The Ones Who Burn

The seraphim angels that ring God’s throne are “the ones who burn.’” This came by text from a friend who spotted the “Burning World” issue of Parabola in a Whole Foods in Pittsburgh.  “Why do those closest to God have to burn?” I texted back (my friend has spent the last several years studying Christian theology).  Do people think of this when they pray to be close to God? My friend sent a text quoting C.S. Lewis, “Why should heaven be boring?”

Yet we do make heaven boring, at least I do.  In my midnight projections, I am not just free from anxiety and stress about work and money, I am standing still and serene on a heavenly higher ground above all struggle and uncertainty.  I have been around Parabola long enough to know that in Christianity, in Judaism, in Greek mythology, in many religions and ways, to behold God (or the gods, in the case of Greek mythology) is to be incinerated in one way or another.  To be close to Truth is to burn.  Instead of glossing over this detail which is embedded in many cultures and in the ages, can I accept it investigate it, maybe even embrace it?

Take this down, many notches from God to our own particular human situations. Notice that seeing the truth does sometimes burn.  What burns and exactly when?  The false “I” burns, and at those moments when we see that we are not what we dream we are, not what we want to project to the world that we are, when we catch ourselves being small.  Sometimes life shows us how bound we are by our conditioning–not even integrated creatures but a collection of disparate pieces.  And in those moments, we burn, not with the usual egocentric fire the Buddhists label as “greed, hatred, and delusion” but with a purifying internal fire, a fire that sheds light.  We can burn with embarrassment or a kind of being shame—or even with a kind of quiet and holy remorse of conscience, which  the spiritual teacher Gurdjieff called the most sacred kind of intelligence.  Conscience is an intelligence that relates us to the whole.

More and more, I am growing to appreciate how great fiction can capture the inner drama of such moments.  One cold night last week, I watched Martin Scorsese’s film version of “The Age of Innocence,” Edith Wharton’s great novel of high society in Old New York in the 1870’s.  The film sweeps us through opulent scenes–evenings at the opera, archery contests on Newport lawns, lavish dances and dinners—yet its tale of love experienced and lost is very wrenching and timeless.  Viewing it, I understand why Henry James and is friends gave Wharton nicknames like the Eagle and the Angel of Devastation.   She shows the truths that burn.

The great Scorsese was lauded for being exquisitely faithful to the novel. (Mr. Scorsese happens to be a Parabola reader and I like to think that his exquisite sensitivity is reflected in his reading Parabola). The hero of “The Age of Innocence,” Newland Archer (played in the film by Daniel Day-Lewis), is engaged to May Welland (Winona Ryder), the innocent and shallow girl his society wants him to marry. But Newland falls in love with Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), an interesting, independent woman who is never really accepted by Newland’s tribe – and that tribe that smoothly closes ranks to keep the lovers apart.

At the time of the film’s release, Francine Prose wrote about the thrill of watching “Newland discover, Columbus-like, the existence of female intelligence. We see a man schooled to value May Welland’s goodness, docility and malleability slowly realize that he prefers Countess Olenska, a woman with experience, wit, even her own opinions.”  Watching it a decade later, I was startled by how well it captures the way we are all trapped by conditions—not by class and social custom but by human nature itself.  We are conditioned.  “The Age of Innocence”—the book and the film–is art and not life.  Yet it conveys those moments in life when we see what is yet also see that we are inextricably bound by our conditioning, that as we cannot change.

Near the end of the film and the book, Newland learns that the Countess Olenska is moving back to Europe.  At a farewell party organized by May, now his wife, we watch Newland’s ordinary “I” drown in a flurry of unexpected impressions.  Newland suddenly sees that in the eyes of his world he is not the self-sacrificing man he dreams he is.  In the words of the novel, “to all of them he and Madame Olenska were lovers. . . . He guessed himself to have been, for months, the center of countless silently observing eyes and patiently listening ears, he understood that, by means as yet unknown to him, the separation between himself and the partner of his guilt had been achieved, and that now the whole tribe had rallied about his wife on the tacit assumption that nobody knew anything, or had ever imagined anything . . . ”

Nothing has ever happened between the two and nothing ever will. The heart burns, watching the scene because life is like this.  It slips away while we yearn and dream we have control.  Yet, thankfully, in real life in the midst of such a searing kind of seeing, a new energy can appear, a new willingness to open to what is.  These are “clearings” when real change is possible. We notice that we were living in a world of thought, of illusion, and see beyond.   There is a flash of direct perception—a seeing through “truths” we have become attached to—that can lead to an opening of the heart.  Sometimes, at such a moment it can feel like a new influence is flowing in.  There can be forgiveness, a letting go and transcending of all that was previously held to be true in order to take our place in a greater wholeness.  We can love and accept ourselves and others as we are, not caring about the judgments of others.

A moment like this, accepting what is without illusion, greed, or aversion, can be wildly freeing and creative. As J.K. Rowling said in a speech at Harvard, in June 2008:  “An so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” In such a moment we begin to know who we really are and what we can trust.  As Goethe said (at least according to Google): “All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.


14 thoughts on “The Ones Who Burn

  1. So if there is a path out of delusion as esoteric teachings say, how am I to make use of this fire of seeing? I sometimes have moments when some small part of the enormity of my foolishness is revealed. What is necessary for this a small bit of seeing to be integrated into my whole? Usually the seeing is just in one part of me, often in my thinking mind or sometimes in my feeling. What of my body? And the other part (thinking or feeling)? A connection between all three is rare. What can I bring to the moment that will help? Right now it is easy for me to say that the sensation of my body and its tensions, how I am, and a wish to accept what I see are necessary and quite another matter when I am exposed and a large part of me wants to hide and sweep the truth into a convenient name.
    There is always the urge to as Dylan said “shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means”

    1. I like that Dylan quote, Bruce! When I was young, I really liked to dig ditches of meaning (I majored in English Literature). Now that I’m not so young, I’m not so sure we really can bring anything more to the moment–I think we are brought. I mean, I think the depth of our experience in the moment has to do with our availability–but I don’t think we can make ourselves more available in the moment. I think it has to do with prior experience and the conviction that comes with it. Experience–impressions–change us and make us more available (or not). What do you think?

      1. I firmly believe that we have the possibility of doing something in every moment of our life. Otherwise it would all be just a clockwork and meaningless. That said, it is also my experience that my freedom of action is extremely limited and a function of my past experience and previous impressions of myself. Most times all that is possible is to catalog my state of tension and disconnectedness.
        It is all a matter of preparation. Making efforts of observation which have no immediate payoff, no Ah ha! But these seemingly mundane and pointless struggles slowly grind down the egoism and attachment to results that are the barrier separating us from being in the moment.

      2. Hi Bruce, It is all about preparation and practice, isn’t it? When I meditate, I practice being open to an awareness that is greater than thought. I’ve heard that in Buddhism, there is a special place of free will, an unconditioned zone. In the midst of our conditioning, there is always one place or interval that is open, if we are prepared–the space between what arises inside and outside and how we react. No matter what is happening and how we feel, we potentially have freedom about how we react.

  2. Yes, it is true. we can have moments of utter desolation when we look at our shadow and find those parts of ourselves that we have hitherto disowned.

    . “There is a flash of direct perception—a seeing through “truths” we have become attached to—that can lead to an opening of the heart. Sometimes, at such a moment it can feel like a new influence is flowing in. There can be forgiveness, a letting go and transcending of all that was previously held to be true in order to take our place in a greater wholeness. We can love and accept ourselves and others as we are, not caring about the judgments of others.”

    Until we get to this point, we are not really living. It’s just more ignorance.
    and, as we know, “The truth will set us free.”
    Thanks, Tracy!

  3. One of my favorite movies of all time! I like your article! Staying present with myself comes in little flashes lately, and I long to sit with myself for extended periods, but I work as a psychotherapist. Is it all about me or just me? What the hey? I’m too busy with others. :D

    1. Hi Marylouise, Staying present with myself can feel radical, even selfish. But those flashes of being present are the times I can really be there for others.

  4. As I see it there is the burning of seeing and that can potentially lead to conscience. Then there is the burning of love alluded to by the seraphim angels that we rarely if ever experience.

    I doubt if we could ever experience the depth of heart and allow this quality of burning love, the love of God, without the help of conscience that opens one to it

  5. This reminds me of a book , ‘A Journey in Ladakh’
    The author finds himself stripped of what he knew to be himself, yet he cannot see it. The rinpoche in the book says “You are more open than you know, your suffering has made you open.” For a while, I didn’t quite understand.. but I have realized that the somber feeling that comes with failure of an expectation causes you to slow a little, to look at the empty space in your stomach that you feel and really take a while to notice it. Excitement and giddiness, those kinds of happiness can sometimes be veils. When you have the feeling inside of loss, of emptiness, then you know you can fill it with something new.

  6. Hudson, I agree. To be still and move into the emptiness is an important step in burning away the false self. To be present in the emptiness is the first step in true understanding both yourself and the love of God that truly burns for you.

  7. Tracy, as a Christian believer, I would point to the recurring image of fire throughout scripture as a testimony to who God is, so holy and pure that his presence burns. Here are a few of the Biblical allusions: 1) God’s covenant with Abraham is sealed with the movement of God as a burning, smoking pot through a gauntlet of sacrificed animals – cut in half as a symbol to both sides commitment to that everlasting covenant; 2) Moses seeing God in the Burning Bush – a fire that Burns but does not Consume; 3) God moving with the tribes of Israel through the exodus as a pillar of smoke and flame – revealed, yet hidden; 4) Elijah, on Mt. Carmel, witnessing the obliteration of the priests of Baal but divine fire sent down from God; 5) Elijah, riding on a whirlwind to heaven on a chariot of fire pulled by burning horses; 6) Ezekiel – dumbfounded and seeking words to explain the unexplainable as he sees God’s Glory leaving the Temple – describes “something like” amber glowing through smoke – shrouded fire?; 7 ) The descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, ringing the apostles and connecting them with something like “tongues of fire”. Burning, burning, burning of Holiness.

    St. John of the Cross also talks of the Dark Night of the Soul that comes from being so close to the blinding light of God that all is darkness – mystery. A fire so bright that it is dark.


  8. I’m a bit behind, and this may not get poseted until after Tracy’s return. Still, I am reminded of these words from the play After the Fall, by Arthur Miller, and that is only when we reach the dept of sorrow and are empty ourselves that be come open to the infinite possibility of love and compassion. We catch a glimpse of heaven I think and the transforming fire that burns away many of our illusions.

    Arthur Miller – After the Fall – Copyright 1964, Renewed 1992

    Taken from the acting version of the play, as performed by the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, and from one of my father’s sermons that he first preached when I was a boy of 11 or 12, the words have remained with me all through these years like an old friend.

    “After the Fall, was first performed in the Lincoln Center Repertory Company, New York City, on January 23, 1964.

    The action takes place in the mind, thought, and memory of Quentin, many say this is Arthur Miller and Maggie was Marilyn Monroe, his former wife.

    Except for one chair there is no furniture in the conventional sense; there are no walls or substantial boundaries. The setting consists of three levels rising to the highest at the back, crossing in a curve from one side of the stage to the other. Rising above it, and dominating the stage, is the blasted stone tower of a German concentration camp. Its wide lookout windows are like eyes which at the moment seem blind and dark; bent reinforcing rods stick out of it like broken tentacles.

    On the two lower levels are sculpted areas; indeed, the whole effect is Neolithic, a lava-like, supple geography in which, like pits and hollows found in lava, the scenes take place. The mind has no color but its memories are brilliant against the grayness of its landscape. When people sit they do so on any of the abutments, ledges, or crevices. A scene may start in a confined area, but spread or burst out onto the entire stage, overrunning any other area……”

    We must understand that often life begins only after a moment of despair and even destruction, after we have reached the very depth of hell, after, after the Fall. So it is with the play throughout and as it comes to the end. Maggie has died of an overdose. Quentin is searching for his own being in the midst of this tragic death and the death of all those who died in the concentration camps. He speaks to Holga, one of the characters in the play, but he seems to be speaking to all of us.

    Quentin speaks:

    “But love, is love enough? What love, what weave of pity will ever reach this knowledge—I know how to kill?…I know, I know—she was doomed in any case, but will that cure? Or is it possible—He turns toward the tower, moves toward it as toward a terrible God—that this is not bizarre…to anyone? And I am not alone, and no man lives who would not rather be the sole survivor of this place than all its finest victims! What is the cure? Who can be innocent again on this mountain of skulls? I tell you what I know! My brothers died here— He looks from the tower down to the fallen Maggie.

    …And that, that’s why I wake each morning like a boy—even now, ever now! I swear to you, I could love the world again! It’s the knowing all? To know, and even happily, that we meet unblessed; not in some garden of wax fruit and painted trees, that lie of Eden, but after, after the Fall, after many, many deaths. Is the knowing all? And the wish to kill is never killed, but with some gift of courage one may look into its face when it appears, and with a stroke of love—as to an idiot in the house—forgive it; again and again…forever?”

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