"The Fire of Saints and Sinners"
We're nearing the end of the season of Pentecost. One symbol of Pentecost is fire, a common motif in the Christian Bible: The Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the Prophesy of Joel 2:0, Moses at Mt. Saini, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Chapter 2 of the Book of Acts.
Fire is a classic symbol of the Holy Spirit
Fire is also a symbol of human passion and energy.
What is the relationship between the fire of the Holy Spirit and fire in the human heart?
Earlier this year, Pantheon publishers released a novel that delves into this question. "How to Set a Fire and Why" by Jesse Ball is told in first person by a high school junior named Lucia Stanton. Lucia's father died violently under questionable circumstances, and her mother resides in a mental institution. Lucia lives with her only family, her loving eccentric aunt who is virtually broke.
As you will soon discover, Lucia is smart and extremely perceptive. She is also an underachiever, cynical, and scornful of authority. This rebellious loner connects with a secretive arson club at school. The novel is Lucia's story: visits to her catatonic mother, interactions with dim-witted classmates, resistance to virtually any responsible adults, and the seduction of the arsonists.
The school principal accuses Lucia of starting a fire in one of the classrooms. After she is exonerated, Lucia gives the principal attitude, prompting him to send her to the school psychologist.
I guess this was the principal's revenge. Since he couldn't give me the detention without my aunt flogging him. He notified the psychologist that she should check up on me.
I want to see how you are settling in, she told me.
I sat down in her office and was immediately really unhappy. This is how it is - there are no chairs. I kid you not. There are two beanbags. She sits on a beanbag and you sit on the other, or, if you want, you both sit on the floor, I guess. Sometimes, she does this thing where she switches from the beanbag to the floor, like some kind of conciliatory gesture. The beanbag chairs are different colors, and I'm sure it means something to her which one you choose. Thinking that made me hesitant to sit before her, so I let her sit first, but I'm sure that means something too. She is really young Ms. Kapleau, and extremely beautiful, which is why all the male teachers do boos stuff when she is in the hall, like clapping each other on the shoulder and leaning on things. Even the students do. I'm sure all the guys like her. On this visit, she was wearing an inappropriate skirt. It was fine, as skirts go, but miniskirts and beanbag chairs are not a match made in heaven.
When we think about fire, we recall that in physics, there are two types of energy: kinetic and potential. "Kinetic" energy is energy generated by motion. In contrast, "potential" energy remains locked into an object, with the possibility of conversion to kinetic energy if in contact with something combustible/kinetic.
Now, I don't pretend to understand what I just said. But even I know a little about fire: fire creates heat, keeping us warm on a cold day. Fire powers engines, allowing us to travel great distances in short time. Fire creates light, letting us see in the darkness.
And, of course, fire is dangerous. It spreads and changes the chemical composition of objects, pemanently. Fire destroys.
As the scene with Lucia and the psychologist continues, notice how the fire of a candle symbolizes hope to the psychologist and chaos to Lucia:
I told her that I was fine. I was going to try to make it for two more years and then be done. If I couldn't, I would leave before that, since I legally don't have to stay any longer.
What is keeping you here? She asked.
I said I didn't want to disappoint my aunt.
She asked me if I love my aunt.
I didn't answer that. What baloney - where they use whatever you say to make further questions.
Then, she asked if I was angry. I said that anyone who loves freedom should be angry. That shut her up.
We sat there for awhile, and then she said she wanted to read something. She got some junky poem by Rumi and read it to me. "There is a candle in your heart...
I laughed, and she asked me why I was laughing.
I said, you small-minded toad, you think that is poetry? Of all Rumi's freaking poems, you pick that one? Did you find it in some psych-nonsense anthology? That has to be his worst poem, and it isn't even translated well. How does it fell to wade around in life so hopelessly? You are just mired in garbage. You're so limited.
I laughed some more. Of all the poems, that one.
She was looking at me in shock. I think she was actually speechless, so I gave her some more.
Whoever's calm and sensible is insane.
I said, that's Rumi. Or didn't you know?
I didn't feel at all bad that I made her cry. After all, a school psychologist probably has to cry a lot in the first years of working at a school. There must be a great deal that they aren't ready for.
Lucia doesn't realize how angry she is, essentially losing both her parents, and then being cast among people who don't understand her and exist unfazed by injustice.
When I think about saints, and how they behave, I think about two very broad types of saintly behavior: active and passive. The active ones cause trouble, like Dorothy Day, who defied her Roman Catholic superiors because they were not paying enough attention to the poor. Active saints disrupt the status quo and plough right into danger: think Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) wearing a white suit of armor, leading the army of King Charles the Seventh to victory in Orleans. More recently, Martin Luther King, Jr. marched against injustice in Selma, Alabama.
In contrast to the more direct approach, other saints lead y quiet example. They are teachers and nurturers. I think of Saint Macrina, the muse and spiritual teacher of her brothers Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil the Great, and St. Peter of Sebaste (all three became Bishops). There's also Saint John of the Cross, the sixteenth century mystic whose famous writings include "The Living Flame of Love".
Bearing in mind kinetic and potential energy, active and subdued sainthood, we return to Lucia, now spending time with her aunt in the aftermath of her day.
Well, I got in trouble for that. When I got home, I told my aunt the whole story, about the beanbags, the Rumi poem, everything. I did it because I felt like I broke the rules. I wasn't proud of what I've done, I tell my aunt about it. I used to tell my dad. Now I tell my aunt.
I'm sure it gives her a picture of me that is pretty unflattering, since I tell her all the bad things, but none of the good ones.
She asked me if I thought that it was my job to improve the school psychologist.
I said, no.
She asked if I thought of myself as a person who goes around improving other people by showing them their shortcomings.
I said, no I wasn't that sort of person.
She said, it was puzzling then, why I would say that to the woman. Wasn't I trying to improve her? There was another explanation, she said. Maybe I just wanted to demonstrate to the woman that I was smarter than she was. Maybe I was showing off.
I said maybe it was that.
She said, it that was true, then it meant I must feel weak and ashamed, and I need to demonstrate my intelligence, rather than just having it.
She said that quietly, and then turned away to make some tea.
Boy, did I fee awful.
My aunt, when she gives it to you, she really gives it to you.
Here we have two people - one, a rebel, filled with unbridled rage; the other, a teacher, exuding a quiet (but equally passionate) dignity. Lucia is a hot furnace with flames shooting and clawing to escape their cage;, Lucia's aunt is embers burning hot and brightly, but the flames are contained.
The point is that kinetic and potential energy both are tools of saintly behavior. Sometimes, we aspiring saints need to confront injustice directly and tell the school principal that he's out of line. Other times, we are called to cally..without judgement, without fear, without malice...offer correction to somebody whose flames are getting out of control and may be causing damage.
For all her negative bluster, Lucia has great potential. She has a moral code, a keen mind, and the fire in her belly to stand up for what she believes.
We who follow Christ believe that passion has a divine connection. The vitality that flows through us originates from God. The Holy Spirit works in all things, in all ways, in all people. Our job is to recognize that Spirit in our own hearts and in the actions (and inactions) of others. Our job is to connect with it, harness it as best we can, and let it be a constructive force for change rather than a destructive force for malice.
Ms. Kapleau, the beanbag school psychologist, was on to something. Lucia Stanton - victim, rebel, firebrand - needed to hear the rest of that poem:
There is a candle in your heart,
ready to be kindled.
There is a void in your soul,
ready to be filled.
You feel it, don't you?
You feel the separation from the Beloved.
invite Him to fill you up,
--embrace the fire
Remind those who tell you otherwise that
Love comes to you of its own accord.
and the yearning for it cannot be learned in any school.
On this All Saints Sunday, let's recognize the Holy Spirit working in people loud and quiet, forceful and calm. Let's embrace the fire of the Holy Spirit burning in our own hearts. Let us channel that spirit in the service of others, as the rebel Lucia resists injustice and her kind aunt calms the wayward soul. Amen.
Hush Don't Say Anything to God:Passionate Poems of Rumi
Translated by Sharam Shiva
Jessie Ball, Howto Start a Fire and Shy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016), pages 95-99.