Fire, Stone and Living Faith: the Mystery of Transformation

[Michael Kelly and John Stasio will be hosting this years’ Advent retreat, Divine Love in Human Flesh – Reclaiming the Season of Advent for Gay Christians – Dec 4-6] It’s late afternoon on a wild, cold day in early winter. I sit looking out over the stormy bay, watching the night closing in more swiftly and surely as the Winter Solstice approaches, and I find myself thinking about the dark times of life.

In many ways these past few years have been a long struggle for me. I have often felt as if in a dark passageway, with no signposts, no map, and no end in sight. In the midst of uncertainty and exhaustion my old choices have been coming back to haunt me, old drives and desires have been rising within me, and even if I could have exercised an iron will and forced them into neat shapes, I have sensed the effort would be foolish and doomed.

I think of the beginning of Dante’s Inferno:

In the middle of our life’s road I found myself in a dark wood The straight way ahead lost.

Over these years I have learned, gradually and painfully, how to sit still and let the uncertainty spin around me in its way, how to balance fragile symbols of meaning on my empty hands before holding them up to the dark and asking, "Is this it?"

Of all the symbols I have played with throughout my life, it is "transformation" that helps me now.

A few months back I visited my friend Dave. He is a sculptor who works with iron and fire, and he showed me one of his recent pieces. It was a large cube made of intersecting bars of solid iron. At the top of the structure Dave had used intense heat to break open and push outwards the middle of the bars, leaving them to cool into iron flames. It looked as if a fiery force had broken through from the middle of the metal cube, leaving only these twisted, blasted shards to mark its passage to freedom. Dave calls the piece "Transformation."

It is an appealing image. Who wouldn’t want to burst through life’s iron bars and explode into fiery freedom?

I remember seeing another image of fiery transformation when I hitchhiked around the Big Island of Hawaii some years ago. Most of the island is made up of the immense mound of the volcano Mauna Loa. Its huge, gentle slopes are covered with rainforests and lush grasses, all teeming with life, all moist and fertile and seductive in the Hawaiian way.

On one shoulder of Mauna Loa, however, the cauldera of Kilauea has been erupting continuously for two decades. Years of  massive lava flows have added hundreds of hectares of land to the island, however the volcano now forces its lava through underground vents that burst through at the new coastline. You can trek over kilometers of cold hard lava and watch the fresh, brilliant, orange streams surging out of the black crust and pouring directly into the ocean. The sight is breathtaking, mesmerizing. Here is transformation in its most fiery, most exhilarating form.

Lava flow
Lava flow

If you think to turn and look behind you, however, you see a very different face of transformation. The whole landscape on which you stand is desolate, hard and bleak beyond belief. You can see huge black solidified rivers of lava that have poured down from high green  ridges, spreading out and destroying everything in their path. Rain forests, roads, townships, wildlife, temples – all have been annihilated as the lava surged towards the ocean. The new land on which you stand is forbidding and impregnable. Here, stretching as far as the eye can see, is the vast and awesome wake of a devastating energy that moves forward without counting the cost.

Transformation can be exciting, liberating and joyous as it frees us from the past and opens us to unimagined possibilities. It can also annihilate the self we knew, devastate the life we had been struggling to build, and leave us bewildered and alone in a strange, bleak life-scape that looks empty and without promise. As unlikely as it may seem, it is only here, after the fire and the glow of change have cooled and died, that the real work of transformation can begin.

In my own life, the process of opening to transformation has demanded relentless patience and mundane endurance, and has brought the deepening realisation that surrender and trust are the only way forward. The empty, unknown land on which I stand, this land that is my future and myself, belongs not to me but to the hidden force of creativity that brings forth both the fire and the stone, the irrepressible, loving force that alone can coax life out of death.

I think of that land of cold, hard lava. Over aeons the persistent, irresistible work of salty ocean winds, tropical rains, microbes, insects, birds and animals will penetrate, split, erode, crumble and eventually fertilise this implacable new ground. The fire and the stone are both, in fact, the foundation of a new rainforest, the seed of a whole new community of life, creativity and diversity – but only imagination can see it, and only nature’s blind, patient hoeing of the hard ground can permit its promise.

This is the most crucial part of the process of transformation. It comes without fire or fury, and it is tough, thankless work. How do we live with it? How do we do its work – or better, how do we allow the ground that is ourselves to be cooled, penetrated, broken open and seeded with unknown life as transformation has its way with us?

The old writers say that in the mature spiritual life it is a kind of dark receptivity, an ‘active passivity’ that opens us to Divine Life. We must let go of all we could have called a life or a self, and face the mystery with empty hands. This can feel like the greatest folly – like we are dying, like life itself is being annihilated in us, like despair and failure are all that is left for us. Yet it is only when we surrender our restless striving that the gift can be given.

I remember going to a ritual on St Kilda Beach, near Melbourne, a few years ago. It was a night in early summer and all kinds of symbolic actions were planned in memory of people who had died from AIDS. This being Melbourne, the night was cold, and a rough wind was blowing across the bay and whipping up the waves and the sand around us. All along the beach scores of people were trying to place lighted candles in the sand. Huddled together, we dug trenches, scooped out little caves, piled up sand and shared tips on keeping our flames alight. We re-lit each other’s candles, shielded them with blankets to beat the wind, chuckled and cursed and cajoled our flickering flames, trying everything imaginable to keep them alight on that blustery night.

I remember standing up and looking around, and seeing all these people sharing a ritual far more profound than anyone could have planned.

Today I see something else too.

There comes a time to let the flame go out. The wind, the rain, the salt, and the dark night are not enemies we must defend ourselves against. The little flame I see may have its own beauty, but there will come a time for it to sputter and die so that something new may be born.

There comes a time to let the flame go out, to turn my gaze to the bleak new land around me, to sit and to simply wait. "I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing." TS Eliot was right: "The faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting." To wait – without images or hopes – and yet to wait.

This is how to live with the splitting apart, the breaking open, the subtle, relentless crumbling of the self I thought was mine and the life I had been working to build. To wait – like a cold iron bar, like a land of hard lava, like a winter’s afternoon, like a man in the middle of his life.

I think of those good people on the beach that night, struggling to keep their little flames alight. All the while beneath them,unseen, without their effort or intention, the huge Earth was moving through the darkness, inevitably, inexorably, bringing the Dawn.

CommunityMichael Kelly