By Fr. Alex Ezechukwu, OCD
St. John’s Poem, Living Flame of Love
Have you ever asked yourself, “How can I become better at prayer?”
When we think about prayer, three ideas might come to mind:
- Prayer is asking. How can I pray so that I get what I want?
- Prayer is vocal or spoken. We may think of written prayers like the Our Father or Hail Mary.
- Prayer can be analyzed. How can I analyze prayer, and break it down into its component parts, like a scientist?
Yet, all three of these concepts fall short of all that prayer really is.
One of my Discalced Carmelite confrers, Fr. Liam Finnerty, provides a rich approach to understanding this topic that compares prayer to a fire that burns and consumes wood. He bases his theme on texts of the 16th century Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross. Drawing from the saint’s book, Dark Night of the Soul, and his poem Living Flame of Love, Fr. Liam uses the saint’s analogy of fire in understanding prayer’s transforming effect upon the soul.
Fr. Liam, an expert in Carmelite spirituality, is a lecturer who is featured in our Wisdom Lectures series. This series is sponsored by DecorCarmeli Media, a service of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the United Kingdom. The Wisdom Lectures series features more than one hundred videos that are available on a subscription basis.
Father’s gray hair and respect for the divine reveal a man who no doubt has spent many years of his life in contemplation and prayer. His Irish brogue and his enthusiasm are refreshing.
Prayer, Like Fire, is Transformative
“I want to take John’s concept of fire as transformative,” Fr. Liam explains as he begins his lecture. “Transformative, deep within the spirit and within the soul, and from that anchored place, the sightly [pleasing to the eye], our emotions, our general living equilibrium, is calibrated, is blessed and controlled, when the soul and the spirit are right. That is the fundamental doctrine of John and Teresa.”
St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila approach this in different ways, he says, but each of them is working within the very same school of dynamics. In this way the spirit of God works within us.
Fr. Liam reads the first line of St. John’s poem, Living Flame of Love: “Oh, living flame of love that tenderly wounds my soul at its deepest center.” He also asks his audience to look upon the video image on the wall of a lively fire in a fireplace. But, he counters, the fire is really right here, gesturing with his hand towards his audience.
Several Aspects of Fire
Here are several aspects of a fire that shed light on the transformative effect of prayer on our souls, according to Fr. Liam:
- Transformation is not the result of a great effort on our part. It is the flame that does the work. We merely dispose ourselves.
- The Spirit’s effect on a soul is the same as a fire on wood. It is done gently, tenderly, lovingly. Fire at first dispels moisture, it turns the wood black, and it even has a bad odor.
- The silence of such a prayer makes us face what is so bad. Who am I as a human being, in that deepest secrecy, in that place of fire?
- The mind judges itself as good or bad. But in this place of mysticism, this “burning” returns us to the pristine simplicity of ourselves.
- We run from this point of discomfort, this awkwardness, but it’s the biggest place for discernment, for prayer.
- By drying out the wood and removing all the ugly aspects, the fire transforms the wood into itself, and makes it as beautiful as itself.
- It does not take a massive effort and determination. We must take Mary’s role in the Annunciation. Mary becomes the paradigm for the Carmelite. The profound surrender. “Be it done to me according to thy word, in the fire of your Holy Spirit.”
- This gift of God in Jesus can’t be contained anywhere. But specifically in our faith, it has potency. It’s a living tenderness, it’s a living flame that becomes a flame of love. And we become enflamed.
- The sensitivity to the presence of others is awakened. And thus the brash cruel nature of egoism is revealed.
- This does not make our egoism go away. Those with whom we live deal with resentment and jealousy. We still struggle with the same egoism as when we were twenty. And yet the fire is still living and loving.
- If the relationship with Jesus goes out, the fire goes out, we are left with smoldering debris.
- We notice that the mature members of our family are those who can withhold pain.
- It’s cyclic - suffering united with the crucified One.
- It is egoism to say, “Am I missing out on life, is life is passing me by?”
- We must stay in the suffering, like a mother or father with a sick child. Stay with the fire.
- Mortification, penance and prayer play a part of this.
- It all affects how we live together, how we love each other, how we get up in the morning. Thus we value the joy, the commitment of now.
- The souls of each of us can, from under the ashes, can say, “Where have you hidden, beloved, and left me mourning?”
Recovering My Relationships
Other reflections from his talk:
- We learn that “There is something extraordinary in me. This is something that I am going to begin to recover, so that my relationships, my humanity, my body and mind and spirit are going to be changed in how I relate to others today.”
- The beautiful gift of transformation. Being schooled by Mary.
- Mary must keep telling us: Let go. Stop trying so hard. Sit back and enjoy.
- That visitation of love. And then there is a preparation for the cross. None of us can escape it. There will be times when it will be very painful, very difficult. We won’t see our way forward.
Finally, Carmelite spirituality is a gift to the Church, to the body of the Church. Fr. Liam says,
“It is in no sense an exclusive club. It is like a chrysalis. It broke itself open long ago. Each generation must break out of the chrysalis and create something for everybody.”
Wisdom Lectures Available
There are many more helpful points to discover in Fr. Liam’s lectures. In fact, he has nine lectures as part of the Wisdom Lectures series, including "Letting Go and Letting God," "Forgiveness and Healing in Relationships," and "Praying through the Storm: The Experience of St. Teresa."
In all, you’ll find more than one hundred videos available in the Wisdom Lectures series from DecorCarmeli Media. We produce these videos so that people can have access to authentic teachings on the spiritual life so they can benefit from the insights from the Carmelite tradition – a tradition that has produced many saints and doctors of the Church.
Monthly and annual subscriptions to the video platform will be available soon. We will let you know – simply sign up for our mailing list: DecorCarmeli Media.