A few weeks ago, I went to my neighborhood Catholic bookstore to get a new rosary. I often flip through a few books on the shelves, but rarely do I buy one. When I opened the book Listen to the Desert, I stumbled upon the following passage between two desert fathers:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him: Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet and as much as possible I keep my thoughts clean. What else should I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame and he said to him: If you wish, you can become all flame.
I’ve gotten very bored with theology this year, especially white Protestant theology. I’m tired of coming up with clever ways to speak scandalously and evade the predictable posturing of modernity. I’m tired of the infatuation with systems of explanation and historical research and word studies. I’m tired of the quest to be the first person who actually tells the gospel story perfectly (and yes, I tried to do that in my book).
But when I hear that I can become all flame, that perks up my ears. The desert fathers and mothers, and all of Eastern Orthodoxy, are transfixed by the story of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17 where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up the mountain and reveals his full glory to them. According to Orthodox teaching, the real world is the transfiguration and the reason we don’t see the world in its full glory is because our sin has inhibited our vision. The seventh beatitude speaks to this reality: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Likewise when Jesus talks to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, he says, “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” It’s all about seeing.
In many ways, this passage calls me out. I’m like Abba Lot. I do a little fasting. I dabble in prayer. And I’ve experienced some small rewards when I go to my sacred places: the fountain at Notre Dame seminary and the labyrinth in Audubon Park. I can’t say that I’ve seen anything blatantly supernatural. But the gleam of the light reflecting on the water in the fountain at night is lovely. And so is the hanging moss in the trees of Audubon. They have an eternal character that seems like more than just nature. They arouse a deep joy inside of me that I never knew was there. When I’m in these places, I feel like I’m living in kairos (sacred time) rather than chronos (mundane time).
Yesterday afternoon, I had a delightful time pulling the weeds of my garden in the rain. It seemed like a Brother Lawrence thing to do. But I didn’t do it out of piety. I did it because it was joyful. The amazing thing about life is that any physical task can become art if it is performed with love. The reason that most chores don’t feel this way is because of the emotional baggage I bring to them. I wish I could make washing the dishes or organizing my house as joyful as weeding in the rain but it hasn’t worked out so far.
So I can’t help but wonder how much more deeply I could connect with reality if I actually had a disciplined prayer life. I want to live in eternity every moment of every day. And I believe that my idols, anxieties, and addictions are what prevent me from doing so. I am evangelized by the mystical gospel of the East so much more than the dry, academic gospel of the Protestant West.
My God doesn’t say, “I love you so much that I want to torture you forever unless you say the right sinner’s prayer with enough sincerity to flip the switch on your eternal destiny.” My God says, “I love you so much that my brilliance will overwhelm you until you have been justified and sanctified enough to look at something brighter than the sun without blinking.”
1 John 1:5 says, “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” Light is not angry or malevolent, but it is overwhelming and it can cause torture to those who live in darkness. The more that we live in the light, the more beauty we are able to see in what was always perfectly ordinary. That’s why I want to become all flame like Abba Joseph.
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