Where's the Fire?
Sustaining a passion for God that lasts a lifetime.
© 2002 by Paul Thigpen
To know one of them, or even to read the biography of one of them, is to be burned — forever branded with their mark.
I mean, of course, those men and women whose passion for God blazes with such heat that they make all the rest of us seem cold by comparison. Some explode like spiritual Molotov cocktails to inflame a whole generation with love for God. Others burn quietly in the furnaces of everyday life, unknown to all but their immediate acquaintances — yet raising the spiritual temperature of everyone who comes near them.
To many of us they seem a puzzle: What has ignited these saints? What fuel continues to feed the bonfire that rages in their hearts? And perhaps most importantly, how can we catch a spark from their life with God that will set our own hearts ablaze?
A first clue, I believe, comes from our Lord Himself. Imagine the scene with me now (from Luke 7:36-50) as we recall how Jesus defended the passionate love of a scandalous but penitent woman — and scolded a self-righteous religious leader for his coldness of heart.
A Lavish Love
She stood outside the door, an alabaster jar in her trembling hand. If this man could read souls as they said He could, He would know right away about her past. Before she came she had washed away the scarlet paint on her lips, but she couldn't wash away the stains on her soul.
What would He say? This Jesus was a holy man and a great rabbi, reclining at dinner with a Pharisee who refused even to carry a pin on the Sabbath. She was a harlot. Would they send her away as so many others had done?
No matter what might happen, she knew she had to see Jesus. Ever since she had heard Him in the marketplace telling of God's forgiveness — even pronouncing that forgiveness Himself — she knew that she had to meet Him face to face, had to beg His mercy and ask to start over again. With less courage than desperation, she ran inside the elegant, whitewashed home, dashing past the house servants who were not quick enough to restrain her.
The Pharisee was startled, knocking over his goblet. But Jesus remained still, as if expecting her. She stood behind Him at His feet, about to speak, when suddenly the pain of a lifetime erupted from her heart into a torrent of bitter tears cascading over His feet, leaving little trails through the dust on His skin.
Jesus looked into her eyes with a love she had never seen in all her so-called lovers. She let down her hair and began to wipe His feet, kissing them and bathing them with the perfume from her alabaster jar.
He had not sent her away. He had received her unspoken confession, and she had received His unspoken forgiveness.
The Pharisee objected to the novelty of it all, as usual. Jesus answered with a profound parable, as usual. The one who is overwhelmed with debt, He insisted, will be overwhelmed with gratitude when that debt is canceled. She loves much because she has been forgiven much. Her extravagance of gratitude was appropriate; she was returning the gift in kind.
In Jesus' words, I believe, we find the secret of a passion for God: The greater the debt, the greater the devotion. This woman, freed from the burden of her shame, poured out on Jesus a lavish love in response to a lavish grace. For someone whose very life had been given back to her washed clean, no gift, no sacrifice, no labor was too great for the Beloved. That night there was kindled in her a consuming passion for the merciful One who had set her free.
An Historical Pattern
Throughout the generations since, the same pattern emerges in the life stories of those who were known for their passionate friendship with God. Again and again we find that the men and women whose lives were afire with devotion to the Lord were profoundly aware of how deeply indebted they were to His grace.
Perhaps none, for example, could have been more passionate than St. Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of the north African city of Hippo. A brilliant and arrogant rebel in his youth, this man broke his Catholic mother's heart with his early waywardness. He gave his body over to sensual sins and his mind over to intellectual sins, taking a concubine and dabbling in the dark heresies of the Manichees, an early pseudo-Christian cult.
Nevertheless, like the woman with the alabaster jar, St. Augustine eventually realized the depth of his brokenness. Looking back many years later, he recalled what happened, saying to God:
"You stood me face to face with myself, so that I might see how foul I was, how deformed and defiled, how covered with stains and sores. I looked, and I was filled with horror, but there was no place for me to flee away from myself" (Confessions).
Like the woman Jesus forgave, St. Augustine was driven at last to fling himself down before the Lord, weeping bitterly, to seek forgiveness and a new life.
Once forgiven, the young man served God with a white-hot passion that seared the hearts of all who knew him. Ever mindful of his indebtedness, this great theologian and doctor of the Church plunged himself into the depths of God's wisdom with the passion of a pearl-diver seeking precious jewels. In the centuries since, his fierce devotion to God, burning the pages of the writings he left behind, has set aflame the hearts and minds of millions.
Who Needs Forgiveness?
Like the woman with the jar of perfume, St. Augustine had a past painted scarlet, all too obviously in need of cleansing. Are we saying, then, that only forgiven harlots, heretics, and the like are capable of a passion for God?
Not by any means. Think back to the biblical account of the penitent woman. She was not the only sinner in that dining room in need of being "forgiven much." The Pharisee — the epitome of self-righteousness, judgmentalism, and pride — also stood in need of salvation from his sins. But he failed to realize the immensity of his own debt.
Perhaps the religious leader had no blots of adultery, idolatry, or murder on his record. Perhaps he could claim as the Apostle Paul later did that in his observance of Pharisaic law, he was "faultless" (Phil. 3:6). No doubt the Pharisee tithed his mint and dill. But as Jesus warned his religious colleagues, he was in danger of neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness (see Matthew 23:23-24).
The Lord chided his host for not having provided even the most common of courtesies to a dinner guest, and added rather pointedly: "Whoever has been forgiven little loves little" (Luke 7:47). To understand fully the meaning of this parable, we must grasp the import of these words.
Jesus was not at all saying that the Pharisee needed only a little forgiveness in contrast to the great need of the harlot — though that is doubtless how the Pharisee interpreted Jesus' words. No; the Pharisee's need for God's grace was every bit as desperate as hers, or St. Augustine's, or yours, or mine. But he was forgiven little because his self-righteous introspection discovered so little that he thought warranted forgiveness.
Jesus wasn't saying here: "If you haven't done much wrong, your love for God will be shallow." He was saying: "Whether or not you recognize it, God's grace is lavish. But whoever does recognize the lavishness of God's grace will love Him accordingly."
Without a past of dissipation like St. Augustine's, we might be tempted to think that our debt to God is minimal. If so, we'll also be tempted to offer Him a love that's minimal. But the truth is that we all owe Him an infinite debt of passionate gratitude because we "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).
Fueling the Passion
In these examples, then, we can see what it is that ignites a passion for God: a sharp awareness of the depths of God's grace. Whether our sins seem great or small, the knowledge that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us can stir in us a lavish devotion in response to God's lavish mercy.
But what is it that will fuel our passion for a lifetime? How do we transform our gratitude into a lifelong attitude of thanksgiving for God's goodness? Once again, for clues we can turn to the lives of those in earlier generations who demonstrated that kind of sustained passion for God.
St. Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century theologian, social activist, and Doctor of the Church, portrayed to her world a passionate friendship with God that expressed itself in self-denying service to others. She gave herself to the poor and sick through many long, hard labors as a nurse in homes and hospitals. Even when the dreaded plague ravished her hometown in Italy, and many fled the ill and dying for fear of succumbing to the disease themselves, she courageously cared for the victims and recruited others to join her.
What sustained her passion through so many seasons of devoted service? In the Dialogue, a hauntingly beautiful account of an extended prayer conversation between St. Catherine and God, we find ample evidence of the "fuel" that fed her fire: This tireless saint spent as much time alone with the Lord as she did out among His people; and in her hours of prayer, she gave herself often to dwelling on the greatness of what she called God's "fiery mercy."
For St. Catherine, God's grace was no mere doctrine to be believed. His mercy, and the human sinfulness that required His mercy, was for her a daily and inescapable reality. Unlike St. Augustine, she recognized her inner rebellion despite the absence of obvious scandal. Also unlike St. Augustine, she learned at an early age that God's love was mightier than her weakness; and she meditated on that love daily in a life of prayer that became as famous throughout Europe as her works of charity.
Listen to the passion of her gratitude to God:
"O eternal Mercy, you who cover over your creatures' faults! … O unspeakable mercy! … My heart is engulfed with the thought of you! For wherever I turn my thoughts I find nothing but mercy! … O immeasurably tender love! Who would not be set afire with such love!"
Through many hours of such daily conversation with God, and pondering deep within herself the mystery of human sin and divine grace, St. Catherine kept alive her devotion to God. In the words of this perpetually grateful saint, the soul that keeps in mind how Jesus poured out Himself for us with "burning love" will itself "catch fire with unspeakable love."
Thanks for the Small Things
A second clue to fueling our passion for God comes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. This thirteenth-century traveling preacher and reformer, known to his generation as the "Troubadour of God," spent his life in teaching others to celebrate the grace of God — not just in the sobering work of the Cross, but also in the delightful gifts of everyday existence. According to his most famous biographer, G. K. Chesterton, the common, ordinary graces of life pressed Francis to acknowledge his continuing indebtedness to heaven, for he knew "there is no way in which a man can earn a star or deserve a sunset."
No doubt St. Francis shared with the other saints we have mentioned a deep sense of his own sinfulness. He had grown up in a town known in his day as "New Babylon," and as a youth he had done much to contribute to the community's reputation for immorality. According to an early biographer, young Francis was a lawless carouser, a selfish, rude and vain snob who once boasted, "One fine day the whole world will bow to me." Not surprisingly, after his conversion St. Francis deeply regretted such a past.
Even so, the quality for which the saint has perhaps been best remembered is his unabashed joy in the beauty and goodness of God's world. No brilliant flower of the field, no graceful sparrow in flight escaped his grateful notice. For St. Francis, giving praise to God for all things was a daily discipline that cultivated in believers a passionate love for their Creator.
Wherever he went, this joyous saint called men and women to repent of their ungratefulness and recognize the magnificence of God's goodness. In fact, St. Francis's desire to serve God as His "troubadour" was so fierce, people often called him mad. What kind of passion, they wondered, would lead a man to preach to the birds — tap dance before the Pope — walk through enemy battle lines to confront a fierce Muslim Sultan — so that all could hear the good news of God's love?
Must we imitate such unusual behaviors in order to imitate the saint's devotion? Of course not. But neither should we be quick to judge the wisdom of such a man. In spirituality as in physiology, to those accustomed to functioning at a temperature below normal, 98.6 degrees feels like a fever. Perhaps, after all, St. Francis's passion burns us because we're not yet fully ablaze ourselves. In any case, we can learn from him to fuel our devotion to God with the humble firewood of thanks for God's gifts in everyday life.
Channeling Our Passion
From the lives of all these men and women of God — St. Augustine, St. Catherine, and St. Francis — we can draw one final lesson about sustaining a passion for God. Though each of them took a vocational path quite different from the others, they all translated their devotion into action, taking on a concrete mission in life. They discovered, as we must, that a passion unchanneled is a passion soon dissipated.
Each one of these employed his or her own unique gifting and temperament in the mission undertaken. For St. Augustine, a brilliant theologian and writer, the passion for God became a passion to understand and teach God's grace. For St. Catherine, a tenacious and compassionate activist, it became a passion to demonstrate God's grace. And for St. Francis, a humble and exuberant troubadour, it became a passion to celebrate God's grace.
Whatever the road taken, the roadside was set ablaze by these men and women of God who knew how much they had been given and forgiven, and who carried the torch of a grateful heart. The words of Chesterton, though written of Francis, could be said of them all:
"It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be forever paying it. He will be forever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks."
As with the woman Jesus forgave, theirs was a lavish love in response to a lavish grace. Theirs was an extravagant devotion to an extravagant God to whom they owed a debt that was always growing, and always canceled.
The fiery grace that ignited these believers' hearts has been offered to us as well. Will we kindle our own hearts in its flame — so that our lives, too, will blaze with a passion for God?
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