Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Becoming Like Flame And Father Ioan

Monastic desert cave

AFTER A LONG PERIOD OF PERSECUTION, ancient Christianity received the emperor's stamp of approval and Christianity became not only OK but preferred. Some say that's the worst thing that could have ever happened, as when a religion becomes preferred to others,  the endowing support of the state and the friendship with power results in deadly spiritual compromises. The history of Catholicism in France and Orthodoxy in Russia bears this out.

In the 4th century, holy men and women (abbas and ammas) went into the desert intending to recover the authentic intensity of the gospel life, living in small, loosely knit communities of prayer and inner discipline. There are many dozens of desert fathers and mothers whose stories and sayings are remembered, among them::

Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, "Abba, as far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do? Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards the heavens. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, "If you will, you can become all flame."

The key word in this little story is become. Young Abba Lot doesn't seem to be asking for anything more than another religious practice to undertake. It's like people who search for the perfect novena to the saint who is most likely to suit their particular need at any given time.

But Abba Joseph sees past that suggesting if Abba Lot desires it, he can become something new. Do we remember God appearing to Moses in the burning bush? God became flame! Abba Joseph is telling the inquiring monk: You can share in the very properties and energies of God himself. 

Abba Joseph wasn't giving Abba Lot a new devotion to add to his already rather full schedule of monastic practice: praying, fasting, meditating, working. He simply suggested: if you desire to go deeper - become a living flame! But how?

Maybe Lot could learn from the cave he lived in. Caves resemble ears. Deep listening might be a clue. Indeed, Saint Benedict's rule for monks and nuns in the western world begins with the single word, "Listen!" In truth, listening and its attendant silence is disappearing rapidly. Tuned in to a radio station recently, a war-expert was being interviewed about  Syria and the possible outcome of air strikes. The expert started to talk without taking any pauses, seemingly even for breaths. He went on and on in his professional new-speak, when I realized he was wasn't even trying to conceal the fact that he was now repeating himself. I felt he was living either in fear or vanity. But this kind of thing is common place now, I would even say it's become normative. When asked another question, he didn't even pause to consider, he simply began to talk again endlessly.

Listening is intimately connected to humility. The Latin root of humility is humus, which means good earth. It doesn't mean we're dirt, but a humble person is down to earth about herself/himself. The humble person has a light sense of humor about himself. The humble person can admit her mistakes and take correction. Humble people know they have a great deal to learn and growing to do.

Humility suggests  transformation, change, a coming into light, stretching, a desire to venture into or become something new. Indeed, becoming like flame  is indicated in our doing things we never dreamed before that we would do.

Father Ioan

Father Ioan is a sixty something year old Bulgarian priest who, having lived most of his life in the atheist world of the Soviet Union, converted to Christianity in his forties. While Bulgaria is purportedly an Orthodox Christian country, only a very few people practice the life of faith. So Father Ioan didn't envision his priesthood as simply maintaining a church, waiting for people to come. Instead, he found an old un-used church with a large side yard where he built a residence for unwed mothers and their children. 

Now that's pro-life! There is a precedent in the Gospel of Saint Luke where Jesus has a particular outreach to women and a valuing of children that was never taught by any other ancient guru, philosopher or religious teacher. 

But no good deed goes unpunished: Father Ioan depends almost exclusively upon donations to keep the little village open, as the state gives almost nothing to help and the locals often deride, slander and ridicule him. In Bulgaria an unwed mother is disdainfully considered a prostitute. 

So Father Ioan has become the face of Bulgarian Charity. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, apparently lost in hierarchical power struggles, has forgotten its charitable dimension. 

Flame is energy. Becoming like flame means sharing divine energies that spark something new: compassionate love that doesn't simply raise us to a new consciousness, leaving the status quo (business as usual) intact, but believes that through action, the world can be made new, "inch by inch, row by row" we sang as children. This is Christianity.

Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity invite first-world men and women, who have finished raising their own children, to visit the order's orphanages around the world for a couple of weeks, simply to hold, rock, play with, sing to, feed, touch, change, bathe and dress infants. The sisters are aware that unless babies are warmly handled, their physical and emotional lives atrophy.

Become like flame: in humility and that deep (cave-like) inner listening, it's thinking about the things that really matter in a new way and then finding myself doing new things I never dreamed I'd do.


  1. What a wonderful post Father. You challenge us to seek change in our lives. Meaningful change. How to embrace this concept completely? Must we create the flames for ourselves? What if situations evolve and change is forcibly put upon us? Sometimes the flames seek us out, wouldn't you say? I will listen with open ears.

  2. I think "You can become all flame" is God's doing ultimately. I think it is for us to open to what God offers, "Let it be done to me," Mary said.

    "...and change is forcibly put upon us." St. Paul lived a very difficult life. He was arrested and imprisoned. He sailed around much of the Mediterranean under very difficult circumstances. He was ship wrecked and had people turn against him. And he wrote, "I have discovered that wherever I am, I can be at peace." I don't think "becoming flame" has anything to do with WHERE we are or what's going on around us.

  3. It is those 2 words "Listen" and "Humility that can make us "become like flame. Great simile Father!

  4. If humanity could show more humility, the world would be a better place. Thank you for sharing Fr. Ioan's story. Although our individual journeys may be less dramatic, may our flames burn hot and our sparks fly out.