“If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.” These words were written by St. Catherine of Siena, a 14th Century mystic from Italy, and are a fitting response to the words of our Lord in today’s Gospel: “I have come to set the world on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!” St. Catherine herself was an extraordinary woman. In a day when women were expected to be silent and to be at home, she pioneered a new form of active religious life for women (for whom previously being a religious sister at a young age meant being separated from the world in the cloister), offered spiritual direction to men, forcefully convinced the Pope to move back to Rome from exile in France, and then went to Rome to secure his legitimacy by persuading nobiles and cardinals to support the Pope’s return. (St. Catherine’s life is, incidentally, a perfect rebuttal to those who claim that the Catholic Church has oppressed women.)
For St. Catherine, though, being on fire with the love of God frequently set her at odds with those who around her who did share her great love and devotion. The first group of such people were her own family. She came from a very big family, the second-youngest of 25 children. When one of her older sisters died in childbirth, her parents desired that she, at the age of 16, marry her sister’s widower. She resisted by fasting until her parents changed their minds, which they were eventually persuaded to do by her fasting and the extreme graciousness and charity with which she served everyone in her family home.
Truly being on fire for Christ will inevitably separate us from others. Our Lord says in the Gospel today, “Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” While many people might not be surprised at the idea of mothers-in-law being set against daughters-in-law, we would probably ask ourselves, “But fathers divided against sons? Mothers against daughters? Brother against brother?” And yet this is precisely what our Lord has said.
If we are truly on fire with love for Christ, this will always distinguish us from others. There are two possible reactions to fire: the first is to draw near to it, to warm ourselves at it. This is often the case when people encounter someone with a great love of Christ who has a spirit of joy. We want to surround ourselves with people who share the happiness that the love of God inspires. But sometimes people have another reaction to fire, to move away from it. Maybe they have been burnt by fire before, or have already bundled themselves up so tightly that the warmth of the fire is unpleasant. Or maybe they have convinced themselves that they really are not that cold. All of these things happen to people and prevent them from being attracted to holy joy. Sometimes, people can be so deep in sin that they do not realize their need for God, or they cease to realize what is wrong and what is right. For such people, the light of the fire does not promise protection and warmth, but is rather like a bright light shone in the eyes of a sleeping person, a nuisance, a cause of frustration. For this type of people, the fire does not bring them together, but separates them.
Fortunately, though, even when some people are so deep in sin that they are repulsed by goodness, and prefer not to draw near to the fire, fires always attract people. Even in the heat of summer, people like to make a fire in the evening and gather around it to roast marshmallows or hotdogs, or just to stare into the dancing flames. They have a way of stimulating conversation.
St. Paul tells us in the epistle today, “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us.” Even if some are repulsed by the fire of Christian joy, by the fire with which God desires that the world be set aflame, there are always many who will come to Him. At Holy Mass we particularly experience the presence of all the saints and angels, who surround the altar and whose prayers accompany our own like incense rising up to heaven. Even if no one else in your family or among your friends shares your faith, know that you are never alone – all the saints and angels are there to be called upon and to support you.
In this way, it is also important for us to be this great cloud of witnesses to one another. It happens all too often that people feel alone in the practice of their faith because their families and friends are not Catholic or do not practice the faith, but here we are at Holy Mass surrounded not only by all the saints and angels but by so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Here are so many who experience struggles and difficulties similar to your own, from the challenge of supporting a family to dealing with grief and loss or anything along the way. How often have you reached out to your fellow parishioners to share your love of Christ with them and experience the fire of Christ’s love burning in their hearts?
Another saint who had to persevere through the coldness of others to follow Christ was St. Thomas Aquinas. He was the son of a noble family, and his parents had big plans for him that would bring their family even more wealth and prestige, but Thomas and God had other plans. He knew that God was calling him to give up marriage and any worldly ambitions in the religious life as a member of the Dominican order. Determined to break his resolution, Thomas’s brothers locked him the tower of their family castle with a woman of ill repute, hoping that his ideas of purity would soon be gone. Thomas drove her away with a hot iron from the fire, and the family finally consented to let him go and join the Dominicans.
The demands of our Lord frequently seem unreasonable: to be divided even from one’s own family if necessary in order to follow Him with the fire of His love in our hearts. It might seem impossible to fulfill such an intense demand. We should be careful against taking Him too literally, though. He does not mean that someone should cut off his relationship with His father or mother or son or daughter because they lack faith. Quite to the contrary, we are called to be lights to those people in order to lead them back.
Sometimes, though, extreme measures are necessary. For St. Thomas Aquinas, that meant wielding a red-hot iron in order to fend off the woman his brothers hoped would take his purity. More reasonably for us, that means distancing ourselves from people who frequently lead us into sin. When there are people in your life with whom you tend to commit particular sins, you should speak to those people openly, honestly, and lovingly about how you want your friendship to be focused on good things and how you want to have friendships that help you get to Heaven. Make a goal together to avoid those sins, like not gossiping about others, or not drinking excessively together, or whatever it is for you. Frequently it could be a boyfriend or girlfriend with whom one has committed sins against chastity, and in this case you need to have a strong commitment to growing in purity together and avoiding any circumstances, like being alone together for significant periods of time, in which you are likely to commit those sins again.
Sometimes, even when you try to improve a relationship, though, it simply doesn’t work. This can happen because the other person is less committed to being holy, or simply because of ingrained habit. Even when the other person is also committed to doing what is right, you still might need to take a break from spending time together in order to break those bad habits that you have formed. Sometimes, though, those relationships are simply incompatible with living in such a way that you can go to heaven, and ending them can be very difficult, but going to Heaven is worth far, far more. This is where our Lord’s teaching that He came not to bring peace but division comes into effect.
Christ tells us that He comes to bring division not because He does not want us to have friends or because He wants to remove all the fun from our lives, but because He loves and He wants to ensure our eternal happiness. He wants to drive out the false peace of shallow, sinful friendships in order to bring the true peace of a life lived without sin.
In order to allow Him to accomplish this in us, we have to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, just as St. Paul told us today. “For the sake of the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross.” Jesus endured His Passion in order to bring us the joy of being able to enter Heaven. He wants us to be absolutely enflamed with His love, so enflamed that we will catch others on fire. But He knows that fires grow brightest when there is plenty of good, dry wood all packed together.
You can take a bright, burning fire and put it out simply by separating all the logs. When they are put together, the heat from each of the burning logs supports the other and you have a blazing, bright, hot fire. But when each of the logs is separated at the sides of the fire pit, the fire starts to smolder. This is what happens to us too when we surround ourselves with people who do not support us in the faith. Fortunately, though, God has given us a great cloud of witnesses, all the saints and angels in heaven, and our brothers and sisters in Christ on this earth, especially in our own parish.
God does not want you to be the smoldering log at the side of the fire pit. “I have come to set fire on the earth, and how I wish that it were already blazing!” Surround yourself with brightly burning souls who love Christ, set aside any relationships that pull you away from Him, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and you will set the whole world on fire with the joy of god’s love. Doing so will inevitably divide you from others, but it will keep you united to Him for all eternity, and happiness with Him forever in heaven is worth far, far more than anything else.
The Rev Royce V Gregerson
Parish Church of St Charles Borromeo, Ft Wayne
XX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXVI