The Fire of Longing

We have been speaking of the importance of being in touch with and naming our own deepest experience whether of joy or of sorrow, light or shadow. Images and stories name these far better than everyday language. They give pictures of our feelings so that we may take them into our hands and place them carefully in our lives.

Every story contains a way of looking at life. A myth is a vision of life, or a basic dimension of life, in story form. Stories of real depth, like the ancient mythologies, can also be approached from many angles. When looked at through the lense of our sacred worth, these stories are like a mirror in which we see reflected who we are and the direction of our becoming. This reflection helps to unveil our core of sacred worth, while also acknowledging our wounds and shadow.

The story of Prometheus tells how he coaxes humans out of caves into the open sun and sky, and gives them many skills for living. Most memorably, he brings them fire, not without opposition from Zeus. Here is our retelling of the story, before adding a few further thoughts.

The Story of Prometheus retold
Once upon a time there was a wise and thoughtful person named Prometheus. His name means thinking ahead.
At this time people lived in caves. He came to help them . He told them: “You will be better if you come outside and stand tall. Feel the warmth of the sun in the day and the beauty of the stars at night.”
He gave them many kinds of fire. There was the fire to cook their food and warm them on cold days. But he warned them of the fire of lightning and the wild fire that can hurt them.
He gave them also the fire of their mind to think with and the fire of their heart to love with. But he warned them that the fire of their mind can make them smart but not wise. And the fire of their heart can turn to hate.
So, he told them, “I give you these gifts but it is up to you to struggle to use them for good and not ill. You may not always succeed, but if you try to be wise and loving, you will have a good life and help those around you.” Retold by Norm and Aidan (6 years old)

The story perhaps reflects an earlier history of humankind as cave dwellers. One way of looking at the conflict between Zeus and Prometheus is to see it as a reflection of the conflicts within human beings. The adage of beating swords into ploughshares expresses a similar awareness. Fire can be used to build tools that are helpful or weapons that kill. The fire of our intellect can be expressed in mere cleverness without ethics, or cultivated in a wisdom that is compassionate. As in the colour red in Snow White, fire can embody both love and hate.

What this story portrays in images is the ambiguity of the human situation. There is within us both light and shadow. Yet Prometheus pushes humans in the direction of growth. His response to Einstein’s question is that the universe is friendly.In other words, the orientation towards meaning and goodness is the more profound impulse in us and can offer a basis for hope. We can inquire as to how we stoke the fires within us. Are they a fire that refines and purifies us as gold in a crucible. Or are they a destructive force unleashed on those around us.

When I think of fire I think of energy, but I also think of longing. Many writers have told of this longing within us, that is somehow never stilled. Ron Rolheiser notes: “At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, and religion lies the naming and analyzing of this desire. …. whatever the expression, everyone is ultimately talking about the same thing–an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital ache that lies at the centre of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else.”

These are a lot of different yet familiar words that speak to our inner experience of longing. We see it in the energy of the small child struggling to walk and to talk. I have seen it in the sadness behind the words of someone who learned of a terminal illness and said: “I wish I had more time” I have heard it in the words of a mentally challenged child who lamented that they could not do anything right. It seems to be the experience of limitations and incompleteness that bump again this unstilled longing.

At its heart is perhaps a longing for love: a longing to take ourselves into our own hands as precious raw material to be shaped into a work of art and offered to someone or something valuable. It is perhaps an aching to gather and give ourselves. Yet it is never complete and is held back by scripts imposed in childhood that still affect us, by our lack of awareness and understanding, by the many fears that hold us back, by our frustration and anger that push us to take and to attack rather than to give.

Yet, as in the story of Pandora’s box (really a large jar), hope always remains despite all else. This, I think, is a hope that somehow our longing is not in vain, We may never experience completeness, but we are enriched and enrich one another by moving in that direction, which is essentially the direction of love. Love here is not meant as a surface sentimentality, but an ongoing struggle towards openness and trust, beginning with ourselves, and a gradually dawning conviction of our own sacred worth. It is a growing recognition of the sacredness of all persons and of all life, beginning with those closest to us. (The lovingkindness meditation seeks to implant that sense more deeply within us and extend it in ever wider circles.). It comes with a recognition of our need for forgiveness and healing.

Thomas Merton has a whimsical description along similar lines. Our existence he writes is one “in which people suffer together and are sometimes utterly beautiful, at other times impossibly pathetic. In which there is much that is frightening, in which almost everything public is patently phony, and in which there is at the same time an immense ground of personal authenticity.”

In your life struggles, may you come to the deeply felt conviction that–whatever your life situation and experience– you are loved in the core of who you are, and that the gift of who you are is worthy to be shared and given in many ways.

Norman King, August 29, 2021