Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? (Deut. 4:33).
Last Sunday morning, I reflected that it would be the first time in twenty-five years as a Catholic that I wouldn’t be receiving Communion during the Easter season. The dispensation is still in effect in the Diocese of San Diego, so this wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it was still a jolt to me to realize that I hadn’t received Communion at all during the Easter season this year.
That afternoon, my roommate said, out of the blue, “Want to go to Mass with me?”
I’d declined previous invitations, mainly because the dispensation is still in effect and I wasn’t in a good spiritual frame of mind to go. This time though, I decided that it was an unsubtle prodding by the Holy Spirit, on his “birthday,” in answer to my morning reflection. I ended up going.
The priest was an affable sort, but he gave the type of homily I’ve come to dislike intensely—off-the-cuff rambling, without notes or any evident preparation, which means the homily goes on for much longer than it should. Although I had to sigh when he started repeating himself, he did make a few intriguing points about the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit, he said, is the Person of the Trinity to whom we have the most difficulty relating. Whereas we can go on for days about what a friend we have in Jesus, and can even take a credible pass at talking about the Father, most Catholics will stutter about the Person of the Holy Spirit, often not even recognizing him to be a Person but a thing—fire, wind, water, a dove.
It was the image of fire that caught my attention because the priest elaborated, reminding the congregation of the “tongues of fire” that had appeared during the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. In that context, the homilist asked us to recall Jesus’ declaration that he came to “cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49).
He asked, “How can we possibly imagine that fire to be divine wrath, rather than the purifying fire of the Holy Spirit?”
When I was about eight years old, a wildfire broke out near my childhood home. My father heard the story on the evening news and, for some reason I’ve since forgotten, decided that my younger brother and I needed to see the fire. He loaded us into the family station wagon and set out to find the fire. What I remember is looking out the car window and seeing flames on the side of the road. That image lived in my nightmares for years to come.
Fast-forward to October 2003. I was visiting my parents at their retirement home in Menifee, California, when I got a call from my manager at Catholic Answers. She was calling to check in because the Cedar Fire was raging throughout San Diego County. When I told her that I was in Riverside County, she said that the freeways south into San Diego had been entirely cut off because of the fire and that I should stay put. A few days later, when it was safe to return home, I marveled at the charred, smoky hellscape on either side of the freeway.
In December 2017, my roommate suddenly looked up from her phone one evening and asked me to pray. As an alumna of Thomas Aquinas College in Ventura County, she’d received early word through the TAC grapevine that a fire had broken out right next to the college. Over the next few days, we heard from the TAC community that, seemingly miraculously, the college for which one of the most destructive fires in California history had been named had barely been singed. Wind had pushed the Thomas Fire completely away from the college.
It’s easy to see fire as purifying when you don’t lose everything that matters to you to its destructive power. When you’re watching the flames from a safe distance, it may be tempting to treat them as a tourist attraction or to reflect on the spiritual lessons fire can teach. When a wind picks up and pushes flames away from your beloved alma mater, it’s easy to send up hosannas of gratitude for divine providence.
But what about those who are not so fortunate? How do they find God in the midst of fire?
In October 2017, the Atlas Fire ripped through Napa County, California, part of what was called the “Northern California firestorm” that raged in eight NorCal counties. In the aftermath of the devastation, I found a post on social media from Napa resident, Clark Good. He shared a photo of an elderly couple. Behind them was the burned-out husk of a truck and charred trees. Smoke still lingered in the air.
But the couple was smiling hugely. The woman was holding a coffee-shop go-cup, her husband a sunny yellow lemon—the only splotch of color in the photo. Mr. Good wrote:
Meet my new friend, Carl. House was totally destroyed by fire. Walking up his driveway with him this morning, he sees a lemon from off of his burnt to a crisp tree, turns to his wife with a big smile, and says, “Look, hon, we can have lemon in our drinks tonight!” Amazing attitudes they had for losing so much. His wife said, “We got out alive and still have each other; we are blessed.”
Fire can be an image of divine wrath; it can also be an image of divine promise. Those spared from its fury can readily see in their deliverance the providence of God, but how much more faith does it take to see the providence of God in the small bits of life and color that survive a fire?
When the prophet Elijah was in hiding, he was told that the Lord would be passing by. Strong wind roared through, an earthquake rumbled. Then, on top of everything else, there was a fire.
After the fire, a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (1 Kings 19:12–13).
Elijah found God in the still, small voice that followed the fire. If God is in the midst of the fire, then perhaps we can find him in the little things left behind after the fire passes—spots of green among the charred ruins, the last lemon on a destroyed tree, the gratitude of those who have lost everything but each other and are overjoyed to be alive.
Michelle Arnold was a staff apologist for Catholic Answers, a Catholic apologetics apostolate in the Diocese of San Diego, California, from 2003–2020, answering questions from clients about the Catholic faith via phone, letter, email, and online platforms. She contributed essays to Catholic Answers’ online and print magazines, and wrote four booklets for the apostolate’s 20 Answers series. Her 20 Answers booklets were on Judaism, the New Age, witchcraft and the occult, and the Church’s liturgical year. Now a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, Michelle Arnold has a blog at the Patheos Catholic channel. A portfolio of her published essays is available at Authory.