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Fire alarm.

Don't be afraid to draw near the holy flame of God's presence.

THE FIRST THING YOU SEE IS THE WHEELCHAIR, parked awkwardly on the sidewalk in front of the bookstore. The second thing you can't help but see is the man in the chair: large, half-toothless, one limp arm resting permanently in his lap, the other waving a plastic shopping bag at you. You cannot go into the store without dealing with this person, so you begin to weigh the necessity of your errand. Dealing with this man is going to cost you something, you can tell. At the very least, there will be the ache of engaging another human story that promises to be full of suffering. Surely it is not necessary to go into the bookstore today.

But it is too late. The man has caught your eye, and he is pressing the contact to full advantage. It would now be monstrous to look away, so you must look at him, smile, offer a greeting, knowing you will not get off so easily with these courtesies. He is beaming his peggy grin at you, flailing the plastic bag in your direction. It is clear that he wants you to have a look at what's inside. So, reluctantly, you take the bag in your hands, pull the handles apart, and glance in. It is full of paper.

The man tries to speak, but his words are twisted by a certain trouble in the muscle and the mind. Because you've seen the symptoms before, you ask when he had his stroke. He grins that pumpkin smile again, both shy and pleased to be understood. "One-two-three-four-five-six-seven...." He recites his numbers to 18. "Eighteen years ago?" you ask. He confirms the number with a hearty nod. His ability to use math is as impaired as his body, but he has found a way to get to the numbers he needs. He invites you, more with gestures than words, to investigate the bag further. So you reach in, pull out the sheaves of paper, and discover the full wonder of God inside.

Who would have guessed it? A badly dressed man, a crummy plastic grocery bag, holding such beauty for those with eyes to see. It's enough to make you weep for joy as you discover his treasure. These folded sheets of paper are actually homemade cards, reprints of original works of art. And here is a photo of the man before you, at his easel in some little room, surrounded by canvases. This lopsided person in the chair, functionally cleaved in half by a stroke long ago, is a painter. Though he cannot speak to you with elegant words, he reveals to you the exquisite secret vision of his heart. Each picture on the cards is more extraordinary than the last, brilliant with color, wise with meaning, teaching you what he sees in the world around him, from the vantage point of that listing body surprised by stroke. Nearly silenced in the language of words, he has found a way to speak the fire within him through his paintings, and you stand before him feeling like Moses in the desert, wanting to take off your shoes. A man scorched by infirmity and yet not consumed. Are you not standing in the presence of something holy?

You buy six of his cards, as he counts out the price: one-two-three-four. It is not enough, to buy his cards; it is a poor response to grace. Your own poverty stares you in the face, knowing that you have no way to adequately reply to the gift he has given you, this glimpse into his shabby, miraculous bag. You are not worthy, and yet you have been favored. You were chosen, by that grisly smile, to encounter the sacred. You have purchased the beatific vision for a few crumpled dollars, and all you want to do is prostrate yourself on the sidewalk. Bow down, O soul. Bow down. As you finally turn away, forgetting the errand that brought you to this place, you can sense the warmth of the burning bush at your back.

Throughout biblical history, the encounter with the holy has been etched in flame and described by fire. The word holocaust means to be consumed by fire. Ancient peoples consigned their offerings to God by way of the flames. Fire seemed to be God's language, whether the divine was pleased with a sacrifice or visiting wrath upon enemies. When God appeared to Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites, it was in the form of a torch, a bush, or a pillar ablaze. We still retain a vestige of that symbol in our perpetual light near the tabernacle, reminding us of True Presence. Even the vigil candles in the rack convey the twinkling message that they speak our prayers to God on our behalf. God speaks in fire. God understands the language of fire. Some ancient awe our ancestors knew in the presence of fire still communicates itself to us.

It is no wonder that, when the Holy Spirit arrived at Pentecost, the rush of wind was accompanied by flame that separated into the mysterious image, "tongues of fire." Fiery tongues awakened the pent-up voice of the Easter proclamation, and the disciples stumbled into the streets, ready at last to speak the fire that had raged within them since they'd seen the Lord. Didn't the travelers to Emmaus sense the same warmth when they asked, "Were not our hearts burning within us as he spoke to us on the road?"

John the Baptist predicted that the power of God would be felt this way. He reminded his followers, "I baptize you with water, but the one who is coming will baptize you with the Spirit and fire." Jesus echoes John's prophecy when he confides his deepest yearning to his disciples: "I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!" These are not gentle words, no soft declaration. Jesus follows it by promising that division--not peace--would be the result of his coming. Households would be cleft, families separated by unbridgeable truths. The gospel Jesus came to preach would be a fire wall, and each person to hear it would have to choose to step to one side or the other.

WHAT USE HAS HISTORY MADE OF THESE IMAGES? CITIES have been reduced to cinders in the name of Jesus. Heretics were burned to death at the stake--and not a few saints as well. Joan of Arc delivered her final prayers to heaven through the smoke, while Laurence the martyr made gentle fun as he was roasted alive. Books that contradict orthodox teachings have been hurled into bonfires in many generations. Later those same writings may be found acceptable, even revelatory, just as some who were burned by church officials were later canonized. History may reverse its opinion, but there is no reversing the economy of combustion. Ashes remain ashes.

Perhaps darkest of all, some who called themselves Christians were willing to make a holocaust of Jews. It took centuries for Christians to remember that God chose to speak through the Hebrew story first, and even longer to apologize for relentless pogroms and persecutions. Within recent memory for many of us, the word perfidious accompanied the mention of Jews in church. The eternal flame at Yad Vashem in Israel, a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, now burns as a living testimony to such injustice.

All in all, we have made sad use of the creature Saint Francis of Assisi once called Brother Fire. None of this, we can be sure, was what Jesus meant when he longed for the blazing fire to come. Pentecost came and went; fire was spoken and then the language was lost. We hand over bodies to be burned, as Saint Paul once said, but not in love, so the sacrifice is a clanging noise in the ear of God.

We do experience division in our families, but it is often not the division Jesus foretold. We are not kept apart by sacred allegiances, but by mortal things, like unforgiveness, prejudice, fear, and habit. The holy fire of the gospel has been replaced by the slow simmer of self-righteousness, which we try to baptize into something like religious feeling. And so churchy spouses needle their unchurched partners about their reluctance to come along on Sundays. Practicing-Catholic parents haunt their lapsed-Catholic children about neglecting the sacraments. We find ways to scald each other in the name of religion--and then point to Jesus' saying about division to justify our lonely table. But can we be sure that it is Jesus who keeps us apart?

Setting fires is easy; speaking the fire is not. We are not called to be arsonists in the name of Jesus but to allow ourselves to be set alight by the Spirit from within. Religious fervor cannot be a flamethrower we aim at others. Nor can it be confused with the emotional self-immolation practiced by those who mistake suffering as a doctrine of the faith. God's presence is known in the fire that burns and does not consume. God's fire purifies without destroying.

The flame of the Holy Spirit ignites us for proclamation and for action. It is not an invitation to sit and seethe with indignation or to writhe with personal anguish. We know this fire through the stories of scripture. We've met the holy Presence in moments of awe. We know the response that God's holy fire elicits from us: Bow down, O soul. Bow down. Humility, and not the pride of righteousness, attends our encounters with the sacred. If we aren't sure of the nature of a spirit that calls to us--holy or unholy--we only need to examine whether or not it leads us to be more humble.

The fiery language of the Holy Spirit often seems to be forgotten among us. Some would reduce it to the scattered instances of glossolalia--speaking in tongues--still practiced in Pentecostal churches and among charismatics. Saint Paul declared that the Spirit speaks in the assignment of vocations: Some are called to be teachers, preachers, administrators, apostles, and others in great variety. He also quoted Isaiah's list of gifts that bear the imprint of the Spirit: wisdom, understanding, knowledge, counsel. The last on the list was traditionally translated as "fear of the Lord." Today's schoolchildren know it as "wonder and awe in God's presence." It's the feeling we get when the sun rises or sets in a solemn procession of colors; when the beloved speaks to us words of love; when healing comes after long illness; when we know, after a season of doubt, that we're going to make it--or when we come to understand, to our great surprise, that it will be all right even if we don't. The voice of fire speaks in the passionate declaration of prophets, who defend our earth and all its precious life: from the unborn to the dying, guilty, poor, different, enemy--you name it. Sometimes the fiery voice challenges us beyond where we are willing to go. And sometimes, to our astonishment, it chooses to speak through us.

The blazing fire that Jesus longed for will lead to seasons of choice and separation from people and things we never thought possible to leave behind. But one thing we can count on is that the Spirit blows where it wills. We cannot stifle the voice of the fire by insisting it speak only in one language or from one place. Sometimes the Spirit does not use words at all and comes to us as a ragged gift we might have overlooked or in a person we seek dearly to avoid. Wherever and however the Spirit may come, let the blaze come near. Pray for it. Look for it. Risk the danger. Pay the price.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of God's Word Is Alive! and the scripture series "Exploring the Sunday Readings," both available through Twenty-Third Publications.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Claretian Publications
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Christian life
Author:CAMILLE, ALICE
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
Words:1999
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