The Two Fires
“There are two fires that we have to encounter daily. The first is the fire of life, which reduces us to joy by burning away all that is false and not essential. This is the fire of aliveness that needs to be fed, no matter where we are or what we do. This is the light of the soul that must be kept burning. The second is the fire in the world, which can burn us up, which can wound us and damage us. This is the fire of circumstance that needs to be put out.” (Nepo, Mark. The Book of Soul (p. 67). St. Martin's Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)
To one degree or another, all of us have been wounded by the fires of circumstances, the fire of the world. Some of us were horribly burnt – abandoned, abused, assaulted, malnourished, unloved. For others of us, the burns were more minor – rejections and affronts, for example. And for some, the wounds lie between the extremes – children of divorce, angry or depressed parents, struggles with undiagnosed learning disabilities, and such. The degree to which we were wounded by circumstantial fire becomes the degree to which we see the world as frightening.
Wounded by worldly fire, we approach life with caution. The world is a scary place where you’re easily hurt. We close up and gingerly approach life with trepidation. It is hard for us to trust. We limp along like Mr. Ready-to-Halt, or cower in the background like Mr. Despondency and his daughter Much-Afraid.
In a rather cruel experiment, researchers placed a glass partition between a predatory fish and its favorite prey. After bumping repeatedly into the glass, the big fish gave up. When the glass was removed, the predatory fish would no longer even try to catch the prey. With food in front of its nose, it starved to death.
Half the population are enneagram sixes. Sixes see life as scary; they are motivated by fear. Danger lurks everywhere, and for good reason, they really were wounded in childhood. Life is a fire to be extinguished.
The fire of aliveness that burns away everything that hinders fullness, wholeness, and actualization is typically kindled by kindness, warmth, familial fun, laughter, dance, music, art, travel, history, and reading. The child whose world is characterized by such grows to see the world as a beautiful and wonderful place where people are generally good, and where blessings await around the next corner. For them, life is a warm fire to be stoked and enjoyed, like a campfire on a clear night.
Our God, scripture says, is a consuming fire – the fire of aliveness around which we dance and celebrate.
Too many confuse God’s fire with worldly fire, and think of God as unapproachable, judgmental, and capable of torturing divine image bearers.
The fire of God does not sear or wound; it refines, warms, cheers, and makes us fully human and fully alive.
How do we stoke the divine fire, the fire of life, the fire of aliveness that burns away nothing but the false and nonessential? I have no certain answers, but I’ve discovered a few things that help me:
· Contemplative prayer and meditation
· Slow, sacred reading of scripture
· Long walks in nature
· Classical music (and folk, jazz, rock, etc.)
· Art galleries
· Coffee shops
· Good books, especially the classics
· Desert skies
· Ocean waves
· Snow-capped mountains
· Children laughing
· Tide pools
· Fine wine, a fireplace, my lover’s embrace
· Deep conversations with good friends
· Rituals, like Holy Communion
How do we extinguish the worldly fires of circumstance that wound us and burn us up? I don’t know. It seems to help me to be more mindful, to catch myself viewing the world as dangerous, overlooking the beauty and the grace. I find I often stoke the fires of circumstance without being aware of what I’m doing. It’s ingrained, deeply habitual. Identifying and facing the wounds can help.
A good spiritual guide points out where we’re viewing life as a fire in need of quenching rather than a fire in need of strengthening. In John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, there are shepherds named Knowledge, Experience, Watchful, and Sincere who are especially conscious of the need to care for Mr. Feeble-mind, Mr. Ready-to-halt, Mr. Despondency and Miss Much-afraid. It’s OK to not be OK. We all need each other. We’re all on a journey together.