In the friary where I live we have an electric fireplace in the room where we gather for prayer and meals. I have come to really despise it. Perhaps I'm just overly sensitive to symbol and metaphor, but the occasionally "lit" fake fireplace is too much a symbol for me the problems of tackiness and decadence of North American mainstream religious life.
So it was rather healing for me to have to tend a real fire during my recent time at the hermitage. As I sat, tending the fire, reading St. John of the Cross or praying the rosary, I got to reflecting on real and fake fireplaces as metaphors for genuine or imitation spirituality. Here are some of the distinctions:
1. A real fire needs to be built if it's going to get started. Wood and kindling need to be arranged so that air may circulate. Similarly, our spiritual lives need to be a balanced construct of different elements: meditation, liturgical prayer, spiritual reading, etc. A real fire needs to be tended and stoked or else it will wane and go out. In the same way our spiritual lives need to tended each day and stoked by constant exercise. A real fire needs to be rekindled when you wake up in the morning, and so it is with our prayer each day.
Not so the fake fireplace. It doesn't need to be constructed or tended; you just press the button and it goes on. It doesn't require attention or commitment. And so it is with a a spirituality that isn't real; it doesn't demand anything of us, either to get started or to keep it going. We can turn it on when we want to feel "holy" or "spiritual" and then turn it off when we want to be someone else.
2. A real fire gives both heat and light to those who gather near it. So it is with a truly spiritual person; her behavior and her speech are enlightening to others, and her presence gives courage to the hearts of others.
The fake fireplace can give light and heat as well (if you turn on the "heat" option.) For example, I can preach or teach the faith as a mere technician, without knowing or doing it myself. But the light and heat that come from such a minister will be like the light and heat that come from the fake fireplace: they will always be the exact same light and heat. Just as the "wood" of the fake fireplace doesn't move and the light doesn't change, so the ministry of someone who lacks a real spiritual life will lack the dynamism of the Spirit. The light and heat of the fake fireplace may enlighten and warm someone for a while, but in the end it will not have the power to induce the fascination of a real fire.
3. A real fire consumes and transforms. Fuel becomes light and heat and ash. So it is with our prayer; we ourselves will be transformed into light and warmth for others, and the sins and false self that seemed so much part of our identity will be reduced to weightless ash.
The fake fireplace cannot consume or transform. It is only a novelty to be amused at for a few moments. And so it is with a fake spirituality; it will not change or purify us. The fake wood of the fake fireplace is always the same, and so it will be for us if we settle for a shallow sense of prayer.