The emperor Nero was a troubled soul. In A.D. 64, following the great fire that destroyed much of Rome, he cast the blame on the Christians and put many of them to death. The Roman historian Tacitus paints a disturbing picture: “Some of the Christians were crucified and set on fire at the end of the day, as torches to illumine the night. Nero kept his gardens for this spectacle, hiding among the crowd, dressed as a charioteer.”
Crucified and set on fire. One can only imagine the devil’s delight, just like that first Good Friday. But the devil cannot create. He can only twist or pervert the good things God makes, attempting to mock his Creator’s good designs. God can always untangle the devil’s knots, not only restoring things to their original goodness, but even bringing forth new and unimagined blessings.
As we approach Pentecost, those early Christian martyrs in Nero’s gardens can become a holy icon of our life in the Holy Spirit. If we allow ourselves to be crucified with Christ, if we surrender our hearts to undergo that dying and rising with Him, we shall be set ablaze with the fire of the Holy Spirit. We shall become living torches who light up the night of this world, bringing comfort, joy, and peace to all around us.
Do not quench the fire of the Holy Spirit. That is Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians. The Holy Spirit is to be a flame constantly ablaze within us, drawing in and consuming all the lesser flames of our disordered and unruly passions.
When we prepared for our Confirmation, many of us learned about the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. The 7 Gifts are easily misunderstood. Well-meaning catechists tend to use gimmicks or clichés to attempt to make them interesting. The deeper truth is that those Gifts are perfective (seven being the biblical number of perfection). When they are activated in us, we are truly possessed by the Holy Spirit. He becomes the primary agent, and we are willing co-operators.
Without the gifts of the Holy Spirit taking over, even the best parts of ourselves will get in the way. There is that wonderful scene at the end of “Revelation,” a short story by Flannery O’Connor. The main character, the self-satisfied Ruby Turpin, discovers she is not quite so Christian as she had thought. Furious at God and not wanting to take an honest look at herself, she screams out to Him, “Who do you think you are?” In response, she has a vision. The twilight cloud in the sky overlooking the field is set ablaze, almost like a fiery bridge into heaven. Leading the procession are many of the kinds of people she would least expect to find in the Kingdom. By contrast, her own kind, the rule-following and decent kind, are the last and the least. And “she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
Our self-regulated attempts at virtue and holiness, our managing and controlling, protecting and striving, tend to quench that fire of the Holy Spirit.
So does codependency. Christian churches are often full of do-gooders who will jump in to help others with their problems, but resist being vulnerable and receptive themselves. Remember the story of the five foolish virgins, who ran out of fuel for their lamps – in contrast to the wise virgins, who kept their lamps well-stocked, so that they could burn brightly at the coming of the bridegroom. If we do not learn how to receive vulnerably, if we do not abide in the Lord and depend daily upon him, the fire of divine love within us will burn out. Yes, we are called to give and share, but it is the Holy Spirit that is given and the Holy Spirit that is shared. The work does not depend on us. We need only cooperate and yield.
In God’s mercy, he will offer us many invitations to surrender. Most of the time, the invitation comes in that still small voice, gently inviting us into communion. Yes, occasionally the invitation may come à la Flannery O’Connor, in the form of a violent interruption or intrusion, something that splits open a crack in our otherwise impenetrable armor. Moments of crisis can become moments of great opportunity. There is also the very human factor that some of us have to hit rock bottom before we will even think about surrendering. God knows what we need and deeply desires us to be aided by the Holy Spirit.
In whatever fashion those graces come, there is no avoiding the Paschal mystery. We must be crucified with Christ in order to rise with him. That victory needs to be extended to every part of our heart. That death with Christ opens up a space for the new life of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we give all over to God and approach him with empty hands that he can truly fill us. That includes the shameful and feeble parts of our heart that we would rather keep hidden away. It includes our most noble and virtuous parts, which are not quite as amazing as we would like to think. It includes every part of us. Then the Holy Spirt can truly take over. We can burn brightly as God’s living torches.
In our humanity, we shrink back from any form of suffering or dying. Our instincts tell us we will be annihilated. But this pain and this death is different. The fire will not consume us. It heals, unites, and purifies us as it burns. We become like the burning bush that Moses saw. We will be perpetually ablaze, and nothing of value in us will be definitively lost.
As we approach Pentecost, like those disciples in the Cenacle, we join with the Virgin Mary in prayer and beg the Lord to set us ablaze with the Holy Spirit. May we all become his living torches, shining for the world to see.