In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot contrasts two kinds of fire:
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame,
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
What Eliot captures here is the deepest and most painful of all human choices, the alternative between God’s flames and those of our own making. What is implied here?
We are born dis-eased, erotic, full of tension, relentlessly restless, full of fire. To be a human being is to be on fire for a consummation, a restfulness, a love, a symphony which, in this life, perpetually escapes us. In every cell of our bodies and in every area of our minds and hearts there is a fire, a restless ache, a burning for someone or something we have not yet experienced.
What comes naturally to us because of this is restless and compulsive activity. Being on fire, we are greedy for experience and find it hard to ever be satisfied or to come to rest. So much of what we do in life comes not from a free centre inside of us but from restlessness and compulsiveness. We are perpetually dissatisfied and unable to live within the spirit of our own lives. Our lives seem always to be too small, too petty, too domestic, too unimportant because we are on fire for bigger things, more important jobs, more important places.
Moreover, this fire, this relentless restlessness, does not necessarily suggest that somehow we are living wrongly. Its source is our own depth, the infinite caverns of our minds and hearts. Philosophers and anthropologists have always distinguished human from beast on the basis of rationality. In my own anthropology classes, I like to phrase that somewhat more humorously by stating that the difference between human and beast is that animals munch grass contentedly in meadows while humans smoke it discontentedly in bars….in there lies the difference! And what difference issues from different depths of mind and heart. Animals aren’t deep, humans are.
Given our infinite depth and our infinite hungers, in this life, we will always be on fire. The fire inside of us will never be extinguished by attaining the right experiences – the right partner in love, the right job, the right city, the right friends, the right recognition. Our choice is not between restlessness and restfulness, but between two kinds of restlessness, between two kinds of fire – “pyre and pyre.” We are destined to be consumed by one kind of fire or another, but the flames are very different – God’s flames or those of our own choosing. The solution to our restfulness, our fire, is to let it be consumed and transformed by a higher fire, a higher eros, a higher restlessness, the eros of God. What is implied here? In capsule, what is meant is that we must widen our longings, deepen our aches, raise further still our psychic temperatures so that we burn precisely for the final consummation, the final symphony, God’s kingdom.
Several years back, after giving a conference on celibacy to a group of seminarians, I was approached by one of them with this complaint: “I am tired of abstract talk about sexuality. It’s all useless because nobody can tell us what to actually do with sexual tension.” What can be done with unresolved tension, sexual or otherwise? We can pick it up, enter it, widen and deepen it, and let it be transformed by something still deeper, Christ’s loneliness. Fire must be redeemed by fire, eros by Eros, aching by aching, frustration by advent, restless compulsion by gestation.
Great spiritual writers have always told us that we should imitate Christ not by trying to look as he looked, or even by trying to do the precise things that he did. Rather we should imitate Christ by trying to feel like he felt, by trying to imitate his motivation, that is, his deep longing for the consummation of everybody and everything in one community of love and peace.
That feeling is a fire, a restlessness, an ache, an eroticism. But it is a fire that doesn’t lead to a compulsive greed for experience or to a restless incapacity to receive the spirit of one’s own life. Rather it is a restlessness that leads one to genuinely live in advent, that is, to become pregnant with the gifts of the holy spirit – charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, constancy, mildness, and chastity – and gestate the conditions within which all fire and longing can be consumed by the fire and longing of God.
Who then devised the torment? Love.