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From the Winter, 1997 issue of Touchstone


Is <title>Holy Fire by Thomas S. Buchanan

Holy Fire

Quench not the Spirit.
Thessalonians 5:19

The Spirit of God is like a fire that burns within us. It can be as faint as a matchstick or as raging as a bonfire, depending upon how much fuel we provide. It can grow dim or even go out if the fire isn’t tended. And it is because it is like a fire that St. Paul told the Thessalonians to “quench not the Spirit.”

What quenches the Spirit is an impure life. St. John Chrysostom said,

If anyone pours water or dirt upon the light of a lamp, it goes out, and this also happens if they simply pour all of the oil out of it—in the same manner the gift of grace is extinguished. If you have filled your mind with earthly things, if you have given yourself up to the cares of daily business, you have already quenched the Spirit. The flame goes out when there is not enough oil, that is, when we do not show charity. The Spirit came to you by God’s mercy; and so if it does not find corresponding fruits of mercy in you, it will flee away from you. For the Spirit does not make its dwelling in the unmerciful soul.

If we are not to quench the Spirit, how do we keep it burning? We tend it. We stoke it. We feed it—diligently. Left unattended, a fire grows dim and burns out. Tending a fire requires constant attention and continuous work, even if it is a very little fire. How do we tend this Holy Fire? Theophane the Recluse told us to “cast aside everything that might extinguish this small flame which is beginning to burn within you, and surround yourself with everything which can feed and fan it into a strong fire. What you need most in your present position is solitude, prayer, and meditation. Your solitude must become more collected, your prayer deeper, and your meditation more forceful.” Elsewhere he suggested, “As soon as you wake up in the morning take care to collect yourself inwardly, and to kindle a feeling of warmth within.” That is, a feeling of love for God. Then he advises that we keep this warmth continuously within us as we fulfill our obligations throughout the day. Anytime we feel that warmth start to fade we must stop and rekindle it.

If we work very hard, the fire will grow to rage within us, consuming even our own will. This is what is described in the poem of St. John of the Cross: “Oh living flame of love that tenderly wounds my soul.” This is what we see in the lives of the saints, as exemplified in this story from the Desert Fathers:

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him “If you will, you can become all flame.”

We too can become all flame if, instead of quenching the Spirit, we are consumed by it. We may not all become “glow-in-the-dark” saints like Abba Joseph or St. Seraphim of Sarov or Moses as he descended Mt. Sinai—few are blessed with the outward signs of an inward fire. But the fire will be there if we tend it—constantly.

Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.

“Holy Fire” first appeared in the Winter 1997 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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