In centrally heated, 21st Century England it’s easy to forget how comforting a fire can be. Not to mention how much work one can entail. This little 1880s house once had three hearths downstairs – one for the kitchen which was to heat the servant girl’s room above. The other two bedrooms each had a fireplace. Plenty of work hauling all that coal up and ashes down the stairs. No more of that, but we can relax around the woodburning stove, or once a year, by this thermally inefficient open fire.
In 1806 Mary Lamb was writing to her younger friend, Sarah Stoddard, who had a few major family and personal matters to sort out at some distance from London, before Rowland Hill’s Penny Post made letter writing cheap and reliable.
Do write soon: though I write all about myself, I am thinking all the while of you, and I am uneasy at the length of time it seems since I heard from you … and this second winter makes me think how cold, damp, and forlorn your solitary house will feel to you. I would your feet were perched up again on our fender.
The fender is a low barrier between the fireplace and the floor of the room, often at a good height for warming the toes.
This story made me wonder how often the one who came to bring fire to the earth sat around an open fire with his disciples, how much of his more intimate teaching was given that way. I shall have to re-imagine some of the Gospel passages next time they come up.
Mary Lamb to Sarah Stoddard, 14 March 1806, The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb, 1796-1820, edited by E. V. Lucas.
Unless the eye catch fire, The God will not be seen. Unless the ear catch fire, The God will not be heard. Unless the tongue catch fire, The God will not be named. Unless the heart catch fire, The God will not be loved. Unless the mind catch fire, The God will not be known.
William Blake, Pentecost.
Blake had a way with words, and with ideas. We need to catch fire but not to be too hard on ourselves when the fire is damped down and invisible. This fire was out – or looked that way. It sprang back into life with a few puffs from the bellows and a few dry sticks and logs. How can we open ourselves to the Spirit to relight our fires? How can we feed our own fires and each other as we approach the festival of light?
49 Jesus said to his disciples: ’I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already! 50 There is a baptism I must still receive, and how great is my distress till it is over!
Now stir the fire, and close the shutters fast, Let fall the curtains, wheel the sofa round, And while the bubbling and loud-hissing urn Throws up a steamy column, and the cups That cheer but not inebriate, wait on each, So let us welcome peaceful evening in.
These lines by William Cowper are taken from his long poem ‘The Task’, written in response to a challenge from his friend Lady Ann Austen. Many readers will recognise ‘the cups that cheer but not inebriate’ but perhaps, like me, did not know the source.
I’d like to put alongside Cowper’s image the photo on this book cover.
Bishop Claude Rault was a teacher of mine before he became Bishop of the Sahara, at least the part of it in the great empty quarter of Algeria. His book has been my Lenten reading this year, but what I want to share today is from the introduction by Fr Christophe Roucou, himself a missionary in North Africa.
Roucou explains why Bishop Rault chose this picture for his cover. It shows
“a teapot in the embers of a living fire, ready to make tea that will be drunk and shared in this corner of the desert between friends, or offered to the passer-by in token of welcome and hospitality.
“The tea of meeting!”
The word ‘meeting’ is hardly adequate as a translation of rencontre; ‘encounter’ does not, for me at least, convey the warmth and welcome implied in ‘rencontre’. Claude’s book is a commentary on the meetings Jesus had with people, as described in Saint John’s Gospel; and we know how deeply he welcomed all manner of people. A review will follow.
God of grace and glory,
you call us with your voice of flame
to be your people,
faithful and courageous.
As your beloved Son embraced his mission
in the waters of baptism, inspire us with the fire of your Spirit
to join in his transforming work.
I’ve pointed out before how the windows in Saint Aloysius, near Euston Station in London, show clearly the world that the people of the parish are sent to. Repeat this prayer when you switch on the computer at different times today. May this blog contribute to the Son’s transforming work, Amen.
Another reflection from Chesterton on Saint Francis*, who among many other things, could be called a Performance Poet today.
Saint Francis hails the elements with an old familiarity that is almost an old frivolity. He calls them his Brother Fire and his Sister Water. So arises out of this almost nihilistic abyss the noble thing that is called Praise; which no one will ever understand while he identifies it with nature-worship or pantheistic optimism.
When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos. But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name.
We in the West may be over-familiar with stories of Francis calling up his Brother Fire and his Sister Water, and this partly because we have lost touch with fire and water. How many households are all-electric and possibly only light candles on birthday cakes? Many have nowhere to light a fire, keeping warm and cooking without a flame, at the touch of a switch.
In our everyday lives water is tamed to flow through pipes, to be heated in a closed boiler, disposed of when dirty through more pipes; not the way to treat a sister. Still less the pollution in rivers and the ocean. Maybe we need to listen again.
We praise you, Lord, for all your creatures,
especially for Brother Sun,
who is the day through whom you give us light.
And he is beautiful and radiant with great splendour,
of you Most High, he bears your likeness.
We praise you, Lord, for Sister Water,
so useful, humble, precious and pure.
*Saint Francis of Assisi: The Life and Times of St. Francis” by G. K. Chesterton
So much did the fervour of devotion increase in Saint Francis that he altogether transformed himself into Jesus through love and pity.
He saw, coming from heaven, a Seraph, with six wings resplendent and ablaze; He bore the likeness to a crucified Man; two wings extended above His head, two were spread out to fly, and the other two covered all His body. Saint Francis was sore afraid, and, at the same time, was filled with joy and grief and wonder. He had passing great joy of the gracious aspect of Christ, who appeared to him so familiarly and regarded him so kindly; but, on the other hand, seeing Him crucified upon the cross, he felt immeasurable grief for pity’s sake. Next, he marvelled much at so strange and stupendous a vision, knowing well that the infirmity of suffering agreeth not with the immortality of the seraphic spirit. And, while he thus marvelled, it was revealed unto him by Him who appeared to him: that that vision had been shown unto him in that form, by the Divine providence, to the end that he might understand that, not by corporal suffering but by enkindling of the mind, he must be altogether transformed into the express image of Christ crucified, in that marvellous vision.
Then all the mountain of Alvernia seemed to burn with brightest flame, which shone forth and lighted up all the mountains and the valleys round about, even as if the sun had risen upon the earth; wherefore the shepherds, who kept watch in those regions, beholding the mountain all on fire and so great a light round about it, were very much afraid, according as they afterward related to the friars, declaring that that flame continued upon the mountain of Alvernia for the space of an hour or more. In like manner, by reason of the brightness of this light, which shone through the windows into the hostelries of the countryside, certain muleteers, who were journeying into Romagna, rose up, believing that the sun had risen, and saddled and loaded their beasts; and, as they went upon their way, they beheld the said light die out, and the material sun arise.
In the said seraphic vision, Christ, who appeared to Saint Francis, spake unto him certain high and secret things, the which Saint Francis was never willing to reveal to any one during his life; but, after his death, he revealed it, even as is set forth below; and the words were these: “Knowest thou,” said Christ, “that which I have done unto thee? I have given thee the stigmata, which are the tokens of My Passion, so that thou mayest be My standard-bearer. And even as I, on the day of My death, descended into Limbo, and, in virtue of these My stigmata, drew out thence all the souls which I found there; so to thee do I grant that, every year on the day of thy death, thou shalt go to purgatory, and in virtue of thy stigmata, shalt draw out thence all the souls of thy three Orders, to wit minors, sisters and continents, and also those others who have borne great devotion unto thee, and shalt lead them unto the glory of paradise, to the end that thou mayest be conformed to Me in death as thou art in life.”
Now when, after long and secret converse, this marvellous vision vanished away, it left an exceeding ardour and flame of Divine love in the heart of St. Francis, and in his flesh a marvellous image and imprint of the Passion of Christ.
With all the light pollution caused by modern fear of the dark, nobody would notice the coming of Christ on the mountain! But we should all bear in mind the words ‘not by corporal suffering but by enkindling of the mind, [we] must be altogether transformed into the express image of Christ crucified.’
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love.
Our church is smallish, homely, as it should be,
A rectangular box
Light-filled by generous windows.
Spirit-filled by generations of plain-speaking villagers.
A second-hand, twice-loved,
No-nonsense northern chapel in the hills
Complete with gallery and organ of course!
No room for side chapels
No nooks and crannies in which to construct an Altar of Repose.
Needing to take over from Saint Joseph
His small shrine to the left of the Sanctuary.
We can move over,
Those who stay on
To keep company with the Lord
On the night road from the room to the garden,
From the garden to the High Priest
In the midst of rabble,
Torches, weapons, noise,
While our church, now stripped,
Leaves us a few hours more
In his presence.
But tomorrow, when all we have remembered
In ritual, prayer and song,
When we have reverenced his image,
Received his Gift …
Then is it empty.
And helpless, what can we do?
In this emptiness
That echoes with the sound of his leaving?
The door left open,
The table bare
The light extinguished,
The fire gone out.
Come and see,
Just come and see!
Remember how it was
Before it became Good Friday.
The comfortable familiarity,
His everpresence …
Withdrawn now into pain,
For in the darkness we have abandoned him.
Oh how is our church empty!
Now … We gather in the darkness,
Knowing our loss
And drawn to the emptiness,
Relight the fire,
Set the table,
Restore the light.
Christ, our light!
Thanks be to God!
Hearts renewed in hope
Reach for the light.
Christ our light!
Our church in the hills!
Sheila writes that this piece is ‘Pre-Covid, by several years – Is this how we will date things in future?’ The previous two poems were new ones. Her little church in the hills is as she describes it, is it not? A light-filled, Spirit-filled box, where the Lord can camp for a while – who are we, even Yorkshire folk, to build Him a house? But he will fill the space when we set the table.
Thus saith the Lord: Go, and take a potter’s earthen bottle, and take of the ancients of the people, and of the ancients of the priests: And go forth into the valley of the son of Ennom, which is by the entry of the earthen gate: and there thou shalt proclaim the words that I shall tell thee. And thou shalt say: Hear the word of the Lord, O ye kings of Juda, and ye inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold I will bring an affliction upon this place: so that whoever shall hear it, his ears shall tingle: Because they have forsaken me, and have profaned this place: and have sacrificed therein to strange gods, whom neither they nor their fathers knew, nor the kings of Juda: and they have filled this place with the blood of innocents. And they have built the high places of Baalim, to burn their children with fire for a holocaust to Baalim: which I did not command, nor speak of, neither did it once come into my mind.
Therefore behold the days come, saith the Lord, that this place shall no more be called Topheth, nor the valley of the son of Ennom, but the valley of slaughter. And I will defeat the counsel of Juda and of Jerusalem in this place: and I will destroy them with the sword in the sight of their enemies, and by the hands of them that seek their lives: and I will give their carcasses to be meat for the fowls of the air, and for the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city an astonishment, and a hissing: every one that shall pass by it, shall be astonished, and shall hiss because of all the plagues thereof. And I will feed them with the flesh of their sons, and with the flesh of their daughters: and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege, and in the distress wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives shall straiten them. And thou shalt break the bottle in the sight of the men that shall go with thee. And thou shalt say to them: Thus saith the Lord of hosts: even so will I break this people, and this city, as the potter’s vessel is broken, which cannot be made whole again: and they shall be buried in Topheth, because there is no other place to bury in.
Thus will I do to this place, saith the Lord, and to the inhabitants thereof: and I will make this city as Topheth. And the houses of Jerusalem, and the houses of the kings of Juda shall be unclean as the place of Topheth: all the houses upon whose roofs they have sacrificed to all the host of heaven, and have poured out drink offerings to strange gods.
Poor Jeremiah: the Lord wanted the end of child sacrifice in Jerusalem, just outside the city gate. Had it been going on ever since the Holy Land was taken by the children of Israel?
Jeremiah seems to have used the city gates for his symbolic gestures. There would always be people coming and going, perhaps ready to spend time watching whatever might be happening by the gateway. But a people that could allow human sacrifice does not need a prophet’s gesture to become broken; the society is not based on trust and equality if children can be chosen for sacrifice. It cannot be made whole again without great repentance.
So what do I need to repent of? What idols am I unwittingly sacrificing to?
“The dove descending breaks the air With flame of incandescent terror Of which the tongues declare The one discharge from sin and error. The only hope, or else despair Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre- To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love. Love is the unfamiliar Name Behind the hands that wove The intolerable shirt of flame Which human power cannot remove. We only live, only suspire Consumed by either fire or fire.
T.S. Eliot famously could connect nothing with nothing, sitting where we are now, looking across Margate sands. But he also had an insight into Something breaking through the shell of nothingness.
No easy comfort here, but a person can choose to be consumed by the fire – of love.
Pentecost today, the Spirit descends as dove and fire in this window from St Aloysius’ Somers Town, London.
The disciples’ journey does not start out as a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is going to somewhere, but these two disciples are hurrying away from the great pilgrimage city of Jerusalem.
Where are they going? It feels to me like nowhere in particular, just a pub they knew they could get to before dark, where they could eat and sleep; provided they were able to get to sleep. Were you ever that tired but unable to sleep at night?
And yet the story finishes with a high-speed pilgrimage back to Jerusalem. In the gloaming if not the dark. No street lights to guide them. What happened to them in between?
What happened was that they listened to Jesus talking, setting their hearts on fire; the Spirit at work. And they knew him in the breaking of bread.
Back in town, they find out that the stay-at-homes have news of Jesus too.
When we think about this pilgrimage of ours, what will we remember? Who have we spent time with? Have we heard them speak from the heart? Did we enjoy eating together? Will we be happy to see them all again? Make home in our hearts for them?