From the Desert Tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity we hear this:
“An old man came to a spiritual elder and said, ‘father, as much as I am able, I keep my little yoke, my little fast, my prayer, meditation, and contemplative silence; and as much as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts; now what more should i do?’ The elder rose up, and in reply stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten burning lamps. He said, ‘if you will, you can be totally changed into fire’.”
Many versions of this story circulate. In some, the elder says, ‘you can become all fire.’ But this present version, quoted by a western scholar, captures something vital. It is fire that ‘totally changes’ the human being. The Arabic for heart, qalb, means ‘change and transformation.’ If it is only fire that changes and transforms the human being ‘totally’, then the heart’s truest seeking is for fire. The heart is restless, never at peace, until it has become all fire. In searching for God, the heart is searching for fire.
The references to fire in the Old Testament are many. Moses tells the Jews that “out of heaven [God] made you to hear his voice that he might instruct you and upon the earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard him speaking out of the midst of the fire” [Deuteronomy, 4, 36]. The latter is vital because it is fire that is coming to earth, not just to discipline, nor even to enlighten, but to transfigure. The fire contests the world, in order to recover the world for the indwelling of fire, as in the burning bush.
It is to this great, final fire that Christ refers when he says, “I came to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” [Luke, 12, 49]. Whilst the Jewish Old Testament describes fire as the purifier, and also as the tester of faith, the fire that will change and transform the earth totally is a more radical reality.
God wants for us that we should become totally changed into fire: that we should be Fire Bearers, Spirit-Bearers, after the pattern of Christ. For this great, final Fire is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in all things.
Christ did not need to enter the world to purify the divided heart, nor to test the heart’s faith; he came for something far more immense: to fulfil the promise God made to all humanity, by showing the promise would not be withdrawn under any extremity, and that at the very extremity, break down can become break through. Christ’s bigger mission was to repair the heart for the ‘project of heart’ to which God entrusts, and hence risks, the fate of everything.
The heart must change radically and totally for God to be present in the human heart. Initially, the heart seeks this, but for a long time, what the heart is seeking is not found. All superstition, idolatry, and false piety that so many religious people are prone to arises out of the refusal to face up to, and be honest about, the existential truth that ‘what the heart seeks is not found.’ In this existential condition, what the heart is searching for is lost to it, and thus it is itself lost. Being lost is vital to a more honest, and more deep, heart struggle, heart journey and heart battle. Most people misuse religion to evade this lostness.
God is hidden from the heart. The heart must hunt God, like a hunter tracking an animal. The coming of God to dwell in the abyss of the human heart cannot be taken lightly. It is the most difficult thing because nothing has a more supreme value. Thus the suggestion in Deuteronomy would seem to be that we will find God only if we really search for him, for it tells us we must search ‘with all our heart and all our soul.’ In Jeremiah, God says ‘you will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart, I will be found by you.’
But of even more importance is the promise in Ezekiel, which God makes to all of humanity through the Jewish people: “I will take the stony heart out of their flesh and give them a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel equates ‘getting a new heart’ with getting ‘a new spirit.’ This is the Fire of God dwelling in the heart’s passion: shown by the ability of the heart to follow Christ in his Passion.
The Fire comes inwardly before it can come outwardly.
The inward heart is the inner person, the real man, or real woman. If the inner heart is not touched, all our action is in some sense play acting, faked, not meant, not intended. The ‘delusive craving’ [Buddhism] or ‘failure to hit the mark’ [Greek Orthodox Christianity] is lodged deeper down; thus must be dug up from that level. Just being ‘good’ on some outer level is not sufficient. St Peter commands those who would be brothers “to love one another deeply from the heart” [1Peter, 1, 22]. We cannot love deeply–act from the depth, act deeply for love of the world–unless our heart is changed.
But the question is, what next? Some say, after purification comes contemplation and mystical union. This may be true of the way of soul, but it cannot be true of the way of heart. It may be a gift for some, but it cannot be the answer for the many. The luminous shine of Light, and the beauty and magical fluidity of Water, is only ‘secured’ by the sufferings and raptures of Fire, come to earth, staked to the ground, for all.
Thus a fuller answer is, after purification the heart is free to live, free to fulfil its destiny as the lover and redeemer of the world, the one who pays the price for others, and never puts down the burden. In Syriac Christianity, there is in the heart a “bed chamber”, which is soul in the heart, and there is a “bright mirror”, which is nous in the heart. But there is also an “altar”, on which the heart offers sacrifice. In truth, it offers itself as the sacrifice. This cannot be fulfilled except in the world, as it was for Christ.
Finally there opens in the heart what the Syriac Christian Tradition calls “the eye of fire.” This is not the spiritual mind of the nous, which has been “taken down in to the heart”; nor is it the many eyes attributed to soul, like the eyes on the bird’s wing: the eyes of vision which see the Creator in the creation. It is the hidden eye that sees the world, in all its mess, ugliness, and tragedy, as still ‘in transition’, as still ‘on the move’, and thus as capable of redemption. The eye of fire is that in the heart which sees the world as God does, and thus finds its deepest realisation in acting toward the world as God does.
This is the real meaning of Christ’s statement in the Beatitudes, “The pure in heart will see God” [Matthew, 5, 8].
Black Elk: “I am blind and do not see the things of this world; but when the light comes from above, it illumines my heart and I can see, for the eye of my heart sees everything; and through this seeing I can help my people. The heart is a sanctuary at the centre of which there is a little space, wherein the Great Spirit dwells, and this is the eye. This is the eye of the Great Spirit by which he sees all things, and through which we see Him. If the heart is not pure, the Great Spirit cannot be seen.”
This is the heart which Christ’s Cross takes through the gateless gate, the eye of the needle, the undiscovered door in the wailing wall. This is the heart in which the wall of separation between God and humanity is no more. This heart sees the world as God does, and sees what God sees: that no human being is profane, no human being is beyond recall. Thus this heart is moved and enfired to love in the same way as God does.
This is the heart that accepts the risk, and binds itself to its outcome, no matter the cost. Such a heart has been purified; such a heart has been tested; now, it is given away. Now is the heart sacrificed. To God, for the world.
This is the heart ‘kindled’ with fire.
God ‘knows the secrets of the heart’, those which signify our retreat from the whole venture, the whole project, of heart, and the greater and deeper secret, the secret so deep down in heart even we do not know it is there. It is the good ground, the tree of life growing in us, the treasure buried in the root.
We must find God to find the secret of our heart.
The heart wants fire. The heart says yes deeper than it says no. By God’s fire the nous will be made luminous, and the soul clothed in beauty, but the heart will burn with fervour, and that burning will become what kindles fire in the world.
The secret too deep for us is, we have a heart like God’s.
The human heart is called to become the world’s Redeemer, its Christ, through the wounded passion that alone can forge Suffering Love.
St Paul [Romans, 8, 14-24]: “Everyone moved by the Spirit is a son of God. The Spirit you received is not the spirit of slaves bringing fear into your lives again; it is the Spirit of sons, and it makes us cry out, ‘Abba, Father!’ The Holy Spirit himself and our spirit bear united witness that we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his suffering so as to share his glory… The whole creation is eagerly waiting for God to reveal his sons.. from the beginning till now.. the entire creation has been groaning in one great act of giving birth; and not only creation, but all of us who possess the first fruits of the Spirit, we too groan inwardly as we wait…”
St Dionysus: “Fire is in all things, is spread everywhere, pervades all things, without intermingling with them, shining by its very nature yet hidden, and manifesting its presence only when it can find material on which to work, violent and invisible, having absolute rule over all things, violently assimilating to itself everything it triumphantly seizes, and so renewing all things with its life-giving heat and blazing with inextinguishable light… It comprehends, but remains incomprehensible, never in need, mysteriously increasing itself and showing forth its majesty according to the nature of the substance receiving it, powerful and mighty and invisibly present in all things.”
Deuteronomy, 4,24: “For the Lord, your God, is a consuming fire.”