Eternal Godhead, O sea profound,
what more could you give me than yourself?
You are the fire that never burns out;
You consume in your heat all the soul’s self-love;
You are the flame that drives away the cold.
Give me your light that I may know all truth,
clothe me with yourself, eternal truth,
that I may live this mortal life with true obedience,
and in the light of your most holy faith.
St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
THE coming of God’s Holy Spirit on those gathered together on the day of Pentecost, amid all its imagery of fire and flame, has fascinated theologians and artists alike. It can be hard to work out what St Luke’s description really means: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them” (Acts 2.3).
As part of my theological studies, I conducted a survey of artistic representations of Pentecost through the centuries and across cultures, reflecting on varied images, and what it might mean for us to understand the Holy Spirit as fire.
There are those that conceive of neatly formed, single flames resting on each of the apostles’ heads: for example, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s The Descent of the Holy Spirit, from 14th-century Italy — reminiscent, I always feel, of a certain 1980s advertisement when we were all “cooking on gas”. Others attempt to show a flame more powerful, more captivating as a whole, such as in the Thai artist Sawai Chinnawong’s Pentecost.
Of course, what is clear is the ubiquitous ability of fire to speak across time and culture. It harnesses an elemental power that symbolises variously life and resurrection, divinity, purification, wisdom, and knowledge. It is no surprise, then, that St Catherine of Siena begins her “fire prayer” with an affirmation of the eternal nature of God: “Eternal Godhead . . . what more could you give me than yourself?”
Across our churches, we might echo St Catherine’s prayer to receive afresh God’s fire as light and warmth; but we might not always be prepared to receive the Holy Spirit as fire, and all that that could mean.
When we think of God as fire, our reflections might be drawn to a candle flame: perhaps the light of Christ proclaimed at Easter dawn, as the Paschal candle is held aloft; a candle lit in prayerful petition; or the sanctuary light that signals the presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament.
In all these instances, we might properly address God: “You are the fire that never burns out.” And yet, despite the beauty and tranquillity of a candle flame, for me this falls some way short of imagining the fire of God. Like the artists’ neat flames resting on each person, it is just too tame. Remember the description of C. S. Lewis’s Christological lion, Aslan, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “You can’t keep him; it’s not as if he were a tame lion.”
An alternative image might be that of a roaring fire in the hearth, more akin to Chinnawong’s central fire around which the people are gathered. There is a sense here of being drawn into the warmth of the fire, all restlessness dispelled as we find the comfort and reassurances of home at the fireside.
”You are the flame that drives away the cold,” St Catherine writes. Anyone with young children is aware of the danger in fire which is all too apparent as the fireguard is quickly put in place. There is still an awareness, however, that the fire is contained; it is too comfortable, too safe.
”‘Safe?’ Mr Beaver said in The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
The fire of God, then, is neither a sole flame nor contained; neither tame nor safe. The fire of God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12.29): “You consume in your heat all the soul’s self-love.” St Catherine’s prayer is not simply for us to feel the warmth and comfort of God’s presence, but to offer ourselves up to God’s power: to live sacrificially.
This is fire that has seemingly got out of our control: like a forest fire, that consumes. It is a fire that destroys the natural environment; a fire that is at odds with humankind’s desire to tame nature; a fire that has its own way.
Ecological research suggests that naturally occurring forest fires are an essential part of nature: they maintain the habitat. The fires cleanse the land, stimulate the production of nutrients, and prepare for regeneration. The old is burned away to make way for the new in an eternally creative process of rejuvenation.
To pray “Give me your light that I may know all truth, clothe me with yourself, eternal truth,” is to seek God’s indwelling Spirit in such a way that our soul is emptied of its selfish concerns; we must surrender all to make way for the One who recreates us in Christ.
To seek to “live this mortal life with true obedience, and in the light of your most holy faith” is to recognise at the deepest level of my being that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2.19b-20).
To allow God’s Spirit into our hearts is to give a self-emptying permission for our own rebirth. “‘Hail, Aslan. We hear and obey. We are awake. We love. We think. We speak. We know.’” (The Magician’s Nephew, C. S. Lewis)
There is always a danger that we settle for the tame and the safe in our spiritual life, and in our life as worshipping communities. At this festival of Pentecost, perhaps we could dare to pray this prayer of St Catherine in the belief that the Holy Spirit is the forest fire: a fire of renewal, a fire that strips away and prepares us for what comes next.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Amen.
The Revd Catherine Lomas is the Pioneer Vicar of Irchester with Stanton Cross, in the diocese of Peterborough.