A recurring dream used to visit me for a while when I was a teenager. I have never forgotten it and have sometimes wondered whether it was in some mysterious way picking up one of the underlying signs of the times. First I must explain that our home was just next door to a large Roman Catholic church with a commodious presbytery. A narrow public footpath separated it from our garden, but for me it might as well have been an electric fence. I grew up in a district that was staunchly—although not militantly—Protestant. None of us children would have dreamed of entering that church, any more than the few Roman Catholics who lived in the neighborhood would have dreamed of entering ours.
I was about 13 when my dream began to occur almost nightly. I would dream that the church across the path was on fire. I can still almost feel the heat of the blaze, so vivid were the images. When I awoke in the morning I would rush to the window, expecting to see the church reduced to ashes. But, of course, the church was always still standing there, unscathed. I began to think of it as a kind of burning bush. It seemed little short of a miracle, and however often the dream came, I never lost my sense of amazement that the church had survived the night.
It was many years later that I realized that my dream had come not so long before Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council. Was it just the dream of an overactive adolescent mind, or was it, just possibly, a little bit prophetic? Who knows what happens in the deeper layers of our psyche as we sleep?
Today a different kind of fire is sweeping through the church: flames of betrayal, dark smoke of concealment and evasion and racing winds of escalating fury. What kind of fire might this be? When forest fires rage through the Australian bush, they leave utter devastation in their wake and claim many innocent victims. Yet the seeds of the eucalyptus trees cannot burst open and germinate until they are exposed to the intensity of heat that only a forest fire can generate.
What brings death and destruction also brings new life that would not be possible otherwise. It is a purgatorial fire, a refining fire, stripping down the bush to its bare bones but also releasing a new generation of possibility. Is it a purgatorial fire that is sweeping through the church in our times? If so, what will survive and what will perish? Can the flames of this purgatory become, in God’s grace, the fire of a new Pentecost?
A jeweler friend told me of her visit to a silversmith. He had demonstrated how the silver ore is held in the heat of the refining fire until it is purified. “How do you know when it has been long enough in the fire?” she asked. “That’s easy,” replied the silversmith. “When the silver is fully refined, I can see my own image in it. Then I know it has been in the fire long enough.” How long will it take before God can look into the church and see God’s own image reflected back?
But if these large and dramatic images are too terrifying to contemplate, let me share a more intimate glimpse of Pentecostal fire. At a retreat center near Chicago the conference organizer lit a bonfire in the courtyard and invited us to gather round and simply get in touch with what the fire evoked in us. Meanwhile a drummer beat out an insistent rhythm, more and more urgently as the fire burned down. Just as the last of the fire subsided into ash, the drumbeat reached a climax, then stopped abruptly.
We sat in the silence, each making our own connections. Then came the miracle: the fire had died, but all around the place where it had been flew thousands of fireflies, like living sparks, each emitting tiny flashes of light. It was as if small but power-packed seeds had been born out of the ashes of the old and moribund—a vision of a new integrity thrusting forth from the grass roots around a blasted oak.
The full power of the fire—be it purgatorial or Pentecostal—is beyond our comprehension. But the fireflies remind us that we all have the light of Christ within us and the power to choose to let it shine, in our own personal way, upon a world increasingly lost in darkness. Every choice for the path of greater integrity in our own circumstances is a spark that can help turn dream into reality and purgatory into Pentecost.