Consumed by Divine Fire: The Basic Elements of Prayer

Consumed by Divine Fire: The Basic Elements of Prayer March 4, 2023

Diya lamp used in Hindu prayers. A strong upward flame.
Diya lamp used in Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist prayers and ceremonies. A strong upward flame symbolizes learning that will lead to higher ideals. Is tending a sacred flame part of your spiritual practice? (Image by Tanuj Handa from Pixabay)

Can we find a deeper connection to our lives of prayer by aligning ourselves with the basic elements: water, earth, air, and fire? Alignment has explored drinking water as a contemplative practice, taking ourselves to ground level, and exchanging our exhale as ways in which prayer enters our lives in unexpected ways. Might fire be the element that allows us to find and claim the spiritual practices that are uniquely ours? Understanding that there are many different avenues to connecting to the divine through prayer, can we find what feels right for us, without being consumed. If we are committed to interfaith engagement, we find ourselves embracing a multitude of different forms of prayer. Prayer that fits authentically into our daily practice might come from our own tradition or from another. But very likely it will come from a practice that is already our own daily ritual.

Tending the Fire

My consuming fascination with staring into flames began with my grandmother’s coal fire. It was a sacred ritual for her. Up before anyone else could hear her stirring, she struck a match to the pile of coals and twisted balls of newspaper that she had set the night before. Her shoulders curled forward as she kneeled before the lifeless black rocks, tilting her head to blow gently. Breath met spark, and the day began. Warmth to the house. Light to the dark room. Duty for the matriarch. Comfort to a family cradled by this ritual. The warning was not to get too close. Chilblains might ensue. But the invitation was always to sit, be still, stoke, feed, keep watch – hold wonder and reverence for the fire. My life as a pastor’s kid was filled with formal times and locations for prayer, but the daily simplicity and necessity of my Granny’s practice revealed a much more practical form of prayer. 

Did she know she was praying? Perhaps not. Did I look at her bent frame, humbled and reverent, and recognize it as prayer? Not at the time. But now, without a doubt, I know that those focused morning moments were part of her contemplative practice. It was rooted in duty and awe. It was intimate and personal. In the hushed moments before the day began, she met the divine. Although her life was pitted with the marks of loss and grief, poverty and heartache, war and emigration, she met her maker every morning. There in the glowing embers and the leaping flames was something more powerful than she was – with the strength to consume as well as to warm. Nevertheless she was not consumed. She held herself in right relationship with her God.

Fresco of Vesta/Hestia tending the sacred hearth
Fresco of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and keeper of the flame. Here in human form, she was usually depicted as the divine fire that she represented. Her cult was one of the last to survive in the dawn of Christianity. (Wikimedia Commons)

Divine Fire

The depiction of God as fire in sacred texts conveys everything from majestic brilliance to engulfing power. Power that hovers at the edge of danger. Instilling in us that sense of awe that flutters right next to fear. God appears first to Moses on Mount Horeb as a flame of fire out of a bush. The bush however was not consumed (Ex. 3:2). But by the time Moses meets God on Mount Sinai to receive the law, the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24). God speaks out of the fire. The people are afraid because of the fire. They have forgotten that although this is a devouring and consuming fire, they will not be consumed. The prophet Isaiah will remind God’s people that when they walk through the fire they will not be burned, and the flame will not consume them (Isaiah 43:2).

The symbol of the Church of Scotland carved in stone. The burning bush. Nec tamen consumebatur. Nevertheless it was not consumed.
Nevertheless it was not consumed. The emblem of the Church of Scotland. (Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless It Was Not Consumed

Nec tamen consumebatur. Long before I became a Latin teacher, these words in Latin were etched in my mind. A stone carving of the burning bush on the fireplace in my father’s office at church. Nevertheless it was not consumed. Sure, this emblem of the Church of Scotland was an appropriate carving to have in a minister’s office, a Scottish immigrant in Philadelphia. Funny even, on the fireplace. But I imagine my father must have stopped and considered those words each day when he went to work. To step into the role of leading a congregation, of upholding the creeds and confessions, of caring and counseling, but also of provoking people to live their lives grounded in the call to divine justice and love. Surely it would be easy to be consumed. But here’s the tricky part, he stayed authentic to his own personal practices every day. And in that way, I am confident, he was not consumed. 

His intimate and personal prayer took the form of his daily practices, just like my grandmother’s. He whistled with the birds, he wrote poetry in front of his Buddha statue, he kneaded bread and shared it with those he loved. Today I offer contemplative practices from a variety of traditions through Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices. My intention is to offer those who are seeking peace, whether through connection to the divine or to others, an array of options for how to be in contemplative prayer. I hold the hope that if we can embrace the traditions of others, then surely the work of pursing justice for all people with be the natural consequence. Some practices feel familiar and others are very new. Sometimes a practice from another tradition feels more appropriate for us than one from our own. May the fire, however, teach us. Reverence, awe, respect. All a part of the connections we make when we engage in interfaith work. But if we find what grows authentically from the daily practices of our own life, we might not be consumed. Consumed by too many options. Consumed by the what we think is the right way to pray. Consumed by expectations. May the light of the divine fire illumine us. 

About Margaret Somerville
Rev. Dr. Margaret Somerville is a Quaker educator and a Presbyterian minister. The focus of her work in education is the way language shapes how we see ourselves in the world. The focus of her ministry is embracing the practices of a variety of traditions to deepen our connection to the divine. Director of Alignment: Interfaith Contemplative Practices, retreat leader, and associate member of the Iona Community. Find out more about Margaret's work at www.interfaithalignment.org. You can read more about the author here.
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