The image of Fire has many possible associat ions, among them: love, energy, spirit , creatvity, desire, anger, destruction, suffering and courage. LeClerc, speaking of Brother Fire writes,
“Fire is innate in the human psyche: in the ardor of (eros) desire to become attached, to love and hate; we feel this force as consoling but also consuming; in short, we experience it as a fire. Fire is thus one of the reat symtbols of the libido (energy), the god who speaks in the fire is a life-giving force that seeks union, communication, and self-propagation as does a flame. ‘The arrow of fire never flaggng, crosses the vast universe and leaves nothing at rest (Heraclitus). This living fire, ‘this power that seeks to fuse all things into oneness was named Eros by the ancient Greeks; it is the power to love, that great active energy of the soul. (But) life-giving fire is also imagined as a devouring fire, for it can destroy as well as give life.’”
Fire can exist under many aspects: wildfires, hearth-fires, camp fires, candle-flames, infernos; each form means something very different , ...
...and so ‘fire’ must be contextualized before it can be interpreted. In the Desert Meditation above, fire appears in two forms: in the atmosphere of heat and light that pervades the desert air, and in the notion of a ‘ball of fire, “(One) in heaven and (one) in the earth.”
The latter image is a sort of modern mythologem derived from the body of contemporary scientific knowledge. In a discussion of ‘compressed matter’ in planets and stars, Isaac Asimov explains for the novice,
“As the particles making up a planet come together - -growing to pebbles, boulders, mountains and worlds they heat up. Gravitation produces an acceleration motion inward; the larger the growing fragments become and the faster they move, the more kinetic energy they possess. All the kinetic energy of the crashing together of rapidly moving bodies is not lost. Energy cannot be lost; it can only be changed into other forms. In this case the kinetic energy is turned into heat and is concentrated at the center of the world that is formed. This internal heat is the product of the energy of the gravitational field as it is concentrated more and more intensely in the process of planet making. The larger the world, the greater the internal heat. The Earth is white hot at its center, and Jupiter is far hotter still. The sun, then, being much larger than Jupiter, would be much hotter still.”
But the case of the sun is different from that of either Earth or Jupiter or any planet.
“The Sun, however, is a star. It shines with a light of its own, bright and blazing, (and) is pouring out energy at a vast rate, and has certainly been doing it for all of recorded history.”
Asimov explains the differences between a radiant star, like the sun, which from its core to its surface is gaseous throughout, and any planet, like the earth, whose surface is not radiant but solid and cold. However in either case, the core of the planet or sun is produci ng heat through a process of fusion or compression brought about by the force of gravity pulling the matter inward.
Grief too plunges us into our depths, but there we can come into contact with previously unknown resources and energies. But this submergence is a ‘baptism by fire’ that is very painful nonetheless. For me these images of fire in earth and heaven have meaning in terms of the experience of grief. Judy Tatelbaum writes,
“Depression and grief are inextricably linked. We are naturally depressed when grieving. So much of our energy is tied up inside that little energy is available for action and functioning.”
In the case of a grieving person, the ‘fire’ of love and energy and creativity has sunk low, but it is not irretrievably gone. The grieving person may feel as if he or she can never love again. But although their love must go through a period of being ‘buried like the fire at the center of the earth, the compression of grieving can serve to increase the depth and power of their future love. Judy Tatelbaum cites examples of several persons for whom this has been true, including herself, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and victor Franki. The love and energy now seemingly sunk in depression will surface again, impossible though it may seem at the time of grieving.
A grieving person may need help in getting in touch again with her own love, especially if grief goes on for too long. In this case, if the griever has a religious faith or spiritual sensibility, then while her Love is ‘underground’ , she can relate to the burning power of love and energy in ‘heaven’ - represented in this meditation by the image of the sun - to gain the courage and motivation to live again. From either source, whether the fire in heaven (‘God’ or in Jungian terms, the Self - symbol of our possibilities), or the fire in the earth (ourselves), this Love, needed for living, is itself the same.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling-block to one actually disabled by grief is the realization that love entails suffering. To be willing to love again means to risk the possibility of losing a loved one again. The fire of courage is needed to accept the fire of suffering.
In the Christian tradition the connection between suffering and love has always been recognized. In this case, suffering has been seen as a means of growth and change.
Fire is figured in the Bible as an agent of transformation:
“Behold I have refined you, but not like silver;
(for) I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.”
“The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
(but) the Lord tries hearts.”
In these cases it is the human heart that is being purified in the furnace of suffering: what else can this analogy mean except that the human heart’s capacity for love is refined and expanded by the fire of suffering. It must be added that although the result of this suffering might eventually be something spiritually ‘good’, it does not alleviate in the least the actual experience of sorrow which all suffering entails. Tears, and therefore Water. is as much a basic element in the creation of the cosmos of the psyche as is the fire of energy, spirit and love. Simone Weil describes blood -which is never shed without pain - as a combination of water and fire.
Anger is also sometimes associated with fire and with grief as well. Judy Tatelbaum writes,
“Anger, and an accompanying impulse to blame others is also a common feeling during the grieving process. We may be angry at the world because we have had to suffer this loss. ‘Why me?’ we ask. We may resent anyone who seems happy or who has never had to face such a serious loss. This new anger may be frightening. Anger may recur again and again during the time we are grieving. Anger is a natural outgrowth of our sense of impotence and helplessness, our sense of disappointment and loss, and our sense of abandonment by the loved one. Sometimes we are unable, or unwilling, to experience anger openly and directly. Psychologists think that in many cases depression is anger that has been turned inward onto oneself instead of turned outward to the real source. Many of us are more comfortable becoming depressed than being angry. A simple way of checking to see if we are denying our anger is to say aloud a few times, ‘I am angry!’ and see what happens. The best way to cope with feelings is to express them aloud rather than suppress them...(this) gets them into the open where they can be dealt with and resolved rather than being allowed to smolder inside us and poison us.”
Like love, anger can be a powerful motivating energy, and like suffering, it can serve as a purifying agent when directed to the correct objects; for example, as it is directed in the prophetic tradition against the sources of injustice.
“And the word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them, silver and bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace, have become dross. Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have all become dross, therefore, behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. As men gather silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire upon it in order to melt it; so I will put you in and melt you. I will gather you in and melt you. I will gather you and blow upon you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it; and you shall know that I the Lord have poured out my wrath upon you.” (Ezekiel 22:17-22)
It is interesting that in this passage about God’s anger toward injustice, the dominant image of God’s wrath is that of melting; when associated with the previous passages from scripture in which the material ‘worked upon’ in the furnace is the human heart, it is inferred that it is the hardness of the peoples’ hearts that is to be melted, that they might love again. Anger for the sake of love - or anger as a form of love - is also seen in Jesus’ impassioned cleansing of the Temple, his loving Father’ s house but misused as a den for theives (Mark 11:15-17).
Suffering, and its transformative effect, are inevitable in life. Even Jesus rather direly predicts: “Each one will be salted with fire.” (Mark 9:49) The grieving person, whose fire of energy and love burns low, needs to face and accept, rather than deny and repress, the reality of the fiery pain of suffering and loss.
The other image of fire in the Desert Meditation is that of pervasive light and heat. which is more an effect of the presence of fire, than an image of fire itself. Yet in a sense, the desert, like fire, is also a symbol for purification. Its conditions are only minimally conducive to life: there is too little water and too much sun, but life survives and even flourishes within the confines of its harsh restrictions. It is the place of facing demons and being cleansed of them. Jesus went there to endure and triumph over his four temptations (Mark l:12-13; Matthew 4:l-11; Luke 4:l-13). The desert is a place of spiritual poverty; it is also a realm of light and warmth. Eloi Leclerc writes of Francis,
“In a spirit of poverty, the man who consents to this force (of fire), while practicing a profound detachment from self and renouncing any attempt to dispose of the fire as he himself decides, accepts within him the creative energies of eros. Eros here does not serve egoistic pleasure and self-satisfaction; it is the mystery with which the earth is filled, a religious mystery that draws all life out of its narrow confines toward other beings. (Thus), the fire of which a man sings no longer burns and destroys, for it has been wholly changed into an irresistible energy of light and joy. The fire that has thus become man’s brother symbolizes the reconciliation of life and spirit, the meeting of eros and agape.”
Heat is a more comforting, less demanding, form of fire, almost soporific in its effect, and thus reminiscent of the realm of dreams and imagination, of poetry and prayer. Dreams and memories play a large part in grief work, as will be seen in the Water section of this paper. For me, at the time these meditations were written, the desert was a every comfortable place of warmth and light, of ‘light and joy’ as Leclerc writes above. Simone Weil points out that the colors of the rainbow are created by a mixture of fire and water.
Sometimes when we lose an easily-identifiable God-image to which to direct our prayer and devotion, it is not uncommon to experience God in a more impersonal and pervasive mode. As we become accustomed to what seems like an ‘absence’ and silence of God, we begin to notice a sense of God’s presence like a warmth in the air or in our bodies.
In the Christian tradition, mystics such as Richard Rolle (l295-l349) and John Cassian (c.360-435), speak of heat experienced in prayer, which is the result of being in relationship to a God who is a ‘fire of love’. Urban T. Holmes writes of John Cassian that “the ‘fire of love’ is his way of speaking of the presence of God and seems to be related to the prayer of the heart, as described by the Eastern Fathers, especially the Hesychasts. The Hesychasts, and Byzantine spirituality generally, were very much in touch with the ultimate and infinite mystery of God, and spoke of something called the Taboric Light as the goal of the spiritual life. Holmes writes that the Taboric Light is related to the Shekinah Light of the Old Testament.
“Shekinah means the dwelling of God with his people. It is the provisional presence of God. The Shekinah is the presence of the holy in the midst of the profane. But the metaphor is that the Shekinah is like the sun; it is everywhere. Yahweh is present in the totality of his creation. He can appear in a burning bush as much as in the Holy of Holies. (It is interesting that [later] the Shekinali becomes the feminine principle in God.)”
Leclerc’s Francis personifies this warm, light, pervasive love: (he quotes Peter Lippert),
“Francis’ life from the very beginning (is) a life devoted to loving. In this utterly immense soul, in this man who advanced to meet every creature with outstretched arms, we find a truly maternal devotion to all things, a genius for loving.”
Meditation on images of fire and heat can bring us into touch with the comforting, maternal dimension of God’s loving presence, but also to the motivating, energizing, creative force within God and within us as well. LeClerc writes of Francis’ image of Brother Fire in The Canticle of Creatures:
“‘Brother Fire, through whom you brighten up the night. How beautiful he is, how gay! Full of power and strength.’ Such a fire could only symbolize a life of immense energy, but a life ‘purified’ and spiritualized (i.e., in which the reconciliation of life and spirit, eros and agape [has occurred]) and (which is) itself transformed into light.”
Light, another effect of fire like heat, and also a quality of Air, has long been associated with the Sacred and the realm of the Spirit, as can be seen, for example, in the stories of the Transfiguration of Jesus or the Conversion of Paul. According to LeClerc, Francis of Assisi related to all fire as symbolic of the sacred:
“Francis’ behavior with regard to fire is surprising and reveals an extraordinary love for it, based on the powerful and unqualified respect one experiences in the presence of something sacred. ‘So dearly did he love fire, that, however pressing the need, he would never put out a flame, whether a lamp or a candle.’ And Celano repeats the same thing: ‘He spared light, lamps, and candles, (because Francis saw in all flames) a symbol of the Eternal Light.’ Francis loved the light as few men have loved it. (He) associates beauty with all his images of light. For him, the supremely beautiful matter is matter that is luminous. The cosmos is to Francis chiefly an epiphany of light.”
Fire, as Light, is both illuminative and transformative. Light and heat are two of the joyful mystical characteristics of God’s loving presence in our lives, both because they are so positive, and because they invite us to trust in the warmth of God’s love and to relax in it.