Hearts on fire for the good of all

The Mass for Franciscan Sr. Julia Walsh's perpetual vows is July 11 starting at 3 p.m. CDT and will be live-streamed so anyone can watch and pray along. (Provided photo)

Soon after I decided to ask to make my perpetual vows and was approved to do so, I became a bit obsessed with fire.

It’s not a dangerous obsession or anything, it’s more that I am paying attention to all the ways that fire images and metaphors are incorporated into our culture and faith. I quickly became fascinated by what I was noticing and how often I heard popular song lyrics and ordinary conversation casually incorporate words like “fire,” “burn,” “spark” or “enflame.”

It got me thinking about all the different ways we use the idea of fire – like in St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of Creation, where he offers praises to God for “Brother Fire,” for being so bright and lively. I saw a print once that showed St. Francis dancing around Brother Fire in joy, and the image has really stayed with me. I remembered how my friend who is very interested in Taoism once told me that I have a fire personality type. Apparently this means that I am very passionate, expressive and joyful. I’ve been pondering Biblical images related to fire and how God seems to show up as a vision of fire throughout salvation history: Moses and the burning bush, the pillar of fire that led the Israelites to freedom, how the disciples described their hearts as being on fire when they spoke with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and the description of the Holy Spirit coming into the church as fire at the Feast of Pentecost. As fire, God commissions, guides, leads and invigorates. The fire of God is present when people gain awareness, conviction and freedom.

Hearts enflamed

With all these fiery musings on my mind and moving in my heart, I decided that the theme for my Final Vow celebration would be “On Fire for the Gospel.

As I have written about before, there are numerous reasons why I believe this vocation as a Franciscan Sister is a good fit for me. In all I do – whether it is teaching or writing, acting as a friend or sister, or simple, ordinary tasks like washing dishes and cooking – I hope to be in union with God. At times I am aware of the union with God and how God works through me and guides me. At other times, however, I am not tuned in to the spiritual connections shared by me, God and all of God’s creations. Even if I am dense or simply not mindful to it, though, I pray that we all shall be one.

In adoration one day, an image came to me of the kind of union I am envisioning: the image of two hearts, interconnected and totally enflamed, as if in ecstasy. I wrote a simple prayer: I pray, dear One, that the union that comes from my consecration helps your church to boldly burn with the fire of your love. I shared this image with my brother-in-law who’s an artist, and asked him if he could paint a picture for my final vows that would show two hearts joined and on fire. 

“Hearts on Fire” was painted by Peter Neel (Julia’s brother-in-law) especially for the occasion of Julia’s perpetual vows. More of Neel’s art can be found online at saatchiart.com/peterneel and zazzle.com/peter_neel. (Courtesy of the artist)

To spark more burning

At my final vows, I will make a lifelong commitment to this Franciscan way of life, a life that is likely to be abundant with experiences of union with God, through acts of justice, service, prayer and life in community. Life in community is core to it all. Community sustains my faith and all the works of justice, service and prayer to which I am committed. When I am drained or in deep doubt, I rely on community for encouragement and inspiration. Likewise, I am aware that my own faith life has the potential to inspire and enliven others.

I believe that we are all called to be like contagious sparks for one another, fueling the Spirit alive in each of us through our acts of goodness. We enflame the fire of God’s love as we participate in building the reign of God. As Jesus said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Lk 12:49)

What does it take for the Earth to be on fire in the way that Jesus desires for us? Each of us must make bold acts of witness, courageous and generous steps that share our gifts and help more and more people to know God’s powerful and strengthening love. This love is like a fire that cleanses and renews, that transforms and perseveres through pain and suffering. It’s a welder’s fire; it’s a fire that allows new creations to come forth.

We are each sparks and flames in the roaring, glowing fire. The Spirit keeps us burning as this love changes the world into the blazing place that Jesus has commissioned us to co-create. My perpetual vows shall be offered for the good of all creation, for the church, for all people throughout the global human family – it is not just about my heart being in union with God. (This is why I am inviting you all to tune in and pray with us as the perpetual vow Mass will be live-streamed on my community’s website at 3 p.m. CDT on July 11, 2015.)

I hope that the profession of my perpetual vows will be a counter-cultural witness for all people in the human family. It is a bold statement about the power of God’s love. I pray that it will add more fuel to the fire and draw more people to this Gospel life. I pray that it will encourage more and more people to contribute their sparks of goodness to the flames of God’s love.

Wildfire of love

The sparks that we each contribute to the fire through our Gospel actions – whether through the profession of perpetual vows or by caring for someone in need – all help the flames grow brighter. By our participation, the fire of God’s love shall roar with zealousness and ignite more flames. Then, the fire of the reign of God becomes as a wildfire that renews the earth and allows for more fresh life to spring forth.

In one of my favorite books, Shane Claiborne tells a hilarious story about how his grandfather and uncle once drove their truck down the highway pulling a wagon full of hay that was on fire, foolishly hoping that the fire would die down and their truck would be spared. Instead, the burning hay bales fell off the back of the truck and tumbled into the nearby fields, setting fields on fire throughout East Tennessee and getting them both in a lot of trouble. About this incident Claiborne writes:

We laughed and laughed. And I thought to myself, That is what the kingdom of God looks like. Christians blaze through this dark world and set it on fire with their love. It is contagious and spreads like wildfire. We are people who shine, who burn up the darkness of this world with the light that dwells within us. . . . We are to be fire, to weave our lives together so that the Spirit’s inferno of love spreads across the earth.

May the witness of my perpetual vows help the fire of God’s love spread so the whole world is changed into the place that Jesus longed for! Amen!

[Sr. Julia Walsh, FSPA, is a high school religion teacher and blogger; read more of her work at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

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