Becoming a Living Flame
by Catherine Doherty
Most of the great parables of Jesus have slipped from our tongues and into our ears so often that they cease to bite and tease and pierce us as they are meant to do. The words of the Lord, words meant to shatter our false comfort and to pull us toward the true wholeness of his Father, have instead become like coins worn smooth with age. They no longer bear the image of the one whose eyes called the rich young man to poverty and the frightened, lying Peter to repentance.
The Gospel of the Pharisee and the publican, for instance, Luke tells us was spoken "to some people who prided themselves on being virtuous and despised everyone else." Yet how many of us identify with the Pharisee? Don't we see ourselves instead in the sinful, but humble tax collector, beating his breast in the back of the church? That may speak well for our honesty, but it may not reveal that we have heard deeply what Jesus is saying to us.
Is it possible, in fact, that our "honest" sensitivity to our failings might mask a different sort of pharisaic smugness? Could we possibly be praying, not with our lips, but in the depths of our hearts, "Thank you, God, that I am not like that Pharisee up there, constantly parading his piety and boasting of his virtue. Thank you for the honesty and the sincerity which enable me to admit that I deserve to be standing back here, as I wait for you to give me the place you have reserved for the-well, maybe not the humble, but those who are at least authentic."
In may be obvious that this sort of prayer is not what St. Paul had in mind when he suggested that we glory in our weakness. Another story may reveal the hidden meaning of the Lord's parable. It is a story taken from the writings about the desert Fathers, those passionate lovers of Christ whose desire for lives of Gospel purity drove them into solitude, sowed the seeds for all monastic life, and bore fruit which still abides, even after sixteen hundred years, even for us whose lives are so different from theirs.
One day Father Lot went to Father Joseph and told him, "As far as I can, I keep my rule. I eat little, I pray and am silent, I work with my hands and share my bread with the poor. What else should I do?" Then Father Joseph stood up and stretched out his arms, and from his fingers shot tongues of fire. "If you want," he said, "you can become a living flame."
To become a living flame: that is what the Gospel life is all about. That is what the Lord himself is, the blazing sun who lights the whole world. That is what St. Paul became-a libation poured out, a runner who never gave up, a man charged with the power of Christ, a genius whose whole mind and heart burned with the utter foolishness of his Lord. A living flame: a woman like Mother Teresa of Calcutta whose eyes were alight with the same fire whether she looked at a scrawny, abandoned baby, or at the Blessed Sacrament.
There is no secret about the nature of that fire. It is simply love. Love is the fire which the Son of God came to cast on the earth, and not some weak, sentimental parody of love, but the burning passion for his Father and for us which bore him to the cross and through it to his resurrection. Love is the fire which the risen Lord pours into the hearts of all those who hear his voice today as well as his first friends.
That love is no merely human word or metaphor. It is the living Spirit of the living God. It is the Holy Spirit who pours God's love into us and makes us living flames. If we want, then, we can become living flames of love because, as Jesus has promised, his Father does not refuse the Spirit to anyone who asks. If we ask, we shall receive.
In the story of the Pharisee and the publican, the Lord is responding to this bewilderment of ours. He is telling us how to ask for the Holy Spirit. He is revealing to us what is the only fuel for the fire that he wants to set in our hearts. That fuel is humility. Clearly that is the lesson of this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, but just as clearly Jesus has told the parable because he wants to show us what humility truly is.
It is simply a fact that most of our notions of humility are loaded with the baggage of self-hatred, first of all because our sinfulness is so unsurprising, but above all because God's goodness is so endlessly, spectacularly surprising. In other words, our Lord wants to teach us how to be humble, not really by telling us the truth about our own wretchedness, but by revealing to us the great truth-the truth which unfolds and encompasses every other truth-which is the mercy of his Father.
The Pharisee stands before God, secure in his own right-acting and right-thinking, and does not meet God at all. The tax collector stands before God in utter poverty, with empty hands, and he meets the God whose truest name is mercy, and tenderness, who delights to call himself our Father. The Pharisee thinks that he sees God's face in the good order of his life, but he sees only his own narrow heart. The tax collector sees only his own need, and in that emptiness God shows the beautiful face of his mercy.
Catherine Doherty (August 15, 1896 – December 14, 1985), born in Russia, was foundress
of Madonna House and a prolific writer and teacher. Her passionate
zeal impelled her to pass on her faith in God, and she is
now being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.
Visit www.CatherineDoherty.org for more information.