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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Awake, O Sleeper

Freeing SoulsI haven’t been too inspired lately, but every once in a while I stumble across something too good to keep to myself. This is from an ancient homily which appears in this morning’s readings of the Liturgy of the Hours:

“Something strange is happening – there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.

“He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’….

“Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”