Some years back, our pine board monastery was hit by a bolt of lightning and burned to the ground. No one was in the building at the time. Two monks lived there but were at Mass when the lightning struck.The ensuing fire was fast, furious and efficient. When the firemen arrived, there was no hope to save the structure. Flames had already consumed most of it. The best the firemen were able to do was to contain the fire, making sure that the flames did not burn out of control and consume nearby buildings.
When it was all over, there was nothing left but a smoldering pile of ash, twisted metal and charred wood and hot stones.
Fires have no conscience. Gone were our stained glass studio, our carpentry shop, all of the possessions of the two monks, and, with the destruction of the building, a loss of a place that held a lot of memories from the early years of the monastery's beginnings.
Over time, we cleared the ground of the debris. There was nothing to salvage.
Where the building once stood, there are now new structures -- a new stained glass studio, a new carpentry area and plenty of room for different projects. Out of the death of what once was, there came forth new and perhaps better things.
Admittedly, the old structure was limited in its use. Some of the older monks suspected that it was, in fact, a fire just waiting to happen. The wood was old, the wiring was bad, the place very dry. It did not take long for the lightning bolt to start what would be in seconds a raging wall of flame.
We do our best to avoid fires and, when they do strike, we try and contain them. For there is a destructive power to fire that knows no bounds. A fire feeds off oxygen and, unless it is contained, it will rage as long as there is oxygen to fuel it. It is no small wonder that entire cities can be reduced to ash.
Pentecost, celebrated the 50th day after Easter Sunday, is a feast that carries an image of flame, of fire. As Scripture and tradition tell us, the Spirit descended on the Apostles in the shape of tongues of fire. The crowd was amazed, enthralled with awe as different languages were being spoken and at once understood. Babble became clear and meaningful.
We celebrate the feast as the birthday of the church -- a birthday that began with fire.
But, as with all fires, we can move to contain this one, too. There is so much that we have that we cannot afford to see burn. Our traditions, our ways of seeing our respective little worlds and each other. Our tidy and up-to-date modes of worship. Our sense of God and what it is that God expects of us.
Maybe God expects us to get out of the way, to allow the flames of God's life and love to consume all that is not necessary, all that is not of divine purpose and intent. For I think it true that we at times want to keep growth at bay.
God can be terrifying, coming as a holocaust that will burn everything we know to be familiar, everything we know that we hold to for our security, our assurance that what we keep for ourselves is good.
It will all eventually go. It will all burn.
Something new will rise from the ashes, and we will wonder why and how we ever ascribed value to the ruins at our feet. But in order for God to come, it must give way to what God alone can bring.
God is good. God means no harm. God gives, and then takes it away, with fire, so that the new can rise.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.