O Blessed Fire within

*** An achingly beautiful melody, hauntingly harmonised, to express an attempted response to Jesus’ comment on the seventh Commandment.

COMMENTARY

This hymn responds to what may be presumed to be one of Christianity’s most deeply felt conversation-killers: You have heard that it was said ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Perhaps this is the most un-talked about teaching in the Gospels. The reason, we may suppose, is that most if not all of us, finding ourselves convicted by the teaching, feel we have nothing to say.

The first issue that concerns us is the right ordering of our feelings and our instincts. Most of us are attracted to many people, some of us very often. Serving one who enjoins his friends to Love one another as I have loved you, it is appropriate that we should celebrate all that we feel for one another. Moreover, since we believe that all that the Creator gives is in itself good, we should gladly give thanks for the full measure of our instincts and passions. That is the starting point of this hymn: God, imaged as fire from beyond, kindles the catching spark that speaks your name through each embodied here. Warmed by grace, or burned, scorched even, we dare to bless the divine source of love come near.

Having set us in the direction of blessing and thanking God, the hymn now calls attention to the boundary between love and lust. Where love freely affirms and celebrates all that is given, lust wants what is given as its own possession. Where love creates and liberates, lust imprisons and destroys. Like Icarus, who ignored his father’s instruction, flew too close to the sun so that his wings melted and fell into the sea, so we, who on earth have enjoyed heavenly love, want more and more; and we confess to lusting after love. This lusting is represented as surrendering ourselves for less than all that’s best above, as settling for lives that fall short of full human dignity and respect.

Many people, Christians among them, try to justify their captivity to lust by exalting nature and the god of nature. In this view, love is the consummation of lust, and its muse. In an earlier version of this text, I took that thought further, to reflect on how, in the (abused) name of love, lust is marketed as life’s most basic dynamic, so that the young – and everyone indeed – are assisted to explore its territory; thus we make them fall. That text implied that this (legal) market is the context within which adults (illegally) exploit children, afflicting them with blinding, disabling helplessness and rage.

So, though now intended as words to help us rightly order that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer calls ‘our sinful wills and affections’, this hymn was originally a form of confession and contrition, both personal and corporate. It concluded, partly with prayer for each wounded person (for all have been victimised by the sinfulness of the world), and partly by each singer asking for his, her, whole life to be directed in the way of divine love.

“This is not a hymn!” a friend exclaimed of that original: “It’s a workshop.” That was an accurate criticism, for there was too much to take in at one go. I had hoped that setting the hymn’s work of confession in the context of joyful thanksgiving would enable singers to engage gladly with one of Jesus’ most searching teachings. But it was too dense; I had to simplify the text, and I hope it is now more accessible to all.

The music was written on the day in 2001 when researchers published the results of the Human Genome Project. An additional reason for adopting the name GENOME was to indicate awareness that the description of lust implied by this hymn could be considered as controversial. Some may with integrity argue that lust is indeed nature’s way of feeling your embrace.

This hymn, unambiguously addressed to God, is offered as a contribution to a complicated conversation about how human beings can live humanly.