In the Heart of the Flame…

In my last semester at Cal, Spring 2007, one of the classes I took was the Bible as Literature with Professor Stephen Goldsmith. It was a stimulating class, and it’s structure forced me to re-evaluate many of my preconceptions about the Bible and it’s formation. It gave me the opportunity to read much in the way Higher Criticism and get a feel for the arguments scholars use, which allowed me to reject much Sophistic nonsense from an informed stance. In many ways, it was a faith building course for me. My studies did, however, take me further and further afield from the Biblical Literalism of my childhood, which concerned and confused me. I was also reading more of C. S. Lewis, who accepted Orthodox Christianity with gusto, but did not hold to Literalist interpretations such as I was raised with, and had excellently reasoned out arguments for his position. For the most part, I took this paradigm shift in stride, but I was terribly concerned what a non-literal reading of parts of the Bible, combined with the complex history of the formation of the Canon, did to Sola Scriptura, a doctrine near and dear to my heart.

In this class, I sat next to a friend named Amanda, a fellow English major whom I’d known from several previous courses. Amanda was a Catholic, and a devout one at that. Given the subject matter of the course, we had ample opportunity to discuss religion in general and Christianity in particular, among many other topics. I was impressed with Amanda’s genuine spirit for Christ, and the well-articulated knowledge she brought to the conversation. Again I found myself vexed by the visible presence of the Spirit within a Catholic. Indeed, in a semester of reading critical texts on Scripture, including Gnostic Gospels, the thing that spiritually challenged me the most was this friendship.

Then May rolled around. Finals were taken, all was set in place, and I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley and the rest of my life began. Being the easy-going person that I am, I had no solid plans, so I took what life brought me. In this case, it was work in the Video Game industry, which I shall not go into in great detail. It was, in many ways, a great job, but in others, very frustrating. I don’t know if I’d repeat the experience, but in all likelihood I’d make radically different choices given another chance. Such is life.

Because of the pressures of working and commuting, my social life suffered a bit. My only regular social activities outside of work were my tabletop gaming buddies in Berkeley on Saturday, and my old church friends in Hayward on Sunday. Now, I love my old church in Hayward, and the people there, but my friend Steve summarized all the problems it has quite nicely the one time I convinced him to come: “this is why I don’t go to church anymore, all they talk about is World of Warcraft, not Jesus”. Painfully, the church over the past few years has transformed more into a cliquey social club where the main topic of conversation is the latest cool video game. Now, I have no problem with that line of conversation in general. But when the service has been done for all of five minutes, and all that is being discussed is the latest raid run on Molten Core…*sigh*

Now, my job was seasonal, for if they employed us for over 6 months they would have to do all sorts of crazy things, like provide “health benefits” or something. By the time the job had run it’s course, I was weary and sick at heart. I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but I had a pretty good idea of what I didn’t want to do. I was still living in Berkeley, as my roommate was still in college and I was in particular no hurry to move out. After work was done, I had some time to relax and think things through. I touched bases with some friends back in Berkeley, and started to breath a bit. One of my friends I ran into shortly after staying in town for a while was Amanda. We bumped into each other, said we should get coffee or something, which I promptly didn’t think about for the next two or three weeks.

I started going to church in Berkeley again, but like my old church in Hayward, something seemed off. There was something missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. There were loving people gathering together to offer worship to God, showing each other the love of Jesus Christ. But I felt out of place, like I belonged somewhere else, needed to pursue something else. I was, in a word, tortured.

My desires were also often in the wrong things, disordered. I wanted money, toys, and all the crass material goodies and pleasures that modern culture has to offer. My discontent with my church life led to a downwards spiral in how I viewed life, and the value of the human person. I found that not even my church friends rose above the level of crass materialism most of the time, and I found myself settling for less and less of myself all the time.

A decisive moment came when I had a conversation with several of my good friends at the Free Speech Cafe. We discussed what we wanted from life, specifically our philosophies of love and marriage. During the conversation, I had an epiphany, that defies my ability to describe it. I fully grasped that I wanted something more, needed something more, than I could possibly imagine, and that only by seeking God could I find it. But I also knew that if I did seek, I would find. Immediately, in the middle of the conversation, I went from being morose and overwhelmed with negative emotions, to a sense of absolute calm and peace. I walked home prayerfully considering my life. When I got home, I poured out my heart to the Lord, and asked for some sign, some guidepost as to what I must do. Almost immediately a thought popped into my head: I needed to contact Amanda and hang out with her.

I hadn’t thought about my random encounter with her in several weeks, so it struck me as odd that I would immediately think of that, so I took it as a sign. I got in contact with Amanda, and we met for coffee. It was a pleasant chat, and it was good to catch up with her. Again, I was impressed by how different she was, the genuineness of her spirit, and this intrigued me. We met up a couple of times towards the end of the year, and our conversations went a bit all over the place, as I am wont to do. But I remember quite clearly one time I asked her earnestly if she really believed all that Transubstantiation, Real Presence in the Eucharist stuff? It sounded crazy to me (“who can stand this teaching?”), and I kind of gave that impression in the way I asked the question. She softly answered with “It was what I was raised to believe…” as a response to my aggression over what I perceived to be Papist corruptions of the Clear Gospel Truth, to my shame.
As we were having lunch one time, she mentioned that her parish was throwing a praise and worship night together for the end of the semester, and wanted to know if I was interested in attending. I was still leery of the Church in general, but I was open enough to not see the harm in a basic praise music event. I mean, it wasn’t anything overtly pagan or idolatrous like a Mass, which I probably would have thought of as beyond the pale. I saw it as being harmless enough, so agreed to attend.

I arrived at the parish a bit early, and made my way to the upstairs room where the praise night would be held. I sat down on a comfy couch in the corner and awkwardly waited for it to start. The priest in attendance, one Father Charlie, came over with a tray and offered me a cookie, which threw me a bit. I got to know him better in the months to come, but at the time, all I could see was that he wore a Roman collar, and remember what my dad always taught me about Catholic priests. Namely, that they couldn’t possibly be actual saved Christians. Despite my innate hostility to the priesthood, I took the proffered cookie, for it looked delectable, and so it was. Now, I can only shake my head at the prejudice I felt when I saw that collar.

The praise and worship that night was quite beautiful, the band had put a great deal of effort into preparation, and it showed. The music was well done, the songs were heartfelt, and everyone in attendance got into the singing. It fell very firmly into my cultural comfort zone, and I got into it. I was struck by how these were the same sorts of songs a good Baptist church would sing, and similar sentiments. By the end, I was very much at ease, and felt a good deal of warmth in my soul. But that was nothing compared to what came next.

One of the organizers of the event had prepared a candlelight meditation. Candles were passed around, the lights were dimmed, a brief prayer was said, and some Gregorian Chant was put on to set the mood. This sort of thing was also not foreign to my Evangelical background, so I went along with it, and then something extraordinary happened.

I experienced the presence of the Holy Spirit, as I had only rarely ever known Him, or have since. I cannot fully describe in words what I felt during those ten minutes, which seemed to stretch for an eternity. On my walk home, I composed a poem that got to the essence of my encounter with God. Though it is only words, it must suffice:

“Theophany of the Candle”, by Samuel Urfer

I saw God in a candles flame tonight,
As it consumed a braided cotton wick.
I prayed: “Let me be the wick, holy Lord,
That you may engulf me in your embrace.”
I saw the wax melt into a pure lake
Of molten white, no blemish to be seen.
I prayed: “Let me be the wax, righteous Lord,
That I may be clean of all my pollution.”
I saw the flame, and in it was the form
Of the seeming of the image of the Lord.
I prayed: “Let me be the fire, good God,
That I might shine for You as a beacon.”
The time came to blow out the lone candle.
It felt like Blasphemy, horribly wrong.
But I knew the flame was not God,
Just a reflection, like the one in me.
Poof!

I was flabbergasted. The Catholic Church wasn’t supposed to have the Holy Spirit’s presence. This blew my mind. I had no idea what to make of this astounding fact, that I had encountered God in a Catholic Church. Next time, we shall explore my efforts to cope with this. Stay tuned!

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~ by Sam Urfer on June 19, 2008.

6 Responses to “In the Heart of the Flame…”

  1. The wonderfully earnest nature of your content aside, I just thought I’d mention that this is very well-written.

    Additionally, I really enjoyed that you wrote the lines “I was flabbergasted. The Catholic Church wasn’t supposed to have the Holy Spirit’s presence,” about HOLY SPIRIT Parish. Beautiful.

  2. Thanks! When I finally posted this at 1 AM, I was partly convinced it was incoherent nonsense, so I’m glad to hear that it’s readable.

    Mmmmmm, irony, it’s an amazing thing. That wasn’t even intentional on my part, but I like it. Good catch!

  3. Nice website!!

  4. We have posted about this at The Black Cordelias… Most notably with “Sola Scriptura“…

    Check us out at TBC… We are always looking for more contributors!

  5. Sam,

    It’s James; Dan’s friend from the Cornerstone Conference last weekend. Drop me a line at jamesg042(at)gmail(dot)com.

    James

  6. Hi, Sam,
    Your written explanation is so much better than what you attempted to say today in person. Obviously, you’re a writer. I’m anxious to hear more.

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