The Fire of Pentecost

Summer begins on my calendar after our May Procession. In meteorological time, it begins June 1. What this means is that the season of summer extends through the warmest months of the year, which in the Northern Hemisphere are June, July, and August. I only discovered today, while beginning this article, that in Great Britain and Ireland (and other northern countries) summer follows weather, or meteorological time. In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream the play takes place during the shortest night of the year, June 21, although this is not, in meteorological time, mid summer. That would be mid July.

However, in North America we start our summer with the summer solstice, June 21, which, I think, makes more sense because it marks the longest day of the year, and even though the days begin to slowly grow shorter after the summer solstice, June, July, and August are the months with the longest days of the year overall. School time, of course, summer begins when school gets out, or, on the average, Memorial Day, the last Monday in May. In the Southern Hemisphere our summer is their winter; so June 21 for them is the winter solstice.

Pentecost

Liturgically, in the summer, the Church lives in the season of Pentecost. On Pentecost Sunday we celebrate the Birthday of the Church, the Day the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of Truth, descended on the fearful Apostles and changed hesitant men into roaring lions for Christ.

“And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a mighty wind coming, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them parted tongues as it were of fire, and it sat upon every one of them: And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they began to speak with divers tongues, according as the Holy Ghost gave them to speak” (Acts 2:2).

The Holy Spirit, who is everywhere, made His presence known in this place, in this city of Jerusalem, in this house of the family of Saint Mark, in this Upper Room of the house where the Holy Eucharist was instituted, by way of a “mighty wind” and “fire.”

Pentecost, by El Greco

Pentecost, by El Greco

Fire

The sun in the summer is high in the sky and gives off its greatest light and heat during the season of Pentecost. The sun is fire, and without fire there is no light and no heat. There is a trinity in all created things. Light proceeds from the fire, as the Son from the Father, and heat proceeds from the fire and light, as the Holy Spirit proceeds from Father and Son as Love.

Why did the Third Person of the Trinity appear as tongues of fire upon the heads of the Apostles? What is it about this material element, or rather, its manifestation as light and heat, which makes it so spiritual that indeed, although invisible itself, all material things must be seen by means of it and, although unfelt itself, makes all things warm that are touched by it. Fire, by its nature, is material, but it is the closest of all material things to immaterial realities.

The Greek Philosophers on Change and the Causes of Change

Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, who lived around the fifth century B.C., was convinced that fire was cause of everything in the cosmos. He was one of many philosophers of that time who studied at Ionia (Miletus, in today’s western coast of Turkey) at the school founded by Thales, the father of western philosophy. The thinkers of that Eleatic school, as it was called, were looking for the ultimate causes of the material universe, and they were stuck in the material realm until Anaxagoras came along. He came up with the idea that nous, or mind, was the ultimate reality that formed all things, and that purpose (telos) was behind the order in the cosmos. However, Plato said that he fell short of attributing design, and, therefore, knowledge to his nous. The Greeks, among others, believed that there were four ultimate elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Thales thought that water was the ultimate element from which all things arise and participate in. Anaxamenes thought that air was the basic element. Heraclitus considered it to be fire, because, he said all things are in flux and always changing and fire underlies all change. He was the first philosopher to use the term logos (reason or word) although he did not rise to the spiritual realm with that concept as Plato did later. For him, logos, was creative of all things, but still material, although utterly ethereal, containing all things, even opposites.

This kind of speculation may not seem very brilliant to us, but we must remember that the ancient Greeks were pagans and had no knowledge of holy scripture, hence creation from nothing by an Omnipotent God. By the light of reason alone they were unable to entertain the concept of a beginning (creation), believing that matter, even if formless, or chaotic, was eternal and infinite. In fact one of their philosophers, Anaxamander, posited that the cosmos arose out a force that was limitless and infinite. He was a fascinating thinker and studied directly under Thales. He was, among many other things, an astronomer and mathematician and he calculated solstices and equinoxes. He had a peculiar theory that the Earth, which he held to be cylindrical, was orbited by a revolving dome that was punctured with holes and that outside the dome was fire, hence the stars were merely small holes in the canopy and the sun was a big one. Nevertheless, I was always impressed by Heraclitus, whose errors, like other Greek philosophers, helped the advance of natural wisdom as much as his correct theories. If we understand by “fire,” in Heraclitus’ thought, the reality of “change,” then that element takes on a deeper significance that mere flames, light, and heat.

Fire in Nature

But enough of that. It is fire that I wish to write about, albeit briefly, in its relation to our Faith. The word “fire” in holy scripture is used analogously and really, spiritually and physically. When Jesus said, “I am come to cast fire on the earth; and what will I, but that it be kindled? (Luke 12:49), He was, of course, speaking analogously of spiritual fire. As was His Precursor, John the Baptist, when he told the penitents who had come to his baptism: “I indeed baptize you in the water unto penance, but he that shall come after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; he shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire” (Matt. 3:11).

Heraclitus made a good point when he spoke of the power of this incandescent, or flaming, combustion of fuel and oxygen, that seems to defy an adequate definition. Physical fire is not limited to what we are familiar with everyday; lightning is fire; and the sun and stars are fire, but much hotter than the flames that end up as carbon gas in our ordinary experience.

The fire of the sun is the cause of almost all energy related substantial change: photosynthesis and evaporation, which give us plant life and rain; without CO2 in the atmosphere and H2O plants would not live, nor animals, nor man. Carbon dioxide is what plants take in to grow (call it plant “respiration”) like our lungs do air. We exhale CO2 on account of our 98.6 degree body’s fire. What we produce in CO2 is not enough for plant life, but it helps. Volcanoes certainly exude a lot, as do forest fires, and all decomposing fossil fuels.

Fire in Supernature

Point being: fire changes things. When Jesus calls us to penance, and fills the world with the grace for all men to amend their lives, He likens it to casting fire upon the earth. We need the fire of grace from the Spirit of Christ to do penance and “change our minds” as the Greek word for penance, metanoia, implies. The sacrament of baptism does even more. The baptized become members of the Mystical Body of Christ and are “washed” (baptizein, in Greek, means “to wash”) from all sin by the fire of the Holy Ghost. That is why John the Baptist was so excited about Jesus’ baptism, which was far greater than his. As the church teaches us, the grace of baptism (and all the sacraments) works ex opere operato, from the act itself of receiving the sacrament; all that is needed for those with personal (and original) sin is Faith and sorrow for sin, and all sin and punishment due to sin is wiped out. That’s a change worthy of supernatural fire, isn’t it? How much of a change? How about being translated from mere children of Adam to becoming children of God and heirs to the kingdom of heaven!

When we see or feel fire we stand away from it lest we get burnt. For all the good that it does for us, it can also kill us. But God has other things that he does with material fire, and you will be surprised to know what He does.

He sometimes manifested His presence in the Old Testament by fire. God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, and that fire, although material with flames and all, did not consume the bush. The laws of nature were suspended by the Author of nature, so that Moses would realize who it was who was speaking to him. A pillar of fire led Moses and the Israelites through the desert nights on their way to the Promised Land. An angel from heaven took a burning coal from heaven’s thurible and purified the lips of Isaias the prophet with it. This fire did no harm, but purified him. And, speaking about suspending the laws of nature, when God punished Pharaoh and the Egyptians for refusing to allow the Israelites to depart their land, one of His punishments was fiery hail. How could hail be on fire? Well, God can make anything, except a contradiction, which is not a thing. Fiery hail is not a contradiction, as would be dry rain, or a square circle.

“And the hail and fire mixed with it drove on together: and it was of so great bigness, as never before was seen in the whole land of Egypt since that nation was founded. And the hail destroyed through all the land of Egypt all things that were in the fields, both man and beast: and the hail smote every herb of the field, and it broke every tree of the country” (Exodus 9:24&25).

Purifying Fire

So fire, material fire, can purify. This is what the fire in purgatory does. It purifies the souls waiting there to be taken as perfect vessels to heaven. Even here on earth fire purifies, as you know. Pure iron is extracted from impurities in iron ore by fire, and iron is purified by fire again to make steel. Iron and brass were being produced by Adam’s grandson Tubalcain. Even steel is mentioned in the Bible (Jeremais 15:12). Today there’s about 1300 million tons of it produced annually.

How does material fire purify souls? Well, we know that it cannot consume souls because the soul is spiritual and immortal. How then does it torment a soul in purgatory? First of all one must realize that the torments of the fire in purgatory are of a different kind than the fiery torments of hell. The fire is material in both places, but in purgatory the suffering souls have holy joy, and they desire to suffer. They know that they will see God and they also know that, although their guilt has been erased by confession, they must be “refined” spiritually from all the dross that the effects of personal sin has stained their wills with. This is why we pray after Holy Communion at Mass that the Body and Blood of Jesus will “cleave” to our very entrails (literally, yes, that is what the Latin viscera means) and wash away “every stain of sin that remains” in us.

I do not claim to understand why God chose fire to purify holy and imperfect souls in the next life, but I do know this, and I’ve been repeating it all along: Fire changes things! It cannot change a soul substantially, like it could a mortal body, but it can change a soul accidentally, by refining it. Therefore, it is better to refer to the punishments in purgatory as a chastisement. Chastisement is medicinal for the soul; it is inflicted in order to bring about change for the better. This is what Saint Paul meant when he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire” (3: 12-15).

Hell Fire

The fire in hell does not purify, but it torments in just punishment. It is not a chastisement. These torments are not the essential punishment of hell, but the accidental. The essential punishment of hell is the pain of separation from God, the pain of loss. To miss out, through one’s own fault, on the end for which one was created, the eternal vision of God, is the greatest of all pains that the damned suffer. Some of the more modern opinions proffer that the misery of the damned lies in that they have to live forever with the choice they made final at death to reject the love of God. This is, of course, true. But it is only one side of the coin of misery. The other side, the worse pain, is knowing that in opting for this final act of rebellion, the damned “feel” the turning away of the face of God from them. No, they do not see the face of God in His essence, but they do see the face of Christ the God-Man at their particular judgment. They do experience, and that forever, the horror of His just sentence: “Depart from Me.” And, this is yet another torment, their self-knowledge. They know their sentence is just. They see their own state of perpetual rebellion, which accuses them of a fixed will of preferring to continue in their sins even if they had the opportunity of a thousand more years of life, of two thousand, of a million.

But I am speaking here of fire. How does material fire torment an evil spirit or a human soul? For that matter, after the resurrection of the body, how does fire torment an immortal body in hell, since it does not consume the material substance and does not feed off any fuel. Tough questions, for sure. Nor are there any sufficient answers; for the fire in hell, although material, does not manifest the same nature as that with which we are familiar. The fire in hell, or so say the saints who have seen it, does not give off light. Our Lord referred to hell as “the exterior darkness,” “everlasting fire,” where “the worm dieth not,” and where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This does not mean that every one who is damned suffers in the same degree. Hell has its own “mansions,” some far more wretched than others. Even when it comes to the fire, not every person in hell is roasting over the flames. What the children of Fatima saw and what Saint Theresa of Avila describes below, is the place where the vast majority of the damned are tormented, each according to their particular vice or vices. But there could be other places in hell where the fire is not burning the unrepentant sinners from within but where it acts from without, tormenting the person by way of ligation. So, says Saint Thomas. The fire acts upon these less evil creatures as would the walls of a prison, afflicting them by way of confinement. But still, and justly, a most horrific end that will never end.

Saint Theresa describes her vision of hell:

“A long time after the Lord had already granted me many of the favors I’ve mentioned and other very lofty ones, while I was in prayer one day, I suddenly found that, without knowing how, I had seemingly been put in hell. I understood that the Lord wanted me to see the place the devils had prepared there for me and which I merited because of my sins. This experience took place within the shortest space of time, but even were I to live for many years I think it would be impossible for me to forget it. The entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the floor seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition. All of this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there. What I have described can hardly be exaggerated. What I felt, it seems to me, cannot even begin to be exaggerated; nor can it be understood. I experienced a fire in the soul that I don’t know how I could describe. The bodily pains were so unbearable that though I had suffered excruciating ones in this life and according to what doctors say, the worst that can be suffered on earth for all my nerves were shrunken when I was paralyzed, plus many other sufferings of many kinds that I endured and even some as I said, caused by the devil, these were all nothing in comparison with the ones I experienced there. I saw furthermore that they would go on without end and without ever ceasing. This, however, was nothing next to the soul’s agonizing: a constriction, a suffocation, an affliction so keenly felt and with such a despairing and tormenting unhappiness that I don’t know how to word it strongly enough. To say the experience is as though the soul were continually being wrested from the body would be insufficient, for it would make you think somebody else is taking away the life, whereas here it is the soul itself that tears itself in pieces. The fact is that I don’t know how to give a sufficiently powerful description of that interior fire and that despair, coming in addition to such extreme torments and pains. I didn’t see who inflicted them on me, but, as it seemed to me, I felt myself burning and crumbling; and, I repeat, the worst was that interior fire and despair. Being in such an unwholesome place, so unable to hope for any consolation, I found it impossible either to sit down or to lie down, nor was there any room, even though they put me in this kind of hole made in the wall. Those walls, which were terrifying to see, closed in on themselves and suffocated everything. There was no light, but all was enveloped in the blackest darkness. I don’t understand how this could be, that everything painful to see was visible.” [Source: The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume 1, Chapter 32: paragraphs: 1,2,3.]

This is the beginning of wisdom, to fear God. First, to have a servile fear of Him, then, after growing in love, to arrive at a filial fear, which is to fear offending God on account of His goodness, rather than His punishments. “But I will shew you whom you shall fear: fear ye him, who after he hath killed, hath power to cast into hell. Yea, I say to you, fear him.” (Luke 12:5).

Holy Fire

Surely, even a greater mystery than fire serving as an everlasting or temporary torment in the next life is fire serving unto glory. I do not know if the saints who spoke of such holy fire, as it burned within them, were speaking of the element analogously or in its reality, but I am inclined to think that it was both real and symbolic. Saint Francis Xavier used to have to splash cold water on his breast to relieve the intense heat that he felt inside when God would strike a chord in his heart in one wayward pulsation of divine love. There were numerous times where witnesses saw him do this in public, when the fire in his heart was so torrid that he could not wait until he had found some privacy. Another saint who had to deal with a similar “problem” was Saint Philip Neri. When he assisted at Holy Mass, the fire in his heart used to cause the beating pulsations to become so violent, that not only his body but the walls of the church would shake. During one particularly alarming episode, a fireball was seen to shoot through the church’s ceiling and down into the mouth of the saint then out his chest and back through the roof. Philip collapsed in agony. The ball of fire had burst through his ribs, opening them wide beneath the skin, thus providing his passionate heart more room to express its intense fervor.  Then, there was Saint Catherine of Siena. While in ecstasy that seraph of love once cried out: “My nature is fire!”

The Holy Ghost, Author of Grace, used tongues of fire as a symbol of His transforming presence when He filled the hearts of the Twelve Apostles with the fire of the virtue and power of His seven Gifts. The seven Gifts are not habits in the soul, as are the three theological Virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity, but they are given, infused, to prompt the receiver to holy action. They are like a spark; hence they ignite, like a spark, like a flame, like tongues of fire. “I am come to cast fire on the earth.”

The highest choir of angels are called seraphim. It is a Hebrew word, derived from sarap, which means “to burn.” Each of the nine choirs performs some service to God that befits their class. The seraphim are the highest lovers of God among the angels; they reflect in the highest brilliance the Nature of God, which is Love. The seraphim ceaselessly praise God in unending chorus: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts (Armies). Heaven and Earth are full of Your glory.” It was a seraph who took a burning coal and purified the lips of Isaias, who had seen two of these angels each with six wings, chanting in a song of praise before the thrown of the King of Glory in heaven.

As we live our Faith during this season of Pentecost, let us renew at times the vows of our baptism as we did during the Easter vigil. Let us deeply desire, as we pray, that the Holy Ghost truly “come” and truly “fill” our hearts, and the hearts of our neighbors in Christ. Baptize us again, O Lord, not, of course, sacramentally, for we can only be born again once, but by Your purging fire. Through Your sanctifying power, may we be worthy flames in that holy conflagration which Jesus came to cast upon the earth.

  • Thomas Donnelly

    In the northern hemisphere, the summer solstice, approximately 21 June, is the day when the sun spends the longest time above the horizon, since the sun is then at its greatest northern declination (angular distance from the celestial equator). Since the total duration of a ‘day’ is constant at about 24 hours, days and nights have a reciprocal relationship. That is, when days are long, nights are necessarily short. The shortest night thefore also occurs on the longest ‘day’, when the sun spends the longest time above the horizon–21 June. If Shakespeare really believed that the longest night occurs on 1 June, then he was quite befuddled, since the relevant astronomical facts have been known since ancient times.

  • Brian Kelly

    Thanks Tom. My mistake. I misapplied what I read in an encyclopedia article concerning A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Obviously Shakespeare did not believe, as I mistakenly put it, that June 1 was the “shortest” night of the year. It’s easy to type an error in such things, as you can see that you yourself did, in writing “longest night” on 1 June, when you meant to write “shortest,” which is what I wrote. In any event my error as to “June 1” has been corrected to “June 21,” which is the date given in the encyclopedia entry. That, too, is erroneous, as mid-summer, in meteorological time, would be mid-July, not June 21.