the type of mystical experience that leaves us in fear and trembling. This passage is the Grandaddy of that type.

mount-sinai-egypt-moses-1244104-wallpaperIn the middle of the desert a lone mountain rises up.  It is called Sinai. The Israelites camp at the base, and Moses climbs up. Somewhere along the way, God calls from the mountain. God tells Moses to remind the people below how God rescued them from the Egyptians to “be my own little flock….a kingdom of priests to God, a holy nation.”  The context is important. God appears with fire and thunder in the passage below, and then he gives to Moses the commandments for creating that reverent and just society: a holy nation. 

God appears once again without disguise, even the disguise of a burning bush.  This aspect of holiness that we see in Exodus 19 is unpopular or unknown these days, even despised–even among Christians, Jews, and Muslims, sometimes.  To believe someone is so different from us, so set apart (one of the meanings of “holy”), so much better than we are, may defy our democratic principles. It certainly hurts our egos.Exodus-19-21-1024x658

But unless we understand this aspect, we cannot understand how infinitely morally good God is compared to us. But when we do understand it, we also get a glimpse of how much love and humility is poured out in the life and death of Jesus Christ.  We understand why we need Jesus, why he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” the end as well as the means. We understand that only a man who was God, and a God who would become a man, could bridge that awe–full gap between us and God. 

Exodus 19

Moses returned from the mountain and called together the leaders of the people and told them what the Lord had said.

They all responded in unison, “We will certainly do everything he asks of us.” Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord.

Then [God] said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in the form of a dark cloud, so that the people themselves can hear me when I talk with you, and then they will always believe you. Go down now and see that the people are ready for my visit. Sanctify them today and tomorrow, and have them wash their clothes.  Then, the day after tomorrow, I will come down upon Mount Sinai as all the people watch.  Set boundary lines the people may not pass, and tell them, ‘Beware! Do not go up into the mountain or even touch its boundaries; whoever does shall die— no hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot to death with arrows, whether man or animal.’ Stay away from the mountain entirely until you hear a ram’s horn sounding one long blast; then gather at the foot of the mountain!”

So Moses went down to the people and sanctified them and they washed their clothing.

He told them, “Get ready for God’s appearance two days from now, and do not have sexual intercourse with your wives.”img_5635

On the morning of the third day there was a terrific thunder and lightning storm, and a huge cloud came down upon the mountain, and there was a long, loud blast as from a ram’s horn; and all the people trembled.  Moses led them out from the camp to meet God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.  All Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Jehovah descended upon it in the form of fire; the smoke billowed into the sky as from a furnace, and the whole mountain shook with a violent earthquake.  As the trumpet blast grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and God thundered his reply.  So the Lord came down upon the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and Moses ascended to God.

But the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to cross the boundaries. They must not come up here to try to see God, for if they do, many of them will die. Even the priests on duty[a] must sanctify themselves, or else I will destroy them.”

God Arrives without Angel Disguise

We continue with mystical experiences of the Bible.  After the Fall in Genesis 3 and the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 this may be the most important hinge in the Old Testament.  God tells Moses that he is the man to defy Pharaoh and lead hundreds of thousands of Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt.  Moses’ response of course is “Not me! I am not the person for such a job!”

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What we see in the Exodus passages are people meeting the awesome strangeness and other-ness of God—an experience of the Numinous, as Rudolf Otto described it.  In Genesis after the Fall, God shows up only in disguise, so to speak: as a voice, as angels, as a vision while asleep. In Exodus the mission is apparently so critical that he shows up without disguise. There is so much at stake: His people must know who He is; hundreds of thousands of them must walk out of Egypt not only unscathed but rich; Pharaoh’s gods and magicians must be publicly defeated; the people must never forget this God is their rescuer and redeemer who can do absolutely anything; a new nation with unprecedented laws of justice, mercy, and reverence must begin, a way of life that God intends to spread over the earth and end evil forever. 

But God coming without disguise creates a confrontation with absolute holiness.  God is love, but God is also absolute goodness, and in His presence we do not need to be told that we are very much not.  Moses hides his face.  For the same reason, centuries later, Peter will tell Jesus, “Go away from me, for I am sinful man.”  

This is also the momentous time when God reveals his true, personal name, not a title. Often transliterated from the Hebrew as YHWH, it is mysterious and so is its pronunciation.  But it seems to mean “I Am Who I Am,” that is, the self-subsistent one; the only one that cannot be compared to or depend upon anything else. 

Exodus 3: God, The Fire that Never Goes Out, Speaks to Moses

Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the west end of the wilderness and came to the mountain of God, Horeb. The angel of God appeared to him in flames of fire blazing out of the middle of a bush. He looked. The bush was blazing away but it didn’t burn up.

Moses said, “What’s going on here? I can’t believe this! Amazing! Why doesn’t the bush burn up?”

God saw that he had stopped to look. God called to him from out of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

He said, “Yes? I’m right here!”

God said, “Don’t come any closer. Remove your sandals from your feet. You’re standing on holy ground.”

Then he said, “I am the God of your father: The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Moses hid his face, afraid to look at God.

God said, “I’ve taken a good, long look at the affliction of my people in Egypt. I’ve heard their cries for deliverance from their slave masters; I know all about their pain. And now I have come down to help them, pry them loose from the grip of Egypt, get them out of that country and bring them to a good land with wide-open spaces, a land lush with milk and honey….


Burning bush

Then Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the People of Israel and I tell them, ‘The God of your fathers sent me to you’; and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What do I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”

God continued with Moses: “This is what you’re to say to the Israelites: ‘God, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent me to you.’ This has always been my name, and this is how I always will be known.

–Exodus 3:1 – 8a; 13-15, The Message

 

Jacob’s Stairway to Heaven

A whole week goes by. This is terrible!  I promise you this blog is not dying on the vine. I had a lot of travel and extra duties this past week.  Today we have, as promised at the start of this blog, mystical experience straight from the Bible itself.  You cannot buy this stairway to heaven.  This intermittent series will be published in chronological order and today’s is from Genesis.

My selections will naturally beg the question, “What is a mystical experience?”  Why, for example, am I starting with Jacob and not Abraham to whom God spoke?  Adam walked with God in the garden of Eden–what more amazing experience of God could there be?  My criteria are open to suggestions and adjustment at any time, but one of them is to choose those that include a deep emotional experience by the recipient. For like it or not, our emotions create motion; they move us and create change. 

Experiences like these are not merely ancient legends. God still sends life-changing visions to people when they are awake and when they are asleep. They have happened to me and many others. Have they ever happened to you? Write it to me and I may publish it here. You may be anonymous if you wish. 

The Bible: Genesis 28:10-22

Jacob left Beersheba and went to Haran. He came to a certain place and camped for the night since the sun had set. He took one of the stones there, set it under his head and lay down to sleep. And he dreamed: A stairway was set on the ground and it reached all the way to the sky; angels of God were going up and going down on it.

XIR162153Then God was right before him, saying, “I am God, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. I’m giving the ground on which you are sleeping to you and to your descendants. Your descendants will be as the dust of the Earth; they’ll stretch from west to east and from north to south. All the families of the Earth will bless themselves in you and your descendants. Yes. I’ll stay with you, I’ll protect you wherever you go, and I’ll bring you back to this very ground. I’ll stick with you until I’ve done everything I promised you.”

Jacob woke up from his sleep. He said, “God is in this place—truly. And I didn’t even know it!” He was terrified. He whispered in awe, “Incredible. Wonderful. Holy. This is God’s House. This is the Gate of Heaven.”

Jacob was up first thing in the morning. He took the stone he had used for his pillow and stood it up as a memorial pillar and poured oil over it. He christened the place Bethel (God’s House).  Jacob vowed a vow: “If God stands by me and protects me on this journey on which I’m setting out, keeps me in food and clothing, and brings me back in one piece to my father’s house, this God will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will mark this as a place where God lives.”

The Message, translation and paraphrase by Eugene Peterson.  Painting: Circa 1490 (oil on panel) by the French School (15th century), Musee du Petit Palais, Avignon, France.

A Prison, A Paradise: Time Travel

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Finishing up our selection from Gay Taylor’s pseudonymous memoir. Not long after the previous events, she and a friend visit the ruins of an Abbey and have one of the most astonishing experiences anyone has ever had. 

January 5th, 1948. The highlight of my visit, and one of the occasions of our lives, came on New year’s Eve. Alison and I went by a variety of buses to Ripon, and set off on a cloudy winter afternoon, in a taxi to the gates of Fountains Abbey.  I had clamoured for years to revisit it, for I had loved it as a child and had never seen it since. Fountains2-49We dismissed the taxi at the gates, walked by frost-whitened paths between silvery evergreens, then down towards the roar of the Skell [river] and the dim lovely ruins.

Repair-work was going on and scaffolding towered above the Chapel of the Nine Altars. As dusk fell, we stood together on the south side of the cloister-garth, looking north, towards the cedar and the great grass-grown walls and the tower. As as we stood silently watching, they began to change. 

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A soft, silvery-amber and quite unearthly light like warm moonlight lay over them.  But there was no moon; it was not due to rise for hours yet. In utter silence—where was the roar of the Skell?—the whole ruin changed, rebuilt itself: the walls were intact, the church and the Chapel of the Nine Altars became roofed and perfect. The pinnacled tower stood out newly finished, a deeper amber than the rest. The entire structure was silver-gilt in colour, and this colour seemed to be struck out of it by the silvery light in which it was bathed. We both stood awestruck, wordless, not moving, for what seemed a long time. “There’s no scaffolding,” breathed Alison at last in a soft amazed tone. I didn’t answer, for I thought, “Why should there by scaffolding? We’re seeing it as it was about 1520, when Huby’s tower was finished, and they’ve only just removed the scaffolding.” But then I realized that we were both seeing the same thing. She said later that she had meant the scaffolding that showed above the Chapel of the Nine Altars, where (certainly from the time and place in which we now were) there was no scaffolding.

We saw no Cistercian monks, brought back no useful information whatever, we merely stood for a timeless moment, for eternities or for ten minutes, seeing Fountains as it was a few years before the Reformation.

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Last night, as usual, I sat and composed myself. It was about a quarter to eleven by my very wrong clock. And almost at once, something akin to the “sun flower” came back—that indescribably sense of the inflooding, enfolding, brimful-filling of God’s burning love, and the knowledge that the material universe, the atmosphere, world, body are screens of mercy, which in our fallen state are there as a protection. That God’s love meeting only foulness would destroy and disintegrate it; that the screen is our shelter and our opportunity. But it is no more than a screen; there is no least corner of the universe where God’s love is not.

And for the first time I began to understand this strange idea: the spatial location of the Heavenly Heart. It was like “the fifth month, when the child moves.” 

A Prison, a Paradise: part 2

Continuing yesterday’s installment from A Prison, A Paradise. After her near-suicide, Gay Taylor writes:

…when I came back from Tripoly, the peace of God seemed to enter my heart. I feel that it all had to happen, and happen in just that way. Nothing else would have removed the suicide-obsession I’ve cherished secretly, ever since I was a child. Those hours by the northern river had to be, when I was beyond all human help, and knew at last that God was there.  


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October 4th. Mist and cold, after yesterday’s Indian summer. It was one of the perfect days—the high tide of this present time. I went out for a walk, then picked blackberries on Periton Hill, in that far clump at the edge of the downs. For a long time I sat on the crumbling turf, sheltered from the wind, with the blue distances below, and warm sun lying over this lovely autumn land. And suddenly I was swept out of myself—knowing, knowing, knowing. Feeling the love of God burning through creation, and an ecstasy of bliss pouring through my spirit and down into every nerve. I’m ashamed to put it down in these halting words. For it was ecstasy—that indissoluble mingling of fire and light that the mystics know. There was a scalding sun in my breast—the “kingdom of God within”—that rushed out to that All-Beauty.

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Blackberries photo by Yolanda Leyva on Unsplash

Periton Hill photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash