Although the response to the Contemplative Path programme has been keeping us online and in touch with the meditators around the world, we have been living a regular, quiet life here at Bonnevaux. But yesterday I disturbed the peace by setting off the fire alarm in the house trying to light a fire in the fireplace in my study because it suddenly got colder here. My failed attempt produced clouds of smoke that blew inwards rather than up the chimney. I thought I had learned by now how to start a fire with wood in a small fireplace. But once again I discovered again how little I know and how easy it is to repeat mistakes.
Of course, to light a fire you start with paper. How much to lay down is always a difficult decision to make. Then you add kindling, small pieces of wood or cardboard. You can’t be sure the wood is dry enough and sometimes it rejects your advances to ignite it. The firelighters I then add are annoyingly temperamental and usually go out as soon as you place anything on top of them. Or. they fall between the wood and the paper and I attempt to save the fire by lighting the paper. This produces an initial gratifying blaze and a flickering sense of achievement. I feel successful, or to be honest, just lucky. But it is a false hope.
Some of the small pieces of wood eventually catch fire half-heartedly. I hope this will spread to the larger pieces of wood that I have waiting nearby to add. As I am very impatient, I usually put the bigger logs on the new flames too quickly. I hope, I imagine, I pray they will catch the fire. But after a while everything dies down. I have made too much of a demand on the small flames and expected too much. Soon there are just a few burning embers left. At this point it’s easy to despair. It’s not a big issue in life, lighting a fire, but the smallest disappointment can trigger darker moments of despair. Just misplacing your car keys can trigger a series of previous more painful losses in your life. Why not just switch on the electric fire?
But my Irish determination fights against despair. I run outside to pick up a new supply of small pieces of wood. When I get back the embers are almost dead, but I carefully put the new kindling on top of them. I throw in one of the useless firelighters as well. What’s there to lose? Lying on the floor I blow long and hard into the glowing embers and eventually a few glorious flames appear. Encouraging but not to be trusted.
An hour or so later, after frequent interventions and near-death experiences, the fire is burning merrily. The secret of course is not what you put on top but what lies underneath. When the foundation of the fire is hot and glowing, anything you add will be consumed. Fire like love consumes what it feeds on. There is a glorious union and then it’s over. The room is almost too warm and it’s time for bed.
I won’t bore you with an explanation of this poor parable. I think it’s obvious. For Lent. For a pandemic. For daily meditation.