Abba Lot went to Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?” The the old man rose, and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten candles: and he said: “If you will, you could become a living flame.”
Sometimes, in the midst of all the challenges of life; sometimes, when I feel that every endeavor is never enough; sometimes, I when just can’t take the tyranny of the ordinary … I wish that I too “could become a living flame.” I am no Abba Joseph, nor would I compare myself to Abba Lot. But something about this saying speaks to somewhere deep within my heart. I too try to “keep a moderate rule”—what more can I accomplish in the world? And yet, sometimes it isn’t enough for me. Not in the sense of despair, but more a zeal, I think, a realization that what I am, even at my best, is far short of what I can and ought to be. And I want to be more. I want to be “a living flame.”
This saying is notably, in my collection (see link above), in the section on constant prayer. While Abba Joseph in one sense connects this phenomenon with human will (“if you will”), nevertheless “his fingers shone like ten candles” when he “spread out his hands to heaven”—a traditional posture of prayer.
It is in prayer that such terror can be embraced and transformed. It is when we lay our hearts bare before God, or better, when we manage to be silent before him, that we can best appreciate the Scripture: “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
Yet this statement is still quite incredible. For someone who struggles to “keep a moderate rule,” the possibility of becoming “a living flame” can seem distant. But from within me, as if a soft, strong whisper sought to sooth my soul, I get the sense that, in fact, such a spectacular state might not be out of reach. Maybe even just at the tip of my fingers.
Today in the Orthodox Church we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. There is an interesting parallel between the Annunciation to the Virgin in the Gospel of Luke and the Ascension of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles (also written by St. Luke):
And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you…. (Luke 1:35)
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…. (Acts 1:8)
In the first instance, the Archangel Gabriel is speaking to the Theotokos (“Mother of God”), the Virgin Mary. He tells her that though she is a virgin she will conceive and give birth to the promised Messiah, who is the Son of God.
In the second passage, Christ himself, the Son of God and Son of the Virgin, tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until he sends them the promised Holy Spirit at Pentecost. He says this just before ascending into heaven and continuing his work on earth through the Church.
In both cases, however, there are clear parallels: the Holy Spirit will come upon someone, and they shall receive a gift of supernatural power. St. Luke seems to be saying: “The Church is like Mary, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, overshadowed by the power of God.”
Furthermore, if one takes the time to read the Greek version of the Old Testament (the one that St. Luke and the other New Testament writers most frequently quote from) one can see a clear connection between the Annunciation and the consecration of the Tabernacle and the Temple—the unique dwelling places of God on earth.
Thus, St. Luke is saying that the Theotokos and the Church are the Temple of God. He lives there, God lives there. The Holy Spirit indwells it; its members form the body of Christ; and the whole Church is the House of God the Father. This is the promise of the Ascension, fulfilled for the Church in Pentecost and for all Christians at their baptisms. As St. Peter says, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Our God, who is “a consuming fire,” indwells all those who have been baptized into his name and who embrace the Gospel call to repentance and faith, even as God indwelt and indwells the Holy Virgin. This is the basis of Christian mysticism, and this is how it is possible that one can “become a living flame.”
Though my will may, in truth, be weak—why don’t I pray more, and more fervently?—nevertheless, even for someone who only keeps “a moderate rule,” even for those of us who can only manage an everyday asceticism, we have the witness of Abba Joseph that “if you will, you could become a living flame.”