Matches, cigarette lighters, a magnifying glass, and a flint striker – these were the secret arsenal of my childhood. When my parents weren’t looking, I’d casually slip my mom’s hairspray out of the house or my dad’s WD40 out of the garage, strike a match, and revel in the flamethrower like device I’d created. I’d burn trash, sticks, leaves, anything I could get my hands on; with the magnifying glass, ants and other creeping things smolder and curled up as their legs and antennae twitched until a near invisible poof of smoke came from the cremated remains.
I loved fire. I loved the way a big fire could start from a single match; the way it fed and moved from a leaf to a stick to something even bigger, like a log. I loved how a fire could take a perfectly white sheet of paper, like a spelling test or math quiz, and turn it into gun barrel gray ash. And if I stowed away enough matches from all ashtrays in the hotel and motel rooms we stayed at on family vacation, I could burn every single fifth grade spelling test, which I did. I didn’t think of fire as being destructive. My fifth-grade fires were erasers, numbing out pain, hiding awful truths I didn’t want anyone to know about.
I am quite certain that if my parents and my pediatrician knew how much I loved fire, I would have enjoyed a special convalescence for children with disturbing proclivities. But as childhood turned into adolescence, matches and lighters weren’t enough. Bottle rockets, M-80s, Roman candles, ladyfingers, whistlers, jumping jacks, if it had a fuse and exploded – good times. And unlike my elementary school fires, these were social fires. We shot bottle rockets at each other, lobed M-80s like grenades, and chased each other around spraying red, white, and blue fire orbs at each other. There were accidents, of course, like the time an errant missile landed on the church roof and set off the alarm. (We held our bottle rocket wars at church, of course.) We hid in the woods until the cops, the pastor, and a few church members left. Then there was the time someone shot a bottle rocket directly into the backpack-filled stash of gunpowder. Our bottle rocket war was postponed so we could watch the backpack burn and explode until all the rockets and candles and M-80s had denoted. If the police knew what we were up to, we would’ve gone to jail. If the military knew what we were doing, we would’ve been recruited.
For all of our seriousness, though, it was just a slopped-together, postpubescent show.
When I heard about the juggling gypsy, I knew I had to go. Every Thursday, on Castle Street in Wilmington, eccentrics and hipsters and dancers and provocateurs and artists gather at the Juggling Gypsy Café and Hookah Bar. They gathered to play with fire. Some swirled arm-length batons with burning tips. One girl hula-hoped a fire ring. Others had a fire sticks they bounced around with two other sticks, twirling the flames in circles, and then flinging the flames ten feet in the air. Still others had what looked like fire claws. And one fire dancer had a giant, two-handed, medieval-looking baton with each end curling out five torches.
And when they preformed, they slipped into the rhythm of the pounding bongo drums, pleasantly unaware of the camera flashes, the slowed down cars, and the street gawkers. Flames shot high and streamed behind the dancer’s arms. The cadence of the drums increased. The fire dancers spired upward, away to some other world, enraptured in trance whose doorway effected a likeness of the dancer’s love of fire and fire’s reflective love of dance. BUM! BRUM! BRUM! The drums banged harder. The fire batons and poles and hoops slide over the contours of their bodies like dance partners, and gracefully, spellbound by the flames, the dancers extended their bodies to the reach of fire and sometimes disappeared behind its glare. The flames whipped through the air with the sound of a thousand candles fighting a jarring breeze and made circles and figure-eights and amorphous displays of light and waves of heat. And the drums struck harder and the dancers moved faster.
The fire jugglers were transported, moved elsewhere, ascending upwards, as though Jacob ’s ladder pierced down through the few clouds and moved the celebrant towards the twinkle of what could only be its kindred. Their faces formed an image of faithfulness and prayer. Every bit of energy devoted to the dance, intention, purpose, thought, and a free-flowing spirit – a creative locomotion mitigating the distance between the transcendent and immediate. The fire and the dancer worked together, worshiping the art they created, the blended moments of time invisible to the observers, the picture takers, and passersby. I felt the human compunction for fire; our need to worship it as a god; the holy ground where barefooted dancers made praise and spelled alleluia with lighted torch. And the voice of God was in the constant BUM! BRUM! BRUM! Dance and rapture soldered flame and flesh, spirit and body; neither could possible abandon the other for the pure joy that fastened their grips. Both the flame and the dancer seemed vulnerable, risking a sort of companionship that could injury, burn, or extinguish the other, but the unbroken fidelity carried each higher and higher up this ladder of ecstasy.
And this is the joy and risk of true spirituality. Not the childishness of collecting matches and hiding them in secret compartments so mommies and daddies can’t find them. And not even the sort of risk of gouging your best friends eyeball out with a bottle rocket attack. That’s just nostalgia, party-trick spirituality – the goofiness and awkwardness of adolescence. Saint John of the Cross wrote, “I am inclined to believe that, even if it were presented with greater accuracy and polish, only a few would find profit in it, because we are not writing on pleasant and delightful themes addressed to the kind of spiritual people who like to approach God along sweet and satisfying paths.”
What am I saying? Spirituality, the chase after God, knowing God, this personal savior business – it doesn’t relieve pain, it causes it. It doesn’t bring you out of the darkness and into the light. God pushes you back into the darkness and confuses everything you know. “To reach union with the wisdom of God,” Saint John of the Cross wrote, “a person must advance by unknowing rather than by knowing.” This isn’t happy, honeymoon, saccharine poetry we’re dealing with here. This is a God whose greatest self-disclosure is the public execution of Jesus Christ. So, if all we’re doing is singing songs like Jesus is my friend or listening to gooey, self-help, motivational spirituality that’s single greatest achievement is to give you warm, fuzzy feelings, that’s fine. You can go out and play with your matches and magnifying glass. You can go to bible study and feel all pious and sip from the straw of your milk carton.
Or, get yourself a fire stick. Learn to dance. Take a risk. Get burnt. Dare to follow a Christ that goes up a hill, lays it all down on a block of wood, and dies for no good reason except he wants you to know that real love, real compassion, real sacrifice hurts. So, do it. Go off to Africa and feed the dying. Go to ISIS, proclaim Jesus, and right before you get your head knocked off, be glad you did it and forgive them. Give away all your money and then mortgage your house to support the local food bank. And once you’ve done that, mortgage your house again. Find a kid that needs a kidney or a lung – God gave you one to share.
And if you’re still alive and still want to give yourself to God, God will take all of you. I don’t mean just your money or clothes or 60-inch TV with the kick-ass sound system. I mean God will take you – your body, soul, and spirit. There will be no you. And that’s what heaven is. Not some materialistic land of golden streets and pearly gates – or some place a little kid went to, came back from, and published a book of lies about. No. Heaven is the threshold you cross when you come so close to God, God gobbles you up completely and all traces of you as an individual are lost. Eventually you will wander too close to the flame of God’s Spirit and disappear. Is all this sounding a little too unreasonable? I think so too. But just ask Christ’s disciples. They all pretty much died on the job. No one said God was reasonable.
Me. I'm going to the store to get some of those strike anywhere matches.