Conforming to the Fire

Whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

1Cor. 6:17

Prayer calls us from the periphery of our lives to the center of who we are; from what is superficial in us to the most profound aspects of our being; and from the illusion of autonomy to union with God as our first reality.  It is the crucible where we work out our salvation, becoming more and more conformed to the unity of Christ with His Father.

Such lofty thoughts are easier to grasp with the help of good imagery, and St. John of the Cross has provided us with a beautiful metaphor of this evolution towards unity in the image of a burning log.   In the same way that fire dries out a wooden log so that it can more deeply receive the flame, so too are we being carefully prepared for increasing union with God through the purification of our hearts.

John of the Cross likens the early stages of our spiritual life to a damp log that is thrown onto the fire.  Before the fire can claim the wood for itself it must first dry out the log.  He writes,

The fire, at first, acts on the wood by driving out all its moisture.  Very slowly, it expels from the wood everything that is inconsistent with the nature of fire.  It then starts to burn on the outside until at last it transforms the wood into fire.

The whole of our spiritual life can be seen as a preparation for the soul to receive more deeply the love of God.  And, in the same way that a dry log catches fire more easily than a wet one, so the soul responds more immediately to the impulse of God the more prepared it is by the Holy Spirit.  As St. John of the Cross writes,

In the prepared soul, the love of God enters immediately, for at each touch the spark catches fire in the dry tinder.  It seems to such persons that every time this flame shoots up, it raises them up to the activity of God in God.

John of the Cross describes the experience of unity as that of an inflamed heart caught up in the fire of God’s love.  Such congruence can only take place in a soul that has been purged from all that, in John’s words, is “irrelevant and immature.”  It is the excessive humidity in a log that prevents the wood from catching fire as readily as it should.  Similarly, the excesses of self prevent us from recognizing and responding to the movement of God within us.

This process of drying is something that, at first, we resist.  But we soon recognize its benefits in producing in us a greater conformity to God.  We become more united to Gods’ action within us.  As John of the Cross writes, the effect of this unity is that “it stirs the heart so deeply as to make it dissolve in love.”  The word “dissolve” means to loosen and set free.  It also means to combine, as in a solution.  Such is the experience of those whose hearts melt, or dissolve, in the unity of God’s presence.

And lastly, as the log becomes one with the fire, it takes on not only the properties of fire but also its ministry.  As John of the Cross explains,

In this way the wood loses all its own properties, and acquires all the properties belonging to the fire.  Once it is dry, it dries other things.  It acquires the heat of the fire and then produces heat itself.  It takes on the bright flames from the fire and then reflects that light itself.  This is all performed by the properties of the fire now that the log has been conformed to these.

Since the log no longer resists the flame, it now receives the fire deep within.  And, as the fire transforms the wood into itself, it makes it more directly a part of its ministry.