October Letter from Revd Malcolm DoneyOctober 7, 2021
Time to light the fire?
I’m a bit ambivalent about autumn. What I dislike about it is the retreating light, and the encroaching, damp, chilliness. But the glowing colours of the turning leaves are sensational, and the lure of hibernation is comforting.
Autumn is also the season of bonfires. The crackling flames and the heady smell of wood smoke is a joy. I love a good outdoor fire. Indoors too. Home and hearth is a huge symbol of warmth, security, home, comfort. Any story with home-loving creatures like hobbits and badgers and beavers in it has a fire where you can toast your toes and your crumpets.
But this cosy notion of the fire is pretty remote to the way that fire often appears in the Bible. In most Bible stories, fire is a fearsome thing which brings death, and destruction. Fire is attached to the idea of the unreachable, dangerous, God. It is untouchable, holy. It creates distance, not intimacy. “God is a consuming fire”, says the New Testament Book of Hebrews.
Israel’s early prophet and leader Moses – while herding sheep –comes across a bush that’s on fire, yet not consumed by the flames. If that isn’t scary enough, then the bush starts talking to him! Moses doesn’t know what to do with himself. He finds himself faced with the God of no explanations, the God of otherness. This God warns Moses to remove his shoes, because he is standing on holy ground. “I am who I am,” the Almighty tells him, mysteriously.
I was brought up with holy, ‘out there’ God, a forbidding, stern, capricious, interventionist God who was not easy to please, and often disappointed by my poor performance. And it’s been important for me to explore other images of God which are more welcoming, more accepting. One of the most important things to the development of my faith is to find that God is also woven into the very fabric of the universe.
The marvellous Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas seems to take this on board in his poem The Bush. It’s a very nuanced piece, with many layers, but –appropriately for this time of year – he talks of the staggering beauty of autumnal colours and the mystery and succour they provide:
I know that bush,
Moses; there are many of them
in Wales in the autumn braziers
where the imagination
warms itself. I have put off
pride and, knowing the ground
holy, lingered to wonder
how it is that I do not burn
and yet am consumed.
It’s the beauty that consumes him. The blazing leaves and the very earth itself, say the same thing that the burning bush said to Moses, “I am who I am”. It fires Thomas’s imagination.
This autumn, as we walk through the fallen leaves and melt marshmallows in the bonfire, it’s worth remembering that this is holy ground. But maybe don’t take your shoes off.