Out of the Ashes

A recurring dream used to visit me for a while when I was a teenager. I have never forgotten it and have sometimes wondered whether it was in some mysterious way picking up one of the underlying signs of the times. First I must explain that our home was just next door to a large Roman Catholic church with a commodious presbytery. A narrow public footpath separated it from our garden, but for me it might as well have been an electric fence. I grew up in a district that was staunchly—although not militantly—Protestant. None of us children would have dreamed of entering that church, any more than the few Roman Catholics who lived in the neighborhood would have dreamed of entering ours.

I was about 13 when my dream began to occur almost nightly. I would dream that the church across the path was on fire. I can still almost feel the heat of the blaze, so vivid were the images. When I awoke in the morning I would rush to the window, expecting to see the church reduced to ashes. But, of course, the church was always still standing there, unscathed. I began to think of it as a kind of burning bush. It seemed little short of a miracle, and however often the dream came, I never lost my sense of amazement that the church had survived the night.


It was many years later that I realized that my dream had come not so long before Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council. Was it just the dream of an overactive adolescent mind, or was it, just possibly, a little bit prophetic? Who knows what happens in the deeper layers of our psyche as we sleep?

Today a different kind of fire is sweeping through the church: flames of betrayal, dark smoke of concealment and evasion and racing winds of escalating fury. What kind of fire might this be? When forest fires rage through the Australian bush, they leave utter devastation in their wake and claim many innocent victims. Yet the seeds of the eucalyptus trees cannot burst open and germinate until they are exposed to the intensity of heat that only a forest fire can generate.

What brings death and destruction also brings new life that would not be possible otherwise. It is a purgatorial fire, a refining fire, stripping down the bush to its bare bones but also releasing a new generation of possibility. Is it a purgatorial fire that is sweeping through the church in our times? If so, what will survive and what will perish? Can the flames of this purgatory become, in God’s grace, the fire of a new Pentecost?

A jeweler friend told me of her visit to a silversmith. He had demonstrated how the silver ore is held in the heat of the refining fire until it is purified. “How do you know when it has been long enough in the fire?” she asked. “That’s easy,” replied the silversmith. “When the silver is fully refined, I can see my own image in it. Then I know it has been in the fire long enough.” How long will it take before God can look into the church and see God’s own image reflected back?

But if these large and dramatic images are too terrifying to contemplate, let me share a more intimate glimpse of Pentecostal fire. At a retreat center near Chicago the conference organizer lit a bonfire in the courtyard and invited us to gather round and simply get in touch with what the fire evoked in us. Meanwhile a drummer beat out an insistent rhythm, more and more urgently as the fire burned down. Just as the last of the fire subsided into ash, the drumbeat reached a climax, then stopped abruptly.

We sat in the silence, each making our own connections. Then came the miracle: the fire had died, but all around the place where it had been flew thousands of fireflies, like living sparks, each emitting tiny flashes of light. It was as if small but power-packed seeds had been born out of the ashes of the old and moribund—a vision of a new integrity thrusting forth from the grass roots around a blasted oak.

The full power of the fire—be it purgatorial or Pentecostal—is beyond our comprehension. But the fireflies remind us that we all have the light of Christ within us and the power to choose to let it shine, in our own personal way, upon a world increasingly lost in darkness. Every choice for the path of greater integrity in our own circumstances is a spark that can help turn dream into reality and purgatory into Pentecost.

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Norman Costa
8 years 7 months ago

Margaret Silf,

Thank you for your essay. My personal reaction was that, at last, someone is using the concept of purgatory in a meaningful way.

I like your metaphor of the refiner's fire. Too, I like the full text of the bible verse from
Malachi 2:17-3:6, "For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap."

The refiner's fire is destructive. The impurities in the ore are obliterated in a consuming fire. All that remains is the essence of something of great value. The prize was obtained at great cost. The refiner's fire reveals something else of equal value. The unmasking of empty and useless dross.

I like the “launderer's soap” image. The first thing that comes to mind is the justifiably angry mother, who disciplines her child for using foul and offensive language. Unlike the refiner's fire, the laundry soap is not destructive. The badly mannered youngster is not obliterated. Hopefully, the child has learned an important lesson about good behavior. If the child internalizes the values of the parents, then there is the making of a better person.

Sometimes I think we need a really good refiner's fire. The bigger the better. If the people of God, the faithful of the flock, really believe there is an immutable core of great value in the church, then there is nothing to fear – and everything to gain – from a liberating trial by fire. Impurities pour off, are skimmed, or go up in smoke. It's destructive and harsh, but the reward is immense. If the hierarchy self-destructs, is pilloried for public failings, or resigns in disgrace, emergence of the precious substance becomes more likely. There is nothing to fear.

A good chastening with a bar of soap has its place. Like the surly immature child, it's a lesson that will never be forgot. Nor should it be. The child has to be held in place to receive the bracing punishment. The offender has no choice but to take it. At a later time, much later, the matured individual is shown great respect for learning the lessons of life, living them for all to see, and passing on wisdom to the next generation. There are many among our bishops, though, who cry too early, “Please, no more soap. I've suffered enough. I've learned my lesson.” NO! They would like us to believe they did. A few more applications are still required, and maybe for some time to come.

The refiner's fire requires faith, a lot of it, in the ultimate refiner who is not ourselves. The disciplining parent requires self-confidence, willingness to take on the responsibility, and determination not to take “No,” for an answer. Who is the parent in this case? It's is not the priestly caste, nor the ecclesiastical hierarchy. It is we.

Winifred Holloway
8 years 7 months ago

Thank you, Margaret for this essay.  I paraphrase you here:  you mention that in our own personal way, our light must shine and we with our own personal integrity can turn that spark of faith into reality.  More and more, especially in this time fr tumult, I agree with that sentiment.  What is ironic, however, is that this personal witness leans more toward a protestant view of our spiritual relationship to Christ than does the Catholic view, to oversimply, "we're all in this together."  I don't feel a kinship with many of my Catholic brothers and sisters.  There are still those who call themselves "orthodox" who will defend the insitutional system as though their very faith depended on the sanctity of the hierarchy and absolute loyalty to the system of top down goverance is seen by these folks to be a mark of a true Catholic.  I am fed up with the "magesterium".  the very word I find repellent.  It's not that they are merely out of touch.  They don't want to be in touch.  It's arrogance multiplied.  I will live as best I can by the baptismal promises that were made for me as an infant and to which I as an adult assent to wholeheartedly.  I am just very sad that I will be doing it alone.

8 years 7 months ago
I love reading Margaret Silf! She writes heart-to-heart, brimful of solid spirituality, "pressed down and running over" quoting the Word of God. Her latest, "Out Of The Ashes" is a gem!

Reflecting on the "flames" of scandal incinerating the "sinful Church" so described by the Council Fathers of Vatican II, Margaret Silf wonders if the flames of the Church's purgatory can become a new Pentecost. The answer is "Yes!" This because the liberating flames of the Church's purgatory even though of its own making, Pentecost too, which is of God's making, come from, in the final analysis, the same source and activated therfrom - the Hope-filled merciful heart of the Lord, mindful of the biblical assurance, that, "God's mercy is above all his works!" That's our hope!

Rooted in, and blossoming "Out Of The Ashes," it may be helpful to recall that Jesus told St. Faustina Kowalska, "Tell aching humanity to snuggle close to my merciful heart!" It seems to me two kinds of people "snuggle" - little children to parents when frightened, or when in need of simply being in the maternal/paternal embrace - also lovers too, close to each other quite legitimately. So, we are called as "Church" to be little children and lovers, all of this kicking into Margaret Silf's querry, "Can the flames of the Church's purgatory become a new Pentecost?"

Conjoined to this assessment , let me also mention that years ago when Cardinal John J. O'Connor was Archbishop of New York, he publicly spoke of placing his entire Archdioces under one year of spiritual retreat. Sickness and death prevented the Cardinal from implementing that publicly expressed thought. Maybe the Holy Father should think about placing the Universal Church on a year long retreat of prayer and penance, praying and doing penance collectively as "Church" "for what we did and what we failed to do."

All of this is rooted, I think, in the same spirit of Hope that enraptures the unchanging God, in response to David, of whom was said, "I love David because he is a man after my own heart" a Divine infatuation, not dismissed by God on account of David's great sins of adultery and murder. Nor will God dismiss the Church because of its great sins no matter what! Thus, the flames of the Church's purgatory will become a new Pentecost, a "new Springtime" as promised by the Servant of God, Pope John Paul the Great! This made fruitful by the Church's "hoe" of prayerful penenace.

Margaret Silf also points out once on retreat she with others "sat in silence" around a bonfire making "personal connections." A "miracle" happened there after the fire had died down and from the ashes "living sparks" emitting tiny flashes of light were noted. What were they? They were little packages of Hope - Hope-filled seeds, falling into the ashes of scandal, then bursting into bloom like the Eucalyptus Tree that needs the heat of conflagration to germinate. There, for our contemporary Church, we have a new Pentecostal model emerging from the Church's purgatorial flames, a model for our "ever ancient, ever new" Church - the Eucalyptus Tree, our Church!

Margaret says further, "The full power of fire be it purgatorial, or Pentecostal is beyond our comprehension." Maybe this is because the Incomprehendible God, is wrapped up in it and is able to bring light out of darkness, in a sense just as Thomas Edison did when inventing the long-lasting light of the electric bulb. Following many attempts (call them failures) experimenting with a thousand different elements Editon finally hit upon using carbon, a dark, black, sinister-looking element and therein found the way to effect long-lasting electric light. Out of darkness light emerged! Margaret Silf in her Hope-filled essay has shown how "Out Of The Ashes" of the darkness of sin and scandal, out of the Church's purgatorial flames, the Lord God will bring forth Pentecost's illumination, as it has been in the past, will be now and forever until Christ comes again!

God bless Margaret Silf! God bless America Magazine!
John Hess
8 years 6 months ago
It is long past time for the Church to stop trying to run away from Vatican II.  God bless Good Pope John XXIII, who did not fear the end of the Middle Ages. 
Aloysia Moss
8 years 5 months ago
I think it was John XXIII who spoke of a new Pentecost not John Paul II .


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