Seasons of the Soul
Advent Practices: Following the Fire
Every being is praising God
The fire has its flame and praises God.
The wind blows the flame and praises God.
In the voice we hear the word which praises God.
And the word, when heard, praises God.
So all of creation is a song of praise to God. ~ Hildegard of Bingen
In the first week of our Advent series we focused on the scriptural image of awakening and the gift of breath as our connection to creation. This second week of Advent the scripture readings call us to prepare the way for our journey toward the Holy One. We are invited to follow the fire in our hearts toward the passion that calls us to be fully alive.
In Cherokee tradition, the element of fire is connected to the midday sun and the season of summer. Fire calls us to celebrate the fullness of life, those times when all of our needs are satisfied and we experience the fecundity of the earth. One of my primary spiritual practices is taking a contemplative walk each day. In the ancient contemplative tradition of lectio divina, I bring myself present to the world as my feet kiss the earth, and I listen for what is shimmering in creation. Through my practice, I approach nature as an illuminated manuscript -- and I believe the brilliance of sunlight dancing across water and leaves was the inspiration for those ancient monks to generously apply gold leaf to the pages of sacred text -- and if I listen closely I can discover how the fire in the world is calling me to respond.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes: "the extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation . . .The whole show has been on fire from the word go . . . everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames." When St. Benedict had a mystical experience near the end of his life, he saw the whole world gathered into a single ray of light. As Hildegard of Bingen describes in the opening quote, all of creation participates in one unending hymn of praise, and our own liturgy arises from this eternal song.
Fire is a primal element and the image of light carries us through Advent. We light candles each week to symbolize the growing flame within us as we approach the birth of Light. The Spanish mystic John of the Cross described God as the "living flame of love" who burns within our hearts. Fire urges us toward the One whose radiance is expressed through our own acts of love.
There is a wildness to fire. The path we are called to prepare for the coming of the Divine Light is not the path of our pre-planned expectations or paved with consumer frenzy. Fire purifies and burns away excess. On the road to birthing the sacred in our midst, we must leave behind what is not necessary. The season of Advent demands that we surrender the excesses that keep us from following the way unfolding before us. Creation is crying out for us to release our worship of consumption and return the fire of our hearts to a compassionate embrace of all living things. We are called to kindle and spark our inner flames, and then unleash the passion that rises and allow it to move out into the world. Teilhard de Chardin suggested that one day we will "harness for God energies of love. Then for the second time in the history of the world we will have discovered fire."
Practices for Advent:
- One of the main traditions for Advent is creating a wreath and lighting one of four candles each week. Consider as you light the candles each week to offer a prayer for passion and the fire of love to sustain you through these winter days. Savor the growing light and offer a commitment to bring that fire to the world.
- Last week we connected to the breath. This week allow some time to connect to the fire and heat of your body. Place a hand on your heart and imagine the living flame dwelling within you. Feel your pulse and remember the beating of hearts across the world, in all creatures, in a primal rhythm of love.
- One morning this week, go for a contemplative walk. Bring yourself fully present to each step and listen for what is shimmering in creation around you. Allow God to speak to your heart through leaves and stones and receive their invitation.
- If you attend a church service, imagine during the liturgy that you are joining in with the passionate song of all creation.
Christine Valters Paintner, Ph.D., is a Benedictine Oblate and the online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts, a virtual monastery without walls offering online classes and resources in contemplative practice and creative expression. She is the author of seven books on monastic spirituality and creativity including The Artist's Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom (Ave Maria Press), Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings (SkyLight Paths), and Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice (forthcoming 2013 from Ave Maria Press). Christine earned her Ph.D. in Christian Spirituality from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, and her work focuses on the intersection of the arts, contemplative spirituality and practice, and the wisdom of the seasons. Visit her website Abbey of the Arts.