One of my favorite memories growing up was fires on the creek bank in our little neighborhood. A section of creek flowed in a one mile bend around the Em Gove section of Wheeling, West Virginia. Three of the parallel streets shared a communal piece of the bank that was restored one Earth Day after decades of neglect and over growth. The restoration included a gigantic bonfire pit. It seemed that every weekend over the summer the people in my neighborhood gathered for hot-dog roasts, s’mores, and I’m certain a beer or two around a fire.
The adults would talk and we kids would take sticks of various sizes and lengths, catch them on fire and then run down the water’s edge and launch them in the air into the flowing water and hear them sizzle out and float away down to the Ohio River. Not once do I recall getting in trouble for setting off these hillbilly fireworks. It was glorious!
By 8th grade, we were adventurous and responsible enough to have fires ablaze for night fishing for carp and catfish in the deep hole just below my street. I remember one evening the fishing was slow. My friends and I were crushing a case of Mountain Dew pretending it was something the grown ups would drink and discussing all manner of things important to 14-year-old boys, chiefly starting high school in the fall. I must have gone silent at one point, but remember staring into the depths of flame mesmerized by the movement of colors in the hot and cold coals.
One friend checked on me, “You okay, Chris?”
“Ya, I’m fine.”
“What are you staring at?”
“Fire is so hypnotic!”
They laughed and teased like good childhood friends will do to one who tries to make a moment more reflective and philosophical than it needs to be. That little line became a guaranteed joke for every fire we ever had in the years to come. “Fire is so hypnotic.”
In high school, the fire was a central focus of all our camping adventures and was a guarantee for all fishing trips up and down the creek. Each spring during trout season, we enjoyed a shoreline lunch of whole cooked rainbows in foil pouches with butter and ramps or spring onions. Our conversations matured around the fires of that era of life. My friends and I plumbed the depths of teenage existence often wrestling with our parents being divorced, girls we liked, first jobs we knew were going to be a part of our lives for, well the rest of our lives, dreams of the future, faith, and plans for upcoming hunting seasons in the woods we were camped.
From lengthy conversations with my brother about who Jesus is, to simple Saturday night hot dogs around the fire with my family waiting for the first stars to appear over the house, fire and gathering around a fire are consistent activities in my life.
Fire is elemental – not only elemental, but sacramental and transformative. The fire is security and comfort in a lonely dark wood at night. It’s an elemental, hard to master food enhancer. It is a heroic feat for a kid to start a fire. Fire is that light that draws the darkest places of our lives into the light of conversation with friends whom we entrust with our very self. Fire brings family together and pushes the boy into manhood for it is one of the first deadly things that a young man conquers in the natural world.
Perhaps this is why God chooses to appear in the great theophany as the fire of the burning bush. Moses is intrigued, draws close and then God speaks to Him, calls him by name and then sets him on mission, the mission of drawing a people together, a family.
Burnt offerings sent up in flame to the Almighty are complemented by Christ sending the Holy Spirit to engulf the world in the fire of the truth of the Gospel. A sword on fire guards the Garden and signals death, and danger to the trespasser yet fire is comfort, the Holy Spirit Comforter. Fire consumes the unrepentant Sodom yet Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walk about unharmed, (Singing hymns to God by the way!) in the seven-times scorcher faithful to the God of their Fathers.
You see, I stoke this idea of campfire theology as a simple man who sees the world simply – at least I think I do. A simple campfire or raging bonfire is a place where stories are told and conversations happen with the freedom to open up the heart and mind to something, really Someone, larger and lovelier. The theologizing and philosophizing, reflecting and thinking that happens around the warmth and comfort of Campfire Theology is simple and personal. I am not trying to be St. Thomas Aquinas or aggressively pursue the intellectual tradition, though that is important and necessary for Catholic flourishing. (Actually if you want to read some excellent theologians check out the other authors of Prime Soil. There is tremendous theological talent writing here!) Campfire Theology is meant to be the camp chair settled around the fire whose storyteller sees God in the ordinary things and is trying to make sense of his own mini-theophanies. This is a place where the seeming paradoxes of faith and the triumphs and struggles of the Christian life can be worked out. Occasionally I’ll get it right, often I’ll be in the middle of sorting out. But together we will pursue the God we want to understand and His workings, His goings on in our lives past, present and future.
May God bless you abundantly this year and the mercy and grace of the Sacred Heart enkindle in you a love for Jesus Christ.
See you next time around the campfire!