“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.”
T.S. Eliot, whose genius for being succinct remains unrivalled, wrote those remarkable words in his poem, The Four Quartets. Brief though they are, they capture an entire anthropology, a spirituality of longing, and a theology of Advent.
What do they say in terms of anthropology? They tell us that we are born congenitally dis-eased, incurably erotic, restless, consumed by a thirst that cannot be quenched and a fire that will not be stilled. To be human is to be on fire for a consummation, a love, a restfulness, an embrace, and a symphony that, in this life, forever escapes us. In every cell of our bodies and in the very DNA of our souls we ache for someone or something that we have not yet known, ache in a way that leaves us too dissatisfied and restless to live fully inside our own skins. Our lives always seem too small for us. Moreover, and this is the key, this is God’s doing. God is the hand behind this “intolerable shirt of flame”.
Hence the fire inside us is not necessarily a sign that we are doing anything wrong, that we have missed the boat somewhere, are sinful, are over-sexed, or are too-greedy for our own good. What Eliot suggests is that this is the normal order of things, God’s doing. The fire inside us comes from the way God made us, namely, to crave the infinite and to be dissatisfied with everything else until that wide embrace is consummated. Thus, the fire inside us will never be extinguished simply by attaining the right partner, the right job, the right city, the right set of friends, and the right recognition. We will always be on fire.
The choice, as Eliot puts it, is not between being restless or being restful, between being tense of heart or calm of soul. No. The choice is between two kinds of fire, two kinds of restlessness, two kinds of inner thirsts – “pyre or pyre”: With what kind of fire do we want our hearts to burn? We are destined to be consumed by one kind of restlessness or another, but the flames are very different. Do we want God’s flames or those of our own choosing?
Eliot suggests that we choose God’s fire because the solution to our deep-seated restlessness will not be found in some long sought-after experience which will finally soothe the last ache within us (“At last, the thing that has forever eluded me!”). Rather the solution lies in letting our thirsts be consumed by another kind of restlessness, a higher fire, a deeper eros, God’s eros. What this means is that the answer to our longing is to extend our longing, the answer to our eros is to deepen our eros, and the answer to our aching is to widen our aching. We can stew in our own fires or we can use those fires to enter the fire of God. How so?
The German poet, Goethe, in a piece entitled, The Holy Longing, suggests a couple of wonderful metaphors that can be helpful here. He speaks of something he calls “holy longing” and goes on to define it as “a desire for higher love-making”, a longing to embrace the world and make love to it as God does this. Such a desire, if correctly fostered, he assures us, will wreak a painful but wonderful spiritual havoc (he calls it “magic”) within us; it will is make us “insane for the light”, wild with the desire to transmute ourselves, grow wings like the butterfly, and fly off, not to escape the world, but to die to all the things that prevent us from, here and now, already making love to the whole world. Longing is meant to be a transforming mysticism within our lives. It creates the energy for metamorphosis.
John of the Cross identified this with “putting on the motivation of Christ.” For him, the desire for higher love-making was the spirit that burned inside of Jesus, the energy that motivated him and consumed, as by fire, all the more limited desires within him. He was insane for the light, on fire with God’s eros, willing to die so as to be transformed and so offer the world the widest love of all, God’s embrace. In Jesus, we see what it means to be redeemed from fire by fire.
Advent celebrates human longing. It asks us not to deny our longings but to enter them, deepen them, and widen them until we become insane enough for the light so that, like the butterfly, we open ourselves to undergo a metamorphosis.