Wednesday, March 31, 2021

To be all flame

I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6b)

One of my favorite stories from the fifteen hundred year-old collection of wisdom from the desert fathers and mothers is of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph of Panephysis. One day Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph for advice. “I fast, I pray, I live in peace,” he said, “What else should I do?” Abba Joseph lifted his hand to heaven. Flames danced at his fingertips and he turned to Abba Lot and said, “If you wish, you can become all flame.”

We have fasted and prayed and given alms this Lent. What more is expected of us? We hear in Isaiah that we are to be a light to the nations, a light visible to the ends of the earth. All flame, if we wish, says Abba Joseph. But how? Writing on the psalms, St. Augustine points out that our light does not come from ourselves, it is the Lord who sets our lamps alight. Lift up your hands to heaven and pray to be alight, to be all flame.

To pray to be light is risky. We are not asking for a light to see by, for something to hold up that we might illuminate our failings or to show us the safe path — as perilous as those prayers might be. We are asking to be light that others can see by, to be set on fire by the Lord, and what is set aflame is utterly transformed. Christ dares me to lay aside my own desires and let him light my lamp, remaking me in ways I cannot imagine. If I wish, I could become all flame. But do I wish?

Cartoon from Radio Free Babylon. From Not By Bread Alone, Liturgical Press, 2018.

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