Be praised, my Lord, for Brother Fire,
through whom you light up the night for us;
and he is beautiful and jolly,
boisterous and strong.
The men on fire danced, and the flames rose high and exuberant into the night air. Crowds of people watched and clapped and snapped digital pictures from an unsafe distance. Burning embers fell from the giant flames, scattering across the ground at our feet.
I had walked here to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli from the church of the Rivotorto. The words of Francis lingered from my time at the chapel by the river, and they were sinking slowly into my soul. “The Lord has given me brothers.” As I arrived, the sun was still bright on the gathering crowds, but falling low and taking on a distinctly golden hue.
Angels hovered above, as children on floats, with sturdy rigging and seraphic costumes, levitated gracefully in the air. Next to the little cherubs, men dressed in trilby hats and expansive cloaks carried on their shoulders what looked like giant sets of brooms, bound together and splayed in rows of four. Along with the angel children, it was one of the strangest things I’d yet seen, and I wondered what in the world these contraptions would be used for.
I wandered into the cathedral amid the crowds of people, who were milling about and settling in. They lined the pews, and stood against the pillars, and sat on the floor. The Porziuncola, the tiny church of the Little Portion, stood in the midst of it, silently testifying to the life of the saint we had all come to honour. Tonight was the anniversary of the Transitus: the night that Father Francis was at last welcomed into the embrace of the Saviour; the night that the saint at last was caught up into the ultimate fire of Divine Love. It was right here, 785 short years ago, close by to his beloved Little Portion and in the company of his closest friends, that Francis had died.
As the service began, a great stream of brown robes of every shade came flowing in through the great doors as Franciscans of every variety processed into the cathedral. The service itself was simple, and mostly unintelligible to my North American ears, but I made friends with an undercover Capuchin at the back of the church. He was dressed in his civvies, and had a kind, round Brazilian face. He spoke almost no english, but between my broken amounts of Spanish and Italian, his broken amounts of English and Italian and an iPhone translation app, we became quick friends. I told him of my life in California, my love for Francis, and my small, strange, and wonderful community of brothers and sisters. I told him of my desire to live out the vows of Francis in poverty, chastity, and obedience. He was fascinated, and it felt good to tell my story to someone. In Portuguese, Italian, English and Spanish, we figured out a way to meet again.
After the service, we shook hands and parted ways. I felt the glow of friendship in my chest, and smiled at the strange way in which two people who could not speak each other’s language could share such a heartfelt conversation. The darkness of night was now creeping in, and I followed my nose toward the savoury scents of street food.
My budget was tight, but when I saw a sign on a small food cart which read, “Crepes alla Nutella”, I knew it was meant to be. I held my finger up and said, “Uno!” The Crepe Lady deftly swatted the pancake-like dough on the portable griddle, generously applied the chocolatey, hazelnutty goodness, and folded it all up in a triangle of sweet loveliness. I took a bite, crepe crumbs and Nutella spread baptizing my beard. It was good. It was very good.
I turned to admire the basilica, now lit up against a darkening sky with floodlights and filaments, and I noticed a large crowd in front of the church. I heard music and clapping, and saw what seemed to be several gigantic fires rising into the sky, but the fires were not stationary bonfires. They seemed to be moving and twirling.
What in the…?
I approached the crowd, winding my way slowly through the mass of smiling, picture-taking people. There in the open area of the square were several men, the men with the cloaks and the trilby hats I’d seen earlier, now dancing around and engulfed flames. I saw now the purpose of the giant brooms. They were worn on the necks of these men (who were clearly quite insane), and set ablaze. Music played and the men danced, red-hot embers falling all about the square, as they began to make their way through the piazza. The crowd followed, clapping and walking circumspectly through the multitude of still-burning coals. Kids ran freely through the scattered coals, as grown-ups, less mindful than the children, singed their leather soles. I tried to imagine an event anything like this ever happening in North America, and instead imagined an insurance agent having an aneurism.
I had no idea how such a thing ever came to be associated with the foolish little saint, but it was reckless and beautiful, dangerous and jolly. A perfect fit for a man like Francis, for what is holier than fire, and what is more foolish than dancing? And what a dangerous thing it is to burn.
Fire is a strange thing: utterly destructive and completely fascinating. Perhaps a key to understanding Francis is in understanding Francis as “Brother Fire” himself. That flame that so engulfed his life, and set him dancing across the Umbrian countryside like a ball of lightning, was fed by something. Francis became fire because he let himself be consumed. This was no disembodied, metaphysical flame of mere enlightenment, or some kind of self-perpetuating (and self-extinguishing) fire of youthful exuberance. This was nothing less than the burning love of a Holy God.
After centuries of stories and religious art, we may see pictures of Francis tending to the poor and the lame in some merely symbolic or vaguely spiritual sense. But the truth is that love is never merely symbolic, and never vaguely spiritual, for real spiritual love is manifested in the flesh. Francis did not serve lepers because it was a spiritual thing to do. He served lepers because he loved them. He knew their names. And Francis’s real hands washed real feet. And as he did this, the fire burned and the fire grew, and his heart felt the sweet, almost physical pain of selfless love. The kind of love that, at the thought of the beloved in any kind of pain, at the thought of the one you love living in loneliness, constricts the muscles in your chest and gives birth to the purest of prayers: “Oh, Lord… Have mercy!”
This was the fire that consumed Francis. And with it, everything unworthy of such a pure and blazing love was torn away from his heart, from his mind, from his flesh. Here, in the face of such holiness, Francis was made aware of the limits of his humanity. There are stories of Francis abusing himself verbally, even physically, but it’s important to kneel down and inspect closely the source of these actions before we shake our heads and dismiss them. These were not just a commendable but ultimately misdirected bits of self-deprecation, nor were they some kind of severe case of “Catholic Guilt”. These words and actions came from a profound knowledge of the human condition, an unveiling of the heart that happens when we attempt great acts of love. When we strive to come close to the holy heart of Jesus, the paper-thin covering that hides the darkness of our heart goes up in a flash of smoking embers, and our truest, most selfish selves, are revealed. And it’s here that God can truly begin to heal us.
Finally, in this healing, in this release of the self, in this letting go of pride, of protection, in this embrace of holiness, there is joy. Deep, tears-to-your-eyes joy, and perfect freedom. Unfortunately for us, these things don’t happen in stages, like the ascent of a mountain. God is not so easily captured as Everest. If we set ourselves upon his love, if we commit ourselves to the burning, it happens all at once in an ever-swirling, roiling fire of tears and laughter, of longing and crying and singing with joy, and it goes on and on for the rest of our lives. We spin, we twirl, we dance, we burn. We light up the night with the light of God. And we are beautiful, and jolly, and boisterous and strong.