The Holy Spirit is symbolized as a tongue of burning flame descended onto us, making our very hearts the hearth not only of human passion but also of the divine.
A fire roaring in the hearth is the very definition of the comforts of home. Nothing is nicer than sitting by the fire on a snowy evening with a book and cup of hot chocolate. There’s something primal about a fire that speaks deeply to the soul, the flickering warm light of the flames, the gentle hiss of crackling wood. Fire is so appealing to us that studies show it even lowers our blood pressure.
This is probably why camping is so relaxing. Even though I personally have zero interest in camping, which consists (as I see it) of an uncomfortable, sleepless night outside on the hard ground, grinding my shoulder blades into stones, finally fitfully drifting off to rest, only to immediately be awakened by incredibly loud birds screeching and feeling damp from the overnight dewfall … even I can still admit that campfires are one of the great luxuries of life.
There’s nothing better than sitting around the fire with friends telling stories. Even on a cold, dark night, a campfire inscribes a little circle of warmth. Outside the glow is wilderness, wild untamed animals and shivering beasts. Inside is humanity. It’s almost like sacred ground that has been gifted by the flame, a flame which ancient legend tells us was stolen from the gods themselves by Prometheus.
Fire, to put it more simply, illuminates and corresponds to the interior fire of the human heart. It’s a symbol of life.
A person who is said to have a “fire in their heart” is described that way because they are active and passionate, seeking to make the most of their potential. Some idea or mission has caught their attention and they are singularly focused and motivated to bring it to fruition.
On the Solemnity of the Pentecost, fire is very much on my mind. The Holy Spirit is symbolized as a tongue of burning flame descended onto us, making our very hearts the hearth not only of human passion but also of the divine. The heart of each person is where God desires to make a home. He seeks to shape and fulfill our deepest desires and passions. For his part, he desires nothing less than that we live life to the fullest and happiest.
As Catholics, the imaginative symbolism of the spiritual life is vital. Bread isn’t merely bread, wine isn’t merely wine, and fire isn’t merely fire. By extension, you and I are so much more than we seem from the outside. We aren’t merely creatures who are the products of evolution and happen to be adapted in strange and seemingly random ways for survival. We are children of God, made in his image, and our souls are shaped for eternity.
Because of this, and because fire is a particular symbol of importance to Christians, there’s a lot we can say about the meaning of fire, not only the fire of Pentecost but simply the grand, miraculous everyday sort of fires burning in the hearth and the firepit out in the backyard.
Life is purification
Life is a crucible. When we’re going through difficult times, it can feel as though we’re walking through literal fire. The pain is real, as though, at any second, the flames are going to finish the job and consume us entirely. And it is certainly true that fire does consume, meaning it has destructive potential and brings with it a definite ending. But that ending is always accompanied by a new beginning. Symbolically, fire is the principle of rebirth because it is used to purify elements of impurities. For instance, fire helps us forge iron and steel by burning away the impurities in the metal. The process isn’t painless, the heat is dangerous, but the end result is better than where we began. A stronger, more useful, even more beautiful object.
Life is better when we slow down
You cannot hurry around a fire. If you throw a log onto the burning pile too hastily, sparks fly everywhere. If you aren’t careful, you might clumsily burn yourself. When I’m around a fire I don’t feel the desire to hurry. Time slows down and we enter into a relaxed, contemplative state of mind. The flames help us focus, to feel and think, to enjoy the company of other people with no distractions. All my best conversations have been around a fire. Our family likes fires so much that we regularly use our fire pit in the backyard because it naturally draws everyone to it and we benefit from the family time. After dinner, instead of all the kids disappearing to their rooms, if the fire is burning, they hang out with us. What more could a parent want?
The flames lift us to inner contemplation
St. Augustine, in his Confessions, talks about how the natural motion of a flame is upwards. A fire strives for Heaven. The human heart, set aflame by God, naturally ought to follow the same upward motion. The fire within us, expressed through our love, lifts us up to thoughts of God. Our destiny is above, not below. Maybe this is why the conversation is so satisfying when everyone is gathered around a fire, because the flames bring us into a state of mind to contemplate the pain and beauty of life. We become aware of what matters most to us, the love we share, our faith, the laughter of shared memories, and the sweetness of life so full of magic that it seems at any moment as though the whole world will burst into flame.