Bonfires of the Vanities, Certainty, and Not Knowing

Bonfires of the Vanities, Certainty, and Not Knowing February 7, 2024

& the Burning Bush
Foster Bible, 1897







It was the 7th of February in 1497, that the Dominican Friar Girolamo Savonarola called the city of Florence into the orgy falò delle vanità, the “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Overcome with the fervors of faith he people gathered together what they and the good friar considered temptations into sin, piled them up, and put the torch to them.

These objects included clothing, cosmetics, mirrors, musical instruments, playing cards, and paintings. Lots of art, And lots of books…

About a year later on the 23rd of May, in 1498, the friar was burned at the stake.

Fire, it would seem, has a tendency to spread.

As it happens such things had occurred before Savonarola. In fact the friar himself started these fires as regular events two years before the whole city got involved.

And, well, we know. Such things have happened since, as well…

To which I can only say, God save us from the pure. Both kinds of pure. Those who would impose some ideal upon others. And from that impulse as it arises within our own hearts. Of all the evils I’ve encountered in my life, both from others and within my self, the impulse of knowing what’s what without a shade of doubt have been the scariest.

There’s an old saying that fish can’t live in pure water. I’m sure we can’t. We’re a messy lot, with messy hearts, and hoping it is otherwise leads to madness. And insisting on purity leads to worse.

This is why I try to remember to pause and note both the 7th of February and the 23rd of May. I think of them as holy days to recall the power and grace of not knowing. As well as the seductions and end of certainty. The related sin to purity.

We’re not excused from life. Things are going on. We have little choice but to engage. Oh from some things, for sure. But there is a bottom line in how its all connected, and what we do or do not do usually has consequences. Sometimes terrible. And on occasion joyful.

But connected we are.

We have a hard time finding a middle way through. Usually its excesses of one sort or another. Bouncing from one wall to another. It even suggests that maybe, just possibly the true middle way is not about avoiding the mess of our lives. But knowing they will all pass. Each thing.

It’s interesting we don’t seem to have language for this kind of middle way. Often I speak of holding with open hands. A bad metaphor. It’s about holding while at the same time knowing at that moment of passion it will pass.

This is not a call into the lukewarm. The true middle way is, well, like fire.

Then strange and mysterious things happen. It’s where that fire, well, it becomes us. There is a Japanese saying, gyogaku funi, which means “practice and study are not two.” Something like that.

So, how is this like fire? There’s a story from the Desert Fathers and Mothers that feels especially apt in the moment.

Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph. He told him he had found the rule, a simple thing. He prayed, he fasted, he dove into the great silences. The authentic way into the deep, seeking the balance between austerities and licentiousness. A true middle way.

“What more can I do?” he asked.

Abba Joseph stretched out his hands to heaven. And he said, “why not become fire?”

And the fingers on his hands became ten flaming lamps.

I think of that story. In the collections of these desert parents there actually aren’t a lot of miracles. Oh, demons come and go. And the odd angel. But, for the most part, we’re left to fend for ourselves.

But not passively. Fully engaged. Fully consumed.

Kind of like fire. A powerful and terrible image, fire. My favorite image of the divine is from the Torah, where God is portrayed as an eternally burning bush. But there are different visions of that god, of ultimacy, of that fire. One is the certain, the other is the uncertain. The sublime not knowing. The unknown. The mystery, folding and unfolding as our lives.

Found when we constantly let go. Like being burned up.

Me. I’m going with the fire of uncertainty, with the divine as found within not knowing.

So. How as a holy day? I find not knowing is not abstaining from life, but rather a way to engage life.

Not pretending there is no fire, but going right through it. Becoming fire. Embracing it all…

Openly. Fully. Not knowing. A true divine, I’ve found, that leads from bondage of many sorts, to the genuine freedom of curiosity and possibly.

Like fire…

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