Think of the one thing you are intensely passionate about, maybe a person you admire very much, or one you deeply love. The thought of it gets your juices flowing, sharpens your focus, raises your heart rate. Perhaps this something you’re intensely passionate about is a noble ideal or a righteous cause, and there are a number of them out there—respect for life, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, getting rid of nuclear weapons, conserving our natural resources, the ethical treatment of animals, abolishing the death penalty, eliminating terrorism, violence and war, preventing drunk driving and drug abuse, finding a cure for cancer, lowering infant mortality and birth defects, lowering taxes, lowering college tuition, lowering high blood pressure. It can be extremely frustrating when people do not seem to understand the urgency you feel, like they’re not paying attention, like they don’t care. What will it take, you ask? How can they remain unmoved? How do you wake them up?
You could also be intensely passionate about God. You just don’t want to admit it out loud. You don’t want to be identified with the holy rollers out there, the bible thumpers, the Jesus freaks, the self-proclaimed bearers of salvation who sincerely believe everyone else is going to hell except themselves and all who agree with them. It’s probably easier being intensely passionate about God if people expect it of you, like they expect it of priests, church ministers, popes, bishops, and saints. For instance, most of us have little difficulty standing up for what we consider essentially American—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, free speech, free public education, free internet access, and free soft drink refills. We are not ashamed of these if we are not ashamed of being American. But how do we get excited about our Christian faith, without getting weird looks from strangers? How do we get passionate about forgiveness and salvation and eternal life without making people laugh hysterically or be intensely annoyed?
I call it living fire, intense consuming blazing fire which draws its power and majesty from the living God. It isn’t something we can cook up solely with the intensity of our own desire. In fact, we could be naturally shy and unassuming. At worst, we could be fearful, unbelieving, apathetic, or openly resistant toward God. The apostles feared for their lives, avoiding any public notice lest they be harassed for associating with Jesus the trouble-maker. And at the other end of the spectrum was Paul whose zeal for the Law of Moses drove him to hunt down the followers of the New Way, that he might put an end to their dissention, and bring them back to faithful observance of their religious heritage. And the living fire of the living God changed them all.
On this day of Pentecost, we commemorate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the living fire of the living God. We celebrate the all-consuming hunger and thirst, the intense overarching passion that fueled the lives of countless holy women and men through the ages, to witness to the truth of the Gospel without compromise, to reach out to the poor, the lost, and the suffering in compassion and kindness, to proclaim the saving power of God in their manner of speaking and living. Some of these holy women and men were willing to face persecution and danger, to give up their earthly possessions, their relationships, their legitimate freedoms and rights, even their very lives. We admire their passion and intensity. But we fear we can never do what they did, not without the living fire that consumed them and gave them heroic courage.
These last few years I have been asking God for living fire—for myself and for all of us—an intense consuming blazing fire, the living fire of the living God. It has been an interesting adventure. I have been on many retreats. I have read book after book after book. I have listened to passionate speakers hoping to discover what fuels their passion. I have visited holy shrines in Rome and Assisi, in London and County Wicklow. I have stood under the burning sun and in the pouring rain, praying and singing with the Holy Father and young pilgrims gathered in Denver and Toronto and Manila and Sydney, hoping to catch that living fire of God that burned within their hearts. I have also spent many hours in prayer and reflection in the quiet of church and my back porch because I know God is also found in silence and solitude. And I keep searching, not because I haven’t yet found what I am looking for, but because God is not done sharing with me the richness of his Spirit.
I want us, our church, our community to be filled with joy in the experience of new life, in rediscovering the beauty and majesty of God. I want us to be intensely passionate about the gospel and its practical implications, in the way we treat one another, in the way we treat strangers and the poor, in the way we engage in the business of living, and in the way we celebrate our rich heritage of faith. Now and again it seems so tangible, so well within our reach. But the moment soon passes, and our vision seems once again clouded over by our lack of trust, our lack of imagination and creativity, our reluctance to discover God anew in the world. In the eight years that I have been here at St. John’s, I have witnessed the living fire of God invite many people to conversion and transformation. I have felt the living fire of God in the power of his Word and in the beauty of the church’s liturgy. I have experienced the living fire of God in my own journey of faith in answering God’s call to holiness and ministry. But there is still some resistance among us to God’s living fire. There is still an indifference, a quiet reluctance to engage, an unwillingness to venture out of our comfort zone, an unspoken complacency with what we think we know and believe. There are still some who simply refuse to catch the living fire of God. It’s like they’re coated in spiritual asbestos! But what I find most puzzling still is that they insist on coming back, yet they seem to find new ways to avoid catching fire. Why is that?
Every generation secretly desires to build that eternal city that is the pinnacle of human civilization, like the builders of the tower of Babel in the book of Genesis. We are always finding new ways to become self-sufficient and self-fulfilled, and to live forever, if only through our creativity and the works of our hands. We also have this innate desire to discover God in the many ways God reveals himself to us. So we desire for our children that wonderful connection we have with God, or even better, especially when our own connection is flawed or wanting. So we desire for them this living fire of God. But they will only know from following the example we set. You and I have already received living fire … on the day of our baptism. And each time we meet God anew, that fire is stoked. So how do we explain a life of faith that is without passion?
Rolo B Castillo © 2014