Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?
-Taken from The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton’s collection of sayings from the Desert Fathers
Religion is a powerful and important tool for spiritual growth and development. It is a way of structuring our lives so that they are moved in the direction of God. Chaos so easily invades our souls and we can be drawn in many different directions, but religion provides us with a rule, a measure by which to know that our actions reflect the virtuous and holy life to which we are all called.
There is a danger, however, in seeing religion primarily as a form of external practices, rituals we undergo that somehow of themselves make us pleasing to God. Even well-intentioned religious practice can become a crutch that prevents us from becoming the true saints that we are meant to be. This is the trap that Abbot Lot fell into. Everything that he did was good, following his monastic rule, dedicating time to prayer and meditation and silence, rooting out impure thoughts. But Abbot Joseph points out that by focusing so much on those external practices, he is falling into the trap of what I will call spiritual small-mindedness. He says, “Why not be totally changed into fire?”
Throughout the Scriptures and the lives of the saints we discover that our God does not think small. He may not call us all to great stations or offices, but he does summon every human soul to be transformed into fire. Second Vatican Council spoke of the universal vocation to holiness, and that is what this means.
Our truest identities are discovered when we turn within ourselves and discover in our secret depths the point of contact with the divine, the God who dwells within us and who sustains our very existence with his love. Prayer and meditation and silence then are important not so much as means of obtaining something from God or of appeasing God in some way, but most especially, they are means of discovering the God within us, so that we too can be totally changed into fire.
St. John of the Cross used the image of fire throughout his writings, especially in his great work The Living Flame of Love. He described the contemplative soul, the soul at prayer, as like a log that is consumed by flame. Though the log always remains a log, when the fire consumes it so completely, if the log were to turn and look within itself, even though in reality it would still be log, it would only see fire. The log would no longer discern any difference between itself and fire – it would be totally changed.
It is so important to remember that this transformation is precisely what God desires for us – that our inward turn in prayer reveals to us the face of God, that we see no separation between ourselves and God but rather that we become aware of the essential unity of our person and God presence. When we do this, we are able to manifest God’s presence in the world in everything we do, we are able to be great in the way that God measures greatness.
We are so easily tempted to mediocrity, to be less than that vision God has of us, to be less than the men and women we already are in the mind of God. We think we are not good enough, or that it’s too demanding, or even that it’s too impractical. After all, true holiness often forces us to make decisions that contradict the wisdom of the world, and that can lead to suffering that perhaps we are not prepared to embrace, or even that would affect our families and loved ones. So we keep our little rule, and our little prayer, and we do the external things that religion tells us. But we never become fire. We never achieve the true greatness that God has in store for all of us.
The world will measure our success based on the wealth we accumulate, the friends we collect, the accomplishments that line our curriculum vitae. But God’s measure is quite different. In the eyes of God, success is a matter of the greatness with which we love. It is seen in the depths of our compassion, the ardor of our charity, by our striving to see the goodness in others, and by our willingness to put whatever gifts we have in whatever measure we possess them at the humble service of love.
When we set out to live as people transformed into fire, then the religion that we practice will be truly effective. Then the nourishment we receive in the sacraments, the intimacy we experience in prayer, the strength and steadfastness we achieve in fasting, and virtue we grow by cultivating a mindfulness of our thoughts, will all serve as kindling to the flame within us. Then we will become like the burning bush that Moses encountered, totally consumed with the fire of God, purified instead of destroyed, fully ourselves by being fully given to God. Then we will become the saints that God calls us to be, because we will be living lamps of God’s love shining through the darkness of this broken world. Then we will be totally changed into fire.