03 June 2009

Holy Fire

Pentecost 2009

St. Luke’s Church, Burlington

31 May 2009

Acts 2: 1-21

Several memories have come together for me as I have been preparing to celebrate this wonderful feast of Pentecost. On Tuesday night this past week, the clergy of the diocese gathered together outdoors for their evening prayer at clergy conference. We gathered in a circle around a crackling fire, and as the light started to wane in the sky, we prayed and sang and lit candles to celebrate the presence of holiness among us.

A couple of years ago, on Friday night I helped lead and chaperone our annual Youth Fest Sleep-over. I prefer to call them wake-overs because it seems a bit more descriptive of the actual event. There were about twenty kids and a couple of leaders and we actually slept in the Church at St. George’s in St. Catharines. Not in the parish hall, but in the Church. -- I remember the story of Samuel who would sleep in the temple of the Lord, and one night, heard the Lord calling to him. -- Before we slept in the Church we did have a program of fun and games and candle-making and muffin-making to provide for the breakfast program which feeds anyone who comes to their Church every morning every day of the year.

We gathered in the Church for worship and we lit candles and we read today’s lesson from Acts which tells of the first Pentecost of the Church and we spoke about how the Spirit came in wind and fire at that time.

I recalled the times when I especially felt the presence of the holy - the presence of God when I was about their age. I remember when I was a cub at cub-camp and how, as the light failed in the sky we gathered together - a great ring of boys in a clearing in the middle of the trees and we waited in expectation around a large pile of wood, set just so with an opening in one side. At the right time in the service, an arrow of fire shot out of the trees and straight into the heart of the wood which erupted in flames. Oh the exhilaration of it all! And we listened to stories of the creator. But later, when the fire had burned low and we had sung and listened and seen stories acted out and it was almost time to head for our kit and our sleep, we sang the song which stabbed me through with chills of holiness:

“Day is done, gone the sun

from the lakes, from the hills, from the sky

All is well, safely rest

God is nigh.”

Yes, I thought, God is nigh. God is here. The embers of that fire danced and rippled with waves and rills of light and I saw God dance in them. God, too, was above us in the starry vastness. And God was in a circle of boys who were hushed into silence for a moment, but who could only look at the fire and at each other and see the reflection of that fire glimmering in each others eyes. I was perhaps nine years old, but my heart stretched and smiled with recognition. My creator was here.

Perhaps this was why the Holy Spirit appeared in the dance of wind and fire on that first Pentecost, when the disciples were gathered huddled and scared behind locked doors. Last week we remembered how Jesus left his disciples but promised them that he would send a comforter who would clothe them with power from on high. John the Baptist foretold of the messiah who would come after him who would baptize them, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit and with fire. And, so often the Holy Spirit is associated with fire in Holy Scriptures.

On the Friday night of the wake-over, one of the youth asked me, “What is that red lamp with the flame in it which is at the front of the Church for?” I told him, “That is called a presence lamp and it symbolizes the presence of God in the Church.” A small flickering piece of fire that reminds us that the Church is a holy place and that God is always present.

It wasn’t long after my experience at cub camp that my educational career took a scientific turn. I learned about scientific method and mathematics and logic. The principles of hypothesis, experiment, analysis and proof made good sense to me. This is the way to understand and learn more about the world in which I live, I thought. My classmates and my teachers thought so too. The thrill of discovery replaced the excitement of experience. It wasn’t long before I realized that many people thought that if you couldn’t prove something through scientific method, then it just wasn’t real. The only true thing was a provable thing.

And yet, from time to time I would have a deep experience of holy recognition again. The night I slept out under the stars in the wilderness and heard the wolves howl at the moon. The very first time I heard Samuel Barber’s Adagio for strings. Candlelight service. Singing words that George Herbert wrote.

But there were the dry periods too. There were even dry years when my memories of any holy moment seemed like they must have simply been delusion or youthful exuberance. Were they real?

Charles Henderson writes of a great Indian mystic who tells the story of a child who grew up in the squalid streets of Calcutta. He was fifteen years old but had not ventured more than a block or two beyond the bleak neighbourhood where he was born. There in the centre of that great city, tall tenement apartments rose up on all sides so that, looking upwards, the best that child could ever see was a narrow strip of blue sky, and perhaps just a hint of the white, fleecy clouds passing by. The light of the sun shone down into the shadows of that ghetto for only a few moments each day when the weather was clear. Otherwise it was mostly grey and depressing. So that's exactly the impression that young boy had of the world itself.

Occasionally, on an especially bright morning in the springtime, the smell of flowers from some distant field would find its way into that squalid place and the boy would wonder about that strange scent. But the sweet smell of grass and flowers did not seem real to the boy. What seemed real was the stench of that city, and the garbage, and the peeling paint, and the poverty of the people. The noise of the traffic, the rumble of cars and trucks, these the young boy could believe in, but as for that ribbon of blue sky, he soon ceased wondering about that, for clearly nothing that beautiful could be real. And as for the fresh air of springtime and the smell of flowers, they must merely be some illusion, some fantasy from a world of dreams.

Another thing which came together for me recently has been our most recent book study of the book, “A Totally Human Hope” written by our own newish parishioner, Archdeacon Richard Berryman. In this book Richard points out that the language of the artist, whether painter, poet, writer, composer or sculptor is also the language of religion. That language is metaphor and it can only properly point toward holy truth, rather than define it. Perhaps this is why I and so many others have experienced holy moments when in the presence of the metaphor of art or the symbolic acts of liturgy.

What is real to you? What are your proofs? Or do you need them?

On that Friday night, after we finally got the kids settled, I unrolled my sleeping bag right beside the Pascal candle in the chancel and almost under the presence lamp and I remembered about fire and spirit and my own story with each. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Nice thoughts, Mr. Stuart. I believe in Christianity and a big believer of God. Church is a holy place where we go to say our prayers and feel closer with Jesus. I found this article very interesting.

    Brano Willis
    New American Catholic Bible