Changing into Fire
In the latter part of the third century, an Egyptian monk named Anthony was inspired by a sermon to sell his belongings, give the money he raised to the poor, and move into the desert where he could seek communion with Jesus. Paul the Hermit already lived there, surviving on palm fruit and bread delivered by a kindly crow, but it was Anthony who gathered monks and nuns around him to live an ascetic, isolated life of devotion to Christ. 
Over time, these religious men and women compiled sayings and stories. One of these, adapted from Joan Chittister’s book In God’s Holy Light, speaks of turning into fire.
Father Lot went to see Father Joseph. He said, “Abbot, as much as possible, I follow the holy rule, I say my prayers and do my meditations, I maintain my silence, and as well as I can, I can clean my thoughts. What more should I do?” The abbot stood, stretching his hands toward heaven, and his fingers flared like ten lamps. He said, “Why not be utterly transformed into fire?” 
Living a spiritual life is difficult, even if you aren’t trying to work or raise a family. You have to monitor your thoughts, manage your feelings, make time every day for your practice, keep the commandments, avoid sin. It seems that Father Lot did a decent job of this, but apparently it didn’t satisfy him. Why else would he ask what more he could do? But surely he didn’t expect the abbot would tell him to change into fire.
Fire and the Olympians
What did Father Joseph mean by this? Chittister talks of a “whole-souled plunge into life,”  about orienting our spirits toward the holy and “becoming the presence of God” wherever we are.  If we are transformed into fire, we are transformed into God.
Yet fire means other things, as well. It can symbolize the punishment of hell, the passion we feel for our religion or our lover. Fire consumes us, but controlled fire cooks our food and warms our homes. Without fire, we could not forge tools or weapons, nor harden pots. Indeed, we couldn’t be human as we know it.
That’s why Prometheus stole fire from Zeus, so we could be more human.
But fire can also make us more holy and wise. The light of the flame allows us to see in the dark, revealing the secret truths hidden there. With the glow from fire, we can see Wisdom huddling in the shadows, understand the mysteries once known only to the gods. Perhaps most threatening to Zeus, though, is that fire is of the spirit. If we can become that kind of fire, we can merge with the spirit. We can become like a god.
The Threat in Eden
Becoming like an Olympian god, however, does not seem very grand. They are as flawed as we on our worst days. Zeus was not the only one jealous of the Titans, of humans themselves. How could they allow Prometheus to trick Zeus that way? If they did, next the entire pantheon of gods might be overthrown.
“In order to exist at all,” Thomas Merton wrote about the myth of Prometheus and the fire, the Olympians “had to dominate [Prometheus], feed on him and ruin him.”  They would stoop to any cruelty to get the power they craved. Obviously, we created these deities in our image.
What about the Hebrew god? It is said that he created us to be like him, with the breath of divinity within us, so we might live in peace and prosperity in a wondrous garden. Yet it seems even Elohim did not want us becoming too divine. Indeed, the moment Eve and Adam ate of the fruit and their eyes opened to the knowledge of good and evil, he kicked them out into the wider world where brutality and suffering are rampant.
Why? Because when we discovered that some things were good and some were not, we emerged from our innocence. We realized it was possible to do evil. Emotions like shame, guilt, resentment, jealousy, and bitterness took life, and Elohim knew these emotions could cause us to lie, to betray each other, even to kill. Once upon a time, we were one with creation. After eating of the fruit, we stumbled into a world of delusion.
The Need for Death
Perhaps what looked like a punishment was a consequence. As soon as we noticed dichotomies such as good and bad, naked and clothed, obedient and disobedient, we lost our connection to the holy. Our hearts filled with lust, shame, and fear. If Eve and Adam had stayed in the garden after that, they would have destroyed it. Look at what we’ve done to the world we were given.
Yet could even Eden have remained pure forever? After all, without death, life cannot exist.
In the beginning, a fiery singularity exploded, spreading matter into space. It took billions of years for stars to clump together, to die, for some to explode so they might spread their elements throughout the universe: gasses, minerals, metals. Rubble clumped into planets. Molecules bound together, eventually making water. In water, life began.
Once life existed, it needed to eat. Maybe for a while it consumed sunlight or chemicals. Soon enough, however, life increased in complexity. Eventually, it needed to consume other life. By the time Eve and Adam walked with God through the garden, life had become complex indeed. The original couple could not survive without food, even if only a fig or an olive. Yet something had to die to nurture the trees.
So there was death, even in this perfect garden. Eternal life is possible only in a world that exists outside of time, yet what sort of life would it be? Without time, there can be no movement, no sound, no heartbeat. We would not see or taste, cradle one another, or cherish a child. In this eternal realm, all might be fire, but the fire would be frozen, like a singularity that could not explode. If we are to become fire, would Elohim not want us to become living, breathing, dancing flames?
Of course, it’s so simple to transform into fire. Father Joseph would not suggest to a novice that he do so, would he? If fire is the divine spirit, surely we need decades of practice and obedience before we can shed rules and conventions, before we can give up ritual, before we can burn. Enlightenment is a slow process. As one of our recovery church members asked, “How long do I have to wait to turn into fire?”
We wait as long as it takes. For some, it might be but an instant. Others will spend lifetimes looking for the right sangha or flagellating themselves before they realize there is no correct place to be, no pain they must endure to grow more holy. All we need do is let go of suffering.
Release the desire to have one thing or the other. Crack open. Whirl until our atoms fly to the stars. Father Joseph cannot tell us how to become flame, for there is no path. Any path we see is an illusion. We must find the way by giving up the way.
Our Need for Rules
Giving up the way, however, is frightening. We must make up rules and guidelines, rituals and punishments and blessings because they make us feel secure. Nearly all religions devise definitions of right and wrong. There’s good reason for this. Throughout history, and everywhere in the world today, we see rampant violence and hatred, lying and cheating, exploitation and corruption. How do we stop this if we don’t have laws?
Take Confucianism. Confucius hoped his ethical teachings would make society more kind and peaceful, make people more trustworthy. After all, if individuals behave better, then every part of our life will be improved. If everyone followed the rules of their faith, society might be more pleasant than one for whom the only laws were tribalism and brutality. Confucianism was better than nothing. Or so it seems.
Yet not all sages think so. The writers of the Tao Te Ching, for instance, believed that by replacing one value system with another, Confucius interfered with our inherent wisdom. Rainey writes that “they were acting out of ego, they were interfering, and they could not fix a society that was corrupt.” 
Indeed, Taoists believe our civilization cannot be fixed at all. That’s because, for societies to function, they must encourage craving, desire, and the fear of annihilation. Businesses need us to feel inadequate so we will spend money on their products, political groups need enemies, nonprofits need causes. To sustain our inadequacy, our enemies, and our causes, to sustain society itself, we must believe in right and wrong. We fear that if we gave up our notions and traditions without putting something else in their place, chaos would flourish.
Attuning Ourselves to the Tao
But we can’t suddenly burst into flames, not even spiritual ones. To transform into fire takes years, decades, lifetimes of faithfulness and obedience. We have to embrace compassion, oneness, and stillness, learn to quiet our desires. If we do this long enough, we might one day be able to let go of the practices, stop trying to memorize the rules. Then, we will become light. Then, we will do whatever is needed in each moment without first being told what is proper.
As Chittister explains, at some point, “all the fasts and prayers, all the disciplines and rules, have done what they were meant to do. They have prepared us to forget them when necessary and so become real religious.” 
The Tao Te Ching teaches that the Tao – the essence of life, the Isness, the I Am – is like water. It flows downhill, eases its way into crevices. It trickles and torrents. Though water can be gentle, it can also destroy. It falls as rain on the rich and poor alike. The Tao doesn’t care. It does what it does, not considering the creatures in its path.
If we were attuned to the Tao, we, too, could stop worrying about the rightness or wrongness of things. “If left to our own devices in a noncoercive society, with no artificial desires,” Rainey writes, “we would behave perfectly well.”  Instead of acting from our ego, from our petty rages and frustrations, we would act from that divine thread of love nestled deep within our hearts. We would build and nurture, comfort and create, not because we were told to, but because being beauty and fire and blessing is who we are.
The Fire Is Already There
According to Merton, the fire is “spiritual freedom.” Prometheus thought he had to steal it, but it was already there, with him all the time.  He just had to open himself up to it.
It’s okay to fast, pray, strive to be good. We can dream of being heroes like Prometheus or walk for miles on our knees. It all builds character, moves us a bit closer to the holy, perhaps. But we become fire not because we have sung enough psalms or made enough sacrifices. We become fire because our hearts have opened, because we have become the holy essence we seek. How long this takes is, to some degree, up to us.
In Eden, there is no other, no enemy, no this or that. Right and wrong do not exist there, for the garden is one with the Tao. Once we ate of the fruit of good and evil, Elohim knew we could not stay in that place. When we developed ideas of permissible and not permissible, we lost touch with the essence of life.
To find our way back to Eden, to flow with the Tao as if we were part of it, it seems we first must experience hardship and suffering. We must invent religions and nations, discover peace through its opposite, the ten thousand things through what they are not. Before we can know the Tao, we must live in the world that corrupts it.
Yet the fire is waiting for us. We need only open our hands, reach our fingers toward heaven, and receive the gift that is already there. Stroll through the garden. Flow with the Tao. Release notions of right and wrong. Allow the holy to shine through you, whatever you are doing and wherever you are. Then you will be transformed into fire.
In faith and fondness,
- “Desert Fathers,” Wikipedia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Diego_Vel%C3%A1zquez_010.jpg, accessed 5/22/21.
- See Chittister, Joan, In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2015, 131 and Merton, Thomas, Wisdom of the Desert, Boston: Shambhala, 2004, 106.
- Chittister Joan, In God’s Holy Light: Wisdom from the Desert Monastics, Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2015,133.
- Ibid 132.
- Merton, Thomas, “Prometheus: A Meditation,” Raids on the Unspeakable, New York: New Directions, 1966, 79-88, 86.
- Rainey, Lee Dian. Decoding Dao : Reading the Dao de Jing (Tao Te Ching) and the Zhuangzi (Chuang Tzu), John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014, 61.
- Chittister 134.
- Rainey 86.
- Merton, Raids, 84.
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