The Divine Fire

Doug McManaman
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reproduced with Permission

Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, …the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.

When I was a student in Montreal, my wife and I lived in an apartment for 200 dollars a month. It was a basement apartment in a very rundown neighborhood in Montreal. When we'd come home late at night and turn the lights on, the cockroaches would scatter. We spent a lot of money on cockroach spray, and it would work for a time, but they'd always return. But these creatures hated the light; they loved the darkness. They would dwell in dark and damp areas, like under the sink.

Creatures that love darkness are revolting. They make us sick to our stomach. And there are people who love darkness. In the movie The Song of Bernadette, there is a scene in which she is interviewed by Dr. Dozous who asks her: "What is a sinner?" She quickly replies: "A sinner is one who loves evil". That impressed the doctor, because she said "loved", not "does". We all do evil. We all sin. But not everyone loves evil. Some of us struggle against our own propensity to sin and selfishness, but some of us refuse to and instead surrender to a spirit of darkness. Some people love darkness. And that's why they hate truth. There are people who despise the truth, and who despise all those who love and stand for the truth and are willing to proclaim it. Christ said: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life". If you love Christ and live for him, you love truth, and wherever truth is proclaimed, you recognize it and you embrace it. But because of that, you will be the object of others' hatred. Christ said it: "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first" (Jn 15, 18). That hatred is not a sign that there is something wrong with what you believe; it's a sign, rather, that everything is the way it should be. If you are a person of light, those who love the darkness will find you repulsive, as cockroaches find light very uncomfortable.

But the day is coming, blazing like an oven, a fire is approaching that will both heal and destroy. This should be easy to interpret, Scripture is very clear that God is a consuming fire. In the bible, fire is a symbol of the divine love; He is a blazing furnace of infinite love, and that light and love is painful for those who love the darkness, but it is joy to those who have spent their lives trying to conform to it.

The fire of hell, I dare say, is really nothing other than the fire of the divine love. Now that might sound nice, especially to a criminal, but it really isn't good news for those who love sin. We are what we love. We become conformed to that which we love. To love the rottenness of sin, which is darkness, is to become conformed to it. It is to become dark and rotten. We can see it in the faces of those who love sin and darkness - as well as in the faces of those who love goodness and holiness. The faces of those who love darkness are hard, and they exhibit a darkness in the eyes. Those who love light, who love the Lord, have radiant faces.

The secret to looking beautiful is divine grace. But take note of the faces of those who have turned their backs on God, who really hate the light and who love sin: there's an emptiness about them, a lack of density, not to mention a darkness about their eyes, and no matter how pretty the face or handsome, there is something very unattractive about them, at least to those who love goodness - and not everyone loves goodness.

In the Psalms, we read: "Who of us can live with the consuming fire? Who of us can live with the everlasting flames?" And the answer follows immediately: "He who practices virtue and speaks honestly, who spurns what is gained by oppression, brushing his hands free of contact with a bribe, stopping his ears lest he hear of bloodshed, closing his eyes lest he look on evil." And in Psalm 68, it says: "…like wax that melts before the fire, so the wicked shall perish at the presence of God." The presence of God is like fire, and the only ones who can withstand this presence are those who practice virtue, who speak honestly, who spurn what is gained by oppression, who refuse to accept bribes, who refuse to be entertained by violence and the specter of evil.

This life is about preparing for that fire. Just as fire purifies metal, it burns the dross, the scum and the foreign matter that is formed on the surface of molten metal, so too the fire of the divine love purges us of all that is contrary to it. This life is about preparing for that state. Purgatory is precisely that, the purification of the rust that has formed on the surface of the soul. That is why the spiritual life is difficult; it is work; it is painful, it is a matter of growing closer to that fire and becoming conformed to it. It is about regular prayer, it is about renouncing the pleasures of popular culture that are incompatible with the moral teachings of the Catholic faith; it is about regular confession, and about looking outside the self towards those who suffer and serving them; it is about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The more we make progress in that direction, the more joyful our life will become - not more exciting, necessarily, not more pleasurable, but more joyful. God is Joy. He is a consuming fire. There is only one fire: to those who obstinately refuse the divine light, that fire will be an eternal hell, but to those who are fully purified, that fire will be an eternal heaven, an eternal and unending joy, and those so purified will shine with a radiance and beauty that is divine and that will last forever.