Inspired by the Flame
Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
Where everything shines as it disappears.
~From Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus
In one Buddhist tradition, the story is told of a god-king who interviews those who have died. The dead are forced to gaze into a mirror in the god-king’s palace. Each is told: “Look into this mirror and see all you have done when alive.” Eyes averted, each would protests Nobody wants to look. But the god-king insists. . . “Look into the mirror. What do you see in the mirror of Karma?” Now for some reason, much of the artwork around this story has to do with people looking in the mirror and seeing themselves butchering cattle. I’m not quite sure where that comes from – maybe a hold-over from Hinduism.
At any rate, when one stands before the mirror, one’s true nature is completely unveiled. In reality, this mirror isn’t extraordinary or miraculous. It’s just a mirror. But to stand before it, is terrifying for the mind makes one conscious of the evil deeds of the heart.
We humans tend to nurture a fixed idea of who we are and where we are going. We harbor notions of what is good for us and what is not, and try to organize our lives accordingly. And it happens that sometimes, in the flow of change, bound by fixed beliefs and agendas, we forget who we are. On most days, I kept a running mental tally of all the ways I messed up—all the insensitive things I said, all of the dim-witted ideas I suggested, all of the unsuccessful attempts I made to make people like me. Religious traditions give us a chance to look in the mirror. We may be terrified to see all the wrongs, and hurts, and disappointments of our lives staring right back at us. Yet there is hope. In the Buddhist story, after looking in the mirror, one gets a final chance to enter into a time of self-examination and turn things around. There’s another chance to begin again in love. There’s a chance to change and grow into one’s beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.
Jewish legend has a similar story, but it’s about a book instead of a mirror. It’s said that the Book of Life closes during the High Holy Days. If your name is written there, you are promised life and happiness in the coming year. But. . . if your name is not there it means you have, over the past year, missed the mark, turned away from the Holy and from all you value. If you name is not in the Book of Life, your destiny looks bleak.
One gets a final chance to enter into a time of self-examination and turn things around. There’s another chance to begin again in love. The Book of Life will open again, just for an instant at the close of the High Holy Days, and the name of the righteous will be written there. There’s a chance to change and grow into one’s beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.
Our religious traditions give us chances to start over again. Transformation comes after a time of reflection and purification. In our Christian Pentecost story, the opportunity is not through a mirror or a book, but through a room.
We meet up with the disciples of Jesus, secluded up in a room in Jerusalem. That room is a place of reflection. I imagine the disciples huddled together.
They are disoriented.
They are grieving the death of their Lord.
They are confused by his resurrection and ascension and his strange promises of return.
They are scared that they are next on the list to be killed by the authorities.
They are uncertain as to what the future holds for them.
Maybe they feel guilty. Maybe they feel they are to blame for the bad events that have happened. Maybe they feel hopeless.
They gather in self-judgment and fear.
Then comes the promise of the Spirit, alive in wind and flame. Fire is often used as a symbol of purification. The flame of the Spirit burns away all that stands in the way of union with God. Some of you know the work of John O’Donahue, a Catholic Priest who writes beautiful blessings. He writes about this idea of fire and purity:
In the name of the Fire,The FlameAnd the Light;Praise the pure presence of fireThat burns from withinWithout thought of time.
The pure presence of fire rests on the disciples and burns away their poisonous self-criticism. The fresh wind of God blows away the self- judgment. There will be conversions. Miraculous utterances. Transformation. Destiny. Before Pentecost, these fear-filled disciples looked into the mirror and saw failure. They read the Book of Life and heard judgment. Sequestered in a room, they focused on their fears and pains.
But, when the opportunity for transformation comes, they move beyond self-indulgent pity and leg-locking fear. They remember who they were destined to be. There’s a chance to change and grow into their beautiful selves, on the way to even greater beauty.
Here’s the thing about hiding ourselves away. Locked rooms can feel safe. Their walls can feel protective. But hide out in those close quarters for too long and the hideout will become a habitat. Live with constant fear, grief and judgment as your roommates, and after a while the environment will form you into a different person. Your life will take the shape of the walls you thought were protecting you. I’m not just talking about physical rooms, you know. . . I’m talking about emotional containers and spiritual habits that may keep us from growing fully, and fully loving, our most beautiful and authentic selves.
Annie Dillard tells a story about these emotional containers. In her story, the container is a jar. She writes, “The Mason jar sat on the teacher’s desk; the big moth emerged inside it. The moth had clawed a hole in its hot cocoon and crawled out, as if agonizingly, over the course of an hour, one leg at a time; we children watched around the desk, transfixed. After it emerged, the wet, mashed thing turned around walking on the green jar’s bottom, then painstakingly climbed the twig with which the jar was furnished. There, at the twig’s top, the moth shook its sodden clumps of wings. When it spread those wings—those beautiful wings—blood would fill their veins, and the birth fluids on the wings’ frail sheets would harden to make them tough as sails. But the moth could not spread its wide wings at all; the jar was too small. The wings could not fill, so they hardened while they were still crumpled from the cocoon. A smaller moth could have spread its wings to their utmost in that mason jar, but the Polyphemus moth was big. Its gold furred body was almost as big as a mouse. Its brown, yellow, pink, and blue wings would have extended six inches from tip to tip, if there had been no mason jar. It would have been big as a wren.
“The teacher let the deformed creature go. We all left the classroom and paraded outside behind the teacher with pomp and circumstance. She bounced the moth from its jar and set it on the school’s asphalt driveway. The moth set out walking. It could only heave the golden wrinkly clumps where its wings should have been; it could only crawl down the school driveway on its six frail legs. The moth crawled down the driveway toward the rest of Shadyside, an area of fine houses, expensive apartments, and fashionable shops. It crawled down the driveway because its shriveled wings were glued shut. It crawled down the driveway toward Shadyside, one of the several sections of town where people like me were expected to settle after college, renting an apartment until they married one of the boys and bought a house. I watched it go.
“I knew that this particular moth, the big walking moth, could not travel more than a few more yards before a bird or a cat began to eat it, or a car ran over it. Nevertheless, it was crawling with what seemed wonderful vigor, as if, I thought at the time, it was still excited from being born. I watched it go till the bell rang and I had to go in. I have told this story before, and may yet tell it again, to lay the moth’s ghost, for I still see it crawl down the broad black driveway, and I still see its golden wing clumps heave.”
You’ve been that beautiful moth whose been stuffed in a jar. I have, too. At some point in our lives, like the disciples of old, we’ve lived in sheltered places, afraid to be found out. Those emotional containers and spiritual habits were too small for us. We became shaped by doubts, fears, mistakes, and insults. Many of us go to great lengths to hide the truth about how we feel about ourselves. The sad part is, the very walls we thought were protecting us begin to form us -- a de-formation instead of a transformation.
Sad to say, sometimes church life also becomes a jar of judgment. The late author Brennan Manning pointed out that sometimes the church creates the impression that once we begin to follow Christ, the Christian life becomes a picnic on a green lawn. Marriage blossoms into conjugal bliss, health flourishes, acne disappears, and sinking careers suddenly soar. Everybody is declared to be a winner. An attractive 20-year old accepts Jesus and becomes a star, a floundering lawyer conquers alcoholism and whips Alan Dershowitz on court TV, a tenth-round draft choice for the Ravens goes to the Pro Bowl. Miracles occur, conversions abound, church attendance skyrockets, ruptured relationships get healed, and shy people become outgoing. But it’s disingenuous. It’s not true.
For many of us, life is more like a victorious limp. And for me, that’s the miracle of Pentecost – not the visions, not the ecstasies, not the tongues of fire or miraculous languages. The miracle is their victorious limp – their capacity for faithfulness. Battered by their own unruly emotions, bruised by rejection and ridicule, the disciples stumbled and fell, they endured lapses and relapses. But on Pentecost, they stood up, left the safety of their room, and became bold and audacious in their faith, faults and all.
Here is the victorious limp in my life. There are times when I’ve felt unloved and unsupported. There are times when I felt unlovable. There are moments when I’ve felt cheated by life and fooled by fate. Pentecost invites is to redefine ourselves. It invites us to go places where we never thought we’d go. And we may just go there with a limp – a beautiful victorious limp, each step telling a story of how we overcame adversity.
There are times when I’ve felt unloved and unsupported. There are times when I felt unlovable. There are moments when I’ve felt cheated by life and fooled by fate. I was wrong. I only had to look into the mirror once more and see someone beautiful. I only had to look in the book of life and see my name written in its pages. I only had to let the wind and flame of God blow open the walls that protected my self-made limitations. It’s a chance to change and grow into my beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty.
Yes, sometimes I still feel like a cowering disciple in a locked room. Sometimes I still feel like that moth in the jar. Whoever put me in that jar, I forgive you. You probably just thought I was beautiful, and wanted to keep me around. I forgive you. And whoever kept me in that little jar . . . Yes, that would be me, me . . . I forgive you, too. . . I forgive me. I’m continuing to change and grow into my beautiful self, on the way to even greater beauty. My prayer is that you are, too.
Roger Housdon, Ten Poems to Change your Life Again and Again.