To Be Light, You Have to Burn

moth to flamePrayer can sometimes be an adventure. The distractions in prayer are not always without meaning. The other morning after finishing the Office of Readings and the Morning Prayer, I put down the Liturgy of the Hours and picked up my Kindle for the daily mass readings from “The Word Among Us,” which is sent to me every month.

The morning before I’d been going through my file of most read books, of which there are about 90, and thought I saw the title Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. I could not remember getting that book, but for some reason I’d promised myself to look for it the next time I opened my device. So instead of going to the mass readings, I went looking for Louise. Whether I had the book or not (of course a hardbound copy was sitting up on the shelf), there was something spooky about thinking I’d seen it. No, I couldn’t find it, so I ordered a Kindle edition. For the books I treasure the most, I’ll get a Kindle version in addition to the physical copy.

Then I thought, gee, where was Annie Dillard? Louise Erdrich and Annie Dillard are writers I can open to any page of any work just to enjoy their writing, to read prose rich as poetry or poetry that transcends. So then I went looking for Annie, found her and opened to the last book I had been reading, Holy the Firm. She recalled a time when she had been camping in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ramsey Ullman’s The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting under a tree by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring. Moths kept flying into the candle….

One night a moth flew into the candle, was caught, burned dry, and held. I must have been staring at the candle, or maybe I looked up when a shadow crossed my page; at any rate, I saw it all. A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into the wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled, and fried in a second….

When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs. Had she been new, or old? Had she mated and laid her eggs, had she done her work? …

And then this moth essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a saffron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk. That candle had two wicks, two flames of identical height, side by side. The moth’s head was fire. She burned for two hours, until I blew her out.

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud in Paris burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet….

How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers?

For a long time I have toyed with the idea of becoming a tertiary of some kind. I thought maybe a Benedictine Oblate, but somehow I always had a conflict with the next meeting or retreat. I don’t really care for the rule enjoining idle chatter and “words that lead to laughter.” I love to talk and joke and laugh and I really think God has a far better sense of humor than Saint Benedict. So how about the third order Franciscans or the Confraternity of Penitents? These commitments haven’t seemed to fit either.

The truth of the matter is I am more wordsmith than monk, more poet than priest, more writer than theologian. This is why my morning prayers found me reading Annie Dillard instead of the Gospel of Luke (which I read later at the doctor’s office waiting for my wife). I am still Catholic to the bone. The metaphor of the moth was not lost on me. To be a true writer, you have to burn your brains out. To be a true Christian, you have to lose your life to find it. You must die to bear much fruit. Or, as St. Francis of Assisi said, it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

So no matter what we do, poet or priest, we have to die and burn. We have to wick God’s grace in order to be His Light.

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5 thoughts on “To Be Light, You Have to Burn

  1. Actually, monks have a delightful sense of humor, contrary to what the Rule seems to say. On the first retreat I did at Monastery of Christ in the Desert, at lunch one day, we sat next to Abbot Phillip while a lector read the daily reading. When lunch was over, Abbott Phillip rang a bell to signal to the lector that it was time to conclude. It startled me and the Abbott noticed it; when I looked over at him he smiled and winked at me like he was a kid with a new toy. After that, I was hooked. So, you don’t have to give up joking and laughing to be a Benedictine at all.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks for sharing that. Actually, I would have been surprised to find that particular rule scrupulously observed. If God didn’t have a sense of humor, I doubt man could have invented one without His help. Should I ever decide to be an oblate, I’m not going to let that rule stop me. I doubt there would be any Benedictines at all without a little humor.

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