On Fire

“Abbot Lot came to Abbot Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditations and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do? The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not be totally changed into fire?”

This story comes from the tradition of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, third century A.D. ascetical men and women who sought refuge from the world; they embraced a life of radical simplicity and solitude in order to fully dedicate themselves to God.

Like many who are sincere about their religion, Abbot Lot fell prey to striving for perfection by practicing his “little rule” and “little fast.” He wanted to be a good monk and to do all the right things in the right ways, but in doing so his life became small and self-focused. Because he was a wise mentor, Abbot Joseph recognized Lot’s misguided zeal and invited him to be “changed into fire;” that is, to be consumed with God rather than being obsessed with his own devotional practices.

We are all prone to becoming self-focused when we desire to improve ourselves. Whether in the realm of religion, work, relationships, or any other aspect of life, it is easy to set our sights too low. Getting better at living our faith, more capable and knowledgeable about our job, or more loving as a partner/parent/friend are noble endeavors, but to content ourselves with achieving these goals may render us less than we are capable of becoming, and other than who we are called to be.

“Why not be totally changed into fire?” Why not surrender ourselves to the Spirit that, in the words of monk and mystic Thomas Merton, sleeps in our paper flesh like dynamite? Why not let go of our striving to merely improve ourselves and instead join forces with a Higher/Inner Power, one that enables us to overcome the temptation to only act “according as I am able” and, instead, inspires us to become more than we ever imagined? If we do so, if we open our minds and hearts to the God of our understanding, we may find that what inhabits us is stronger than what inhibits us.

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