Setting Your Heart On Fire

I would like to share an old prayer from the Irish tradition with you. This prayer is called Fiery Creator of Fire and it was used at the lighting of the paschal candle. The prayer can be found in the Antiphony of Bangor, one of the oldest surviving liturgical texts from Ireland. This short manuscript was written in Bangor, a monastic community founded by Comgall. It was taken from Bangor to Bobbio, a monastery in what is now Italy, where it was preserved in their library.

There is an old connection between Bangor and Bobbio because of one famous monk named Columbanus. Columbanus was a student of Comgall who became a wandering monk. He left his home in Ireland and travelled around the continent in Europe, particularly in the area of France and Italy. Part of his wandering included the practice of establishing monasteries. Bobbio was one such monastery.

The prayer draws upon some beautiful symbolic imagery. The story of the Exodus is a main theme. Traditionally the Exodus story has been interpreted as an allegorical account of the spiritual journey. There is a deep and rich tradition around this idea, which we do not have the space here to get into. The short version is that Egypt is a symbol of slavery to sin and wandering in the desert is the path of healing which culminates in Moses’ encounter with God on the mountain. The prayer is using this kind of interpretation when it says, “You give two gifts to those of us who are wandering from Egypt. First you reveal the cloudy veil then the light which shines in the night.”

The primary symbol I want to explore, however, is about bees. At the end of the prayer it switches from talking about the Exodus to talking about the beeswax of the candle. The human heart was often referred to as a honeycomb in many Christian texts. It is a place where sweet things are stored away. Not everything which gets put away in the honeycomb of the heart is sweet, however. All sorts of things can find their way into our hearts.

John Cassian was a monk who travelled throughout the Egyptian wilderness learning from the desert mothers and fathers. He wrote down what he learned during his time there into two books which shaped the future of Western monasticism in general and Celtic monasticism in particular. In his book Institutes, he spoke about the honeycomb of the heart in the following way.

“The monk who, like a most prudent bee, is desirous of storing up spiritual honey must suck the flower of a particular virtue from those who possess it more intimately, and he must lay it up carefully in the vessel of his heart. He must not begrudge a person for what he has less of, but he must contemplate and eagerly gather up only the virtuousness that he possesses. For if we want to obtain all of them from a single individual, either examples will be hard to find or, indeed, there will be none that would be suitable for us to imitate.”

The vices and virtues which we gather from the people around us are stored up in the honeycomb of our hearts. The prayer associates this metaphor with the beeswax of the candle. By lighting the candle we are inviting the Holy Spirit to cleanse the honeycomb of our heart. When the candle is lit, we set our hearts on fire along with it.

If the candle itself is a symbol of our hearts, then the flame is a symbol of God. The ancients understood fire as the element of spirit. The fire of Pentecost is perhaps the best example of this in the scriptures themselves. Fire, in the form of heat and light, is everywhere and in everything. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit within us and around us.

The bible tells us that we are to be baptised by fire and the Spirit. The baptism by fire happens in the innermost recesses of our hearts, as fire is the innermost of all elements. It is the fire which does not consume what it illuminates but burns away all impurity. Eriugena described the relationship between fire and spirit like this:

“The spirit of fire, marvellous and closest to the rareness of spirit, simple, pure, and removed from every corporeal sense, not only fills and encompasses all the spaces of the world, but even passes through the very thinnest of air because of its exceeding subtlety and likeness to incorporeal natures, for it is the innermost of all elements.”

The candle is a symbol of the honeycomb of the heart, which is filled with things we have packed away deep inside our souls. The flame which burns the candle is a symbol of God, who purifies our hearts. Keep that in mind as you read the Fiery Creator of Fire below. This is how the prayer appears in my upcoming book Psalter of the Birds, where it has been arranged for chanting.

God of fire who created fire
        God of light who gives us light
God of life who is the author of life
        God of salvation who is our saviour

In case our lamps grow dim this evening
        And lose the joys of this night
Give us your light in our hearts
       Since you do not want us to die

You give two gifts to those of us
        Who are wandering from Egypt 
First you reveal the cloudy veil
        Then the light which shines in the night
	
You use a pillar of cloud in the day
	To give shade to people as they wander
You use a pillar of fire in the evening
	To drive out the darkness with light

You speak to your servant from within the fire
	You do not reject the thornbush
Even though you are a consuming flame
        You do not burn that which you illuminate

The cloudy beeswax, which is their bread
	Must now be consumed, burning away impurity
And the flesh of wax will start to glow
	In the radiance of the Holy Spirit

The divine honey is put away
	In the hidden recesses of the comb
You have cleansed the inner cells of the heart
	Filling them with the your sweet word

So that the next generation of the swarm
	Who have been chosen by your Spirit
May leave behind every burden and win heaven
	Now that their wings are free from care 

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