Pentecost … ‘The Fire Of God’s Love’
Published: May 15, 2008
Catherine lowered her eyes and was near tears, telling about the sufferings she went through in her native Poland during World War II. Her parents and sisters and brothers were killed. She lost everyone and everything and barely managed to escape to England, where she met and married her husband and began a new life. I listened to her, at a loss for words. That kind of pain is something like the silence of God in the midst of enormous suffering. There are depths of life that cannot ever be worded—depths of suffering as well as depths of joy.
I did not know what to say to her, and I do not think she expected a response. She then looked at me and talked in a low voice about the horrors still taking place in the world today, the suffering that people continue to inflict upon each other.
“The world is on fire,” she said, “but God’s fire of love is stronger and my life has tried to let it burn in my heart.”
Indeed, we live in an age that has within its power the ability to incinerate the entire planet several times over. We have perfected the means to annihilate every living thing that exists. Isn’t it ironic, the things that we have truly mastered? We have perfected the worst imperfections known to humanity. We have created a potential for destruction that is larger than our ability to control it.
And God is silent.
But there are fires.
Enormous problems, like those that we have created, beg for solutions that are in direct proportion to the size of said problems. But when we have made things possessed of a power that is larger than our ability to contain it—or even describe it—solutions are non-existent. They are simply not to be had, for that is part and parcel of the original design of large-scale destructive power.
Catherine cried, remembering the past, and then composed herself and remembered the present—the burning in her heart for life, for love, for God. A different kind of fire, seemingly singular in its presence in her heart, but communal in its origin, communal in what it warms, consumes, enlightens. The world of Catherine is small in human measurements but eternal in its source, reach and scope.
It is Pentecost. The readings tell of a gathering of disciples upon whom tongues of flame descended. People were speaking different languages and yet were able to understand each other. The gift of the Spirit, as fire, burned through difference and created a common ground upon which difference yet remained but “spoke.”
The language of God—those embers of love, understanding, wisdom, peace—burns everywhere about us.
I sat next to an old black man in a funeral home last week. He was Baptist, and I had never met him before. He smiled at me as I sat down, and when he smiled I saw teeth capped in gold. He had a ring on his finger, and his hands were huge. On his lap there was a well-read Bible, its pages frayed a bit from being turned many times. When I sat down he leaned next to me, took my hand and told me his name. He held my hand for a long time, and the other hand remained on the Bible. I saw him the next day at the funeral, and he looked at me and smiled that smile of gold, took off his hat and tipped it to me and waved. His other hand held the Bible. I waved back and looked for him afterward but could not find him. Maybe I will see him again, someday.
We lost a monk some time ago—Francis Xavier passed on, to new life, to the life that drew him here, to the life he wanted all of his 93 years. Father Tom Francis sat with him shortly before he died, and he told us that he held his hand and that Francis held that hand tightly, as if he did not want to let go. Tom told us that he heard that hearing was the last sense to go, so he leaned close to Francis and told him that he loved him and that he always loved him but never said so. I thought to myself as Tom told us this about the countless ways Tom shows love to all of us here—and how he surely showed it to Francis Xavier. But it is true—we rarely tell each other in so many words about what it really is that we feel for each other. Something wondrous burns within us for each other, and words are one way of allowing the Spirit to speak through us.
The Spirit has many ways of speaking, and most of these ways need no words.
Dom Damien, the abbot of our monastery in Gethsemani, Ky., was here with us for a few days. He preached one morning, and his homily was wonderful. He spoke of how the spirit of God enables us to forget our worries and fears, our anxieties, and to be free to love as God would have us love. He gave examples from Scripture of people who, when drawn near to Jesus, experienced the joy of knowing themselves as loved by God and how through that love were awakened to loving others.
Imagine, Damien said, if the whole world was like a church, like a loving community; imagine, he said, if we awoke one day to a world in which love was the only thing that mattered to everybody. As he spoke I could feel the words coming from his heart. I envisioned a world like the one he was speaking about, a world on fire with God’s love.
There are many times when that world seems so far away. There are times when the world seems like a very cold and forsaken place, a place where the only fires are those sparked by hatred and violence.
Yesterday was a world that is gone forever, burned into the past and never to come again. It was a day much like today: a day of mystery, of joys and sorrows. It was a day of which Catherine spoke, a day of destructive fire. And it is over.
And there is today—the day after Pentecost, a Monday in time that through faith can be known and taken as a gift of the eternal, for there is something to this day that can be likened to the kindling of God. It will burn and never go away. There will be people holding hands and speaking love. Old people and young people will die—some will hear words of love, some will be held, all will be prayed for, all will be taken to God’s heart and, I think, to ours as well in ways that we do not understand but that seem to be of God’s design for who we are and what we carry within us. There will be births all over the world as babies arrive in need of love to grow and to know the real meaning of life.
And some people everywhere will light a fire. They will do that by how they speak or hold or touch or love. And so, something of this day will last forever and through God’s goodness burn right into tomorrow.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com. His new book is “Portraits of Grace: Images and Words From the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.”