Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Bonfire

The road to the professor’s farmhouse looked much different in the soft, bright twilight of late spring than it had in the chill darkness of mid-December. The first wild bursts of spring had past, and the landscape had calmed down into the quiet existence of a mild summer: the trees were full of thick, green foliage and there were bright spots of wildflowers along the twisting road. We were so distracted by the lovely scenery we nearly missed our turn “before the brown fence posts,” as the directions said.

We had both been in eager anticipation, all afternoon, to join the “little end-of-the-year bonfire” to which our professor had invited us. On my part, I confess I was a little too proud of being on the guest list; he had said that it was not a party for the whole campus, which made me feel privileged for being invited. “It will be,” I thought to myself, “a delightful, quiet evening with just those students he wanted to invite.” In a way, I was right; but it was not exactly as I expected.

Although we were technically ten minutes late, according to the time he had specified, we were the first pair to arrive; so with distinctive Southern courtesy he seated us on his front porch and let us chat with his mischievous little daughter. Then, he came out and spoke with us for a short time; but it was not long before the other guests began to arrive, and we soon moved to the backyard to gather wood for a bonfire, play on his rope swing, toss bean bags, or just talk with one another.

I had, as I have said, anticipated a certain group of people coming—the sort of students I admired and knew fairly well. Yet, as car after car pulled up the gravel drive, I was surprised—at first mildly, gradually more so—at who else had been invited. There were very many of those whom I had expected would come; there were also many whom I had not anticipated seeing: misfits, outgoing personalities and shy folks—both alumni and students, those successful and those less so, those I had expected and those I had not all mingling together around our professor. Throughout the evening, as more people gradually arrived, it invariably gave me pause to see who joined the steadily-growing ring around the fire the professor was stirring into a strong and steady flame.

As the cool shades of the evening slowly descended round about us, we settled in with treats—s’mores, popcorn, pie, cookie-bars—and began to sing in rounds. “O how lovely is the evening . . . Jubilate Deo . . . Away, away . . . Dominus tecum . . . yet will I be merry . . . ” Then, we listened to his reading of “On the Mowing of a Field,” by Hilaire Belloc. It was incredibly peaceful, to sit beside a roaring bonfire, a few diamond-point stars overhead, and the night breezes gently stirring the trees around us, and simply listen to the pastoral scene painted by that writer, who always seems to speak of tradition, of eternity, of what is lasting and what is passing, and the steady, solid, common things that—thank God—fill most of the journey of our days, between milestones of tragedy and joy.

When the story was finished, there was the sweetest, most beautiful pause, a marvelous silence. Then we entered a long and passionate discussion, involving all of us, ringed round the blaze: about joy and suffering, active and contemplative prayer, plans for the future, God’s presence in scripture, and the mysterious workings of His providence. The professor asked the graduating seniors to share a brief insight and all of them—even those of whom I least expected it—had something profound and poignant to share.

In both that sweet moment of silence and in the subsequent discussion, I suddenly perceived the strange miracle of that gathering. We were of all sorts; not merely of different classes, but of different opinions, personalities, and vocations. There were people round that fire who seldom would be together in the course of ordinary life; even those whom I knew disliked each other, or who generally avoided social gatherings, were all united that evening. He had specifically asked each person; had seen something in each one of us, even when we couldn’t see it ourselves, that made our presence there wanted and somehow fitting. It reminded me of nothing so much as the similar gathering around Christ—Pharisees, tax collectors, fishermen, and prostitutes. We were gathered around something eternal: communion. It was not just our teacher himself that drew us, it was what he represented and what he sought for us—the pursuit of God; because of that, the goodness in him truly drew out the best in each one of us. He can see Christ in all of us, and enables us to see it, too.

There may be some symbolic providence in the fact that often, when I have seen the philosophy professor in his “natural setting,” at home, outside the classroom or the office, he always seems to be lighting fires. It isn’t a simple task; it is a craft, one he seems to have mastered, which takes a special knowledge and a kind of skill. What he does with a few sparks and a little kindling, he seems to do with the people he gathers around him. He is lighting sparks, blowing on the embers, encouraging the little flames to rise and burn, planting seeds of fire that may someday burst into flame. We can’t be in college forever; we have a few short years here and then we step out into the great, grand world and will face the drudgery of the workplace or the household. But hopefully, by the time we leave, we will be like a “brand snatched from the burning,” (Zech. 3:2)—on fire, and fervent enough, wise and willing enough, to light sparks of our own, and live zealously for the Lord.

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