On Monday 23 November 1654, something happened to the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Paschal which transformed his life for ever. He spoke to no one about it, but wrote some words on a paper. This was found at his death, sewn into his doublet, and worn in this way always over his heart. On the paper Paschal wrote this:
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob; not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
Joy, joy, joy; tears of joy.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the one true God,
and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
The fire of which Paschal speaks here is the fire of divine love, the fire of the Holy Spirit. No one could emerge unscathed, unchanged from such an immediate encounter with the living God. This fire is burning, purifying, transforming, overwhelming, thrilling, energising, terrible.
Jesus said to his disciples: I have come to cast fire on the earth, and how I wish it were blazing already!
These days unfortunately it’s necessary to insist on what Jesus did not mean by casting fire on earth. He very explicitly and deliberately rejected any use of violence or coercion in his mission. He did not form his followers into an army, or lead them in war. An ardent and faithful follower of Jesus could never be led to commit acts of terrorism, to murder the innocent, or to imagine that suicide might be rewarded with special favours in paradise. Yes, certainly Christians have sometimes committed abominable crimes. But these have always been in spite of their Christianity, not because of it. Someone ablaze with the fire of Christ will love, not attack his enemies. He will be endlessly patient, forgiving, compassionate. He will always tend to create around him peace, joy, hope, reconciliation, mercy, goodness.
But on the other hand, Jesus did come to bring fire. He did not die in order to offer us bland moral platitudes, or to console us with mere sentimental piety, or to promote peace at any price. No: Jesus demands everything, and it remains true that his fire can be terrifying, powerful, destructive. If allowed to blaze out of control, it will convert what it consumes into itself. The fire of Jesus will utterly destroy all habits of sin, impurity, vanity, narrow self regard. This divine fire, descending from heaven, is not passive, but active. It will drive its victims out of themselves. They will become great missionaries, heroic martyrs, outstanding preachers, profound scholars, holy contemplatives, founders of religious Orders. By the driving power of this fire, great charitable enterprises will be launched, and will spread, and will be a shining light amid the darkness of the world. The darkness of disbelief, or false religion, or pagan superstition, will be swept away, and the truth of the Gospel will shine out. Ordinary people, like monks, or the married, or the sick, whose vocation is not to do anything extraordinary, will nevertheless rise, within the circumstances of their lives, to acts of outstanding love, or generosity, or patience, or forgiveness. Their lives will give great glory to God. And their prayer of intercession will be a powerful force for good, for blessing, for salvation, in the world.
The fire of Jesus burns, at least potentially, within each of us. It’s our secret, of which the secular world has no understanding, or conception. This fire within us opens up to vistas of infinity and eternity. The dominant reality of our lives is not what you see; not the unexciting routines by which we live, but the living presence of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity: infinite love; absolute goodness; divine life. Externally quite unremarkable, we nevertheless live in communion with the fiery Seraphim who veil their faces before the holiness of God, and cry out unceasingly in ecstatic adoration. Touched by this fire, each of us is - should be - set alight by its contagious holiness, made to shine with its glory, so as to become ever more truly what we already are: God’s own beloved Sons in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Do you suppose I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. Or, according to the version of St. Matthew’s Gospel: No, I tell you, but rather a sword (Mt 10:34). Of course this is a paradoxical saying. Jesus is the one whom Isaiah called the Prince of Peace (9:6); the one at whose birth the angels sang of peace on earth; the one who, as St. Paul has it, made peace through the blood of his Cross (cf. Eph 2:14ff). Yet also, from the very beginning, the life and ministry of Jesus was marked by conflict, and the same conflict has afflicted the life of the Church from the beginning until now. For Christ demands a choice, and the answer can be either Yes or No. St. Paul asks: What participation can righteousness have with iniquity? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? or how can Christ come to an agreement with the devil? (2 Cor 6:14).
The instinct of Christians will always be to avoid confrontation where possible; to promote reconciliation, harmony, dialogue, mutual respect. Still, conflicts will arise, not only between Christians and non believers, but even, alas, between Christians themselves. It’s good for us to be reminded of this, to expect it, not to be overly alarmed by it when it comes. What we have to do above all is remain deeply united to Jesus, leaving the outcome of our lives in his hands. And at every holy Eucharist we have to ask the Lord to send down his fire into our hearts, into our lives; to transform us by his Holy Spirit: so that we truly become ablaze with his love.
When St. Teresa of Avila travelled about Spain founding monasteries of her Carmelite Reform, she took with her an uneducated lay sister called Anne of St. Bartholomew. After Teresa’s death, this sister against her will was promoted to the Choir, and then elected Prioress. She was subsequently asked not only to found new monasteries herself, but to do so in foreign countries. She complained to God in prayer: Lord, can you ask all this of me? I am nothing but straw! And he replied: Ah, but it is with straws like this that I light my fire.