Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the refiner's fire

With your sacred body, O Fire,
come here and ascend my self,
bringing me great riches.
Becoming the sacrifice,
reach your birthplace, the sacrifice.
Born from the earth, O Fire,
come here with your own abode.
(Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad)

We just can’t seem to get away from this fire. Even in these last bucolic days of Advent with the gentle stories of annunciations and births, as we prepare for the silent, holy night when all is calm and all is bright, we still got treated to a reading from Malachi at Mass today warning us that “the day of his coming will be like a refiner’s fire, refining and purifying.” I’m thinking of all these fires––the burning bush, the fire that Jesus said he was coming to bring to the earth that he wished were already blazing, the flames of the Spirit on the heads of the apostles. It's all one fire and it's already here in Jesus’ birth too. And I’m thinking about the fires we’ve endured here on the central coast this year, wondering what kind of refining and purifying effect they have had on us in exile and evacuation, realizing the fragility of all that we hold precious.

I was thinking too about how important fire is in the ritual of India, among the Brahmin priests. Of course all sacrifices are offered in a sacred fire, but also the brahmacarya–students are obliged to tend the fire of their teacher, and then when they are married they are expected to tend the fires in the homes all of their lives. This is why it is such a significant thing for someone entering the sannyasa state of life––the life of the renunciant––to renounce the rituals with the fire, to be ordered to cease tending to the fires. This is a turning of one’s back on a significant ritual that binds society together. But if you read the texts that deal with this carefully you realize that it is not really an abandoning of the fire: it is an internalization of the fire, joining the sacrificial fire to the one that is already in the depth of the person, the fire of breath, the fire of digestion. The sannyasi takes the sacred fire into himself and from then on out carries it internally, which is considered more perfect and more permanent because one is never separate from them. That’s why the Naradaparivrajaka Upanishad teaches that the sannyasi should then deposit the fire in himself while saying: Becoming the sacrifice, / reach your birthplace, the sacrifice. / Born from the earth, O Fire, / come here with your own abode.

It’s wonderful metaphor for the spiritual life in general, and for the monk in particular, but it also has some strange little connection to another subtle reference that Pope Benedict made recently in his year end address to the prelates. While everyone else is upset about what he said about homosexuality being a threat to human ecology just like global warming is to natural ecology (eek!), he also slipped in a warning that the Holy Spirit cannot be separated from Christ or from the church. John Allen explains that this is because the Vatican is concerned that some theologians working in inter-religious dialogue are pressing the idea of “the Holy Spirit’s presence in non-Christian religions too far, as if the Holy Spirit acts apart from any explicit connection with Christ or the Christian church.” At the same time, it is valid to think of the waters of Baptism meeting up with that trickle of life-giving water already in us; and the breath of the Spirit meeting with that breath already breathed into the clay of the human person when formed; and the fire of the Spirit meeting up with that fire already in us, the divine spark that is our life.

Malachi says, “Suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek.” I can never hear the word “temple” in Scripture any more without thinking about the human person. That is the major relocation of God that Jesus comes to bring about: the temple is his body first, then the temple becomes our bodies, we ourselves the temples, the sanctuaries. But not only does that temple need to be cleansed of the buyers and the sellers: suddenly there will come to this temple the Lord whom we’ve been waiting for, but who will be able to endure the day of his coming? “For he is like a refiner’s fire" and "he will sit refining and purifying” this temple of our being. That’s ultimately where the Word comes to plant the blazing fire, in this sanctuary, this temple of our being, the baptism of fire that consumes all that is not God until we are all fire.

Tonight at the hermitage we have a quiet day followed by a communal penance service. As we prepare for it and prepare to celebrate the event of the Word becoming flesh, it’s been a good day to surrender to this all-consuming fire that burns away from within us all that is not God, and all that is not godly, so that we can be all fire.