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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Consumed by Fire

-T. S. Eliot

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
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 [1]
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire [2]
Consumed by either fire or fire.


T. S. Eliot's poetry is complex and difficult. His love of paradox, his references to obscure classical sources and to personal experiences known only to Elliot and a few of his friends make his poems almost incomprehensible, but, in my opinion, they are worth whatever effort we're willing to give them. His insights are often startling.

Here, in this section of a much longer poem,[3] Eliot insists that we have but two choices in life: "fire or fire" --the fire of purification or the fire of perdition. We are "redeemed from fire by fire," saved from the fire of judgment by God's refining flame. But--and here is the thought that grabbed my attention--in either case, God's love is the consuming fire; it is the inferno of both heaven and hell.

Here I quote Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, who, it seems, would heartily agree: "The 'fire' that will consume sinners at the coming of the Kingdom of God is the same 'fire' that will shine with splendor in the saints. It is the 'fire' of God's love; the 'fire' of God Himself who is Love. 'For our God is a consuming fire.' For those who love God and who love all creation in Him, the 'consuming fire' of God will be radiant bliss and unspeakable delight. For those who do not love God, and who do not love at all, this same 'consuming fire' will be the cause of their weeping' and their 'gnashing of teeth.' Thus it is the Church's spiritual teaching that God does not punish man by some material fire or physical torment. God simply reveals Himself in the risen Lord Jesus in such a glorious way that no man can fail to behold His glory. It is the presence of God's splendid glory and love that is the scourge of those who reject its radiant power and light." [4]

Thus, the "fire" of hell may be but a metaphor for the torment of God's eternal love raining down on those who do not love him in return. MacDonald's old Scot, David Elginbrod, had a similar take: "Watever may be meant by the place o' meesery, depen' upo't...it's only anither form o' love shinin' through the fogs o' ill[5], and sae gart leuk[6] something vera different thereby."[7]

Now, I must muse a bit...

It occurs to me that this may be one reason we're called, as God's beloved children, to love our enemies and do good to them.[8] They cannot endure the awful torment of our affection. Love becomes a force they cannot bear.

There's a reflection of that "force" in the first Harry Potter book (the only one I've managed to read). Lily Potter, Harry's mother, so loved Harry that she impregnated her love into her son's skin (somewhat as God does when he pours his love into our "skin"). When Harry's opponent, Professor Quirrell, touched Harry to harm him, her love, the love that ennobled her son, shattered the professor.

Paul agrees: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."[9]

DHR

[1] In Greek mythology, the "intolerable shirt of flame" was a shirt that Hercules' wife gave him that had been poisoned by the blood of a centaur. It drove him to throw himself onto a funeral pyre. Metaphorically, it represents "a source of misfortune from which there is no escape." The only choice is to be consumed by "fire or fire."
[2] "Suspire" means "to sigh sorrowfully."
[3] From "The Four Quartettes: Little Gidding."
[4] Thomas Hopko, The Orthodox Faith vol. 4 (Orthodox Christian Publications Center, 1981). To his quotation I must add George MacDonald's wonderful comment: "The fire of God is unlike its earthly symbol in that it is only at a distance that it burns. When we turn and draw near him it turns into comfort."
[5] fogs o' ill: our confusion about hell's "cruelty."
[6] sae gart leuk: so made like.
[7] From MacDonald's novel, David Elginbrod. Our concept of hell as a place of literal fire may be derived more from Dante than from the gospel. Material fire cannot afflict a spiritual being, so the "fires of hell" could well be symbolic. It's significant to me that our Lord's word for hell was Gehenna, not Hades, the usual word for the nether world. Gehenna was a geographical location, a valley located southwest of Jerusalem that was the refuge dump for the city. Early in Jerusalem's history it was set on fire and burned continually, producing billowing clouds of acrid smoke. To our Lord it represented a powerful symbol for hell as a "cosmic garbage dump," a place of ruined, wasted lives (Cf. Mark 9:43 et. al.).
[8] "But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6.35)
[9] Romans 12:21


DHR



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