Saturday, November 6, 2021

Woodstove Spirituality

It is November, which means my woodstove is fired up for the season. While the last leaves are still lingering on the trees, I start the woodstove – at least in the mornings to take off the chill. I postpone this autumn ritual as long as possible. As tight as our woodstove is, it still leaks particles into the room when I open the door to add wood. It is also a very dry heat, so we will have to drag out the humidifier soon.

We have a J√łtul stove with a glass door, so I can watch the fire while I enjoy its heat. This style of stove has the ambiance of an open hearth without the indoor pollution and constant fire-tending. As I watch the fire, my imagination travels to the infancy of our race, when Prometheus first brought fire to humans. What a wonder fire must have been for those early members of our species!

There is something spiritual about fire. It is the focus of the earliest Vedas. Fire was named Agni in ancient India and considered to be a god. It was also one of the four (or five) basic elements in Indian, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese and Greek philosophy.

Fire is a symbol for the Divine throughout the Bible. God appears to Moses in a burning bush. God appeared to the Israelites in pillars of fire and smoke. Fire covered the summit of the sacred mountain Sinai. John the Baptist and Jesus used the image of fire in their teaching. The Holy Spirit came upon the apostles as tongues of fire.

As I watch the transformation of matter into energy in the firebox, I cannot help but think that this represents the human condition. Our bodies are fuel-consuming furnaces. Warmth is life. Cold is death. At death our bodies cool, and the elements return to earth from which they came. In my case the body will be consumed by fire and the ashes scattered to the wind on a mountaintop - two more symbols for the Divine.

We are not the body. Nor are we the fire. We are neither matter nor energy. In Indian philosophy the fifth element (after earth, water, fire, and air) is space or void. The same is true in Japanese Shinto and Tibetan Buddhism. Space is where everything occurs. It is the emptiness in my woodstove where transformation takes place.

The Tao Te Ching speaks often about space. Space is the emptiness which makes form possible. Space is what make a house useful. Without space my mug cannot hold tea. In the Bible God is said to dwell in the space between the cherubim on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies.

The Ark itself was a box not much bigger than my woodstove. And it was empty until Moses started filling it with commandments and religious objects. That is what religions always do. In the creation stories God formed the cosmos by creating space between the chaos above and below.

Space is the heart of Reality. It is the essence of what we are. Science tells us that our bodies are mostly space. The millions of atoms which comprise the human body are themselves 99% empty space. If you removed all of the empty space contained in every atom in every person on earth and compress us all together, the overall volume of our particles would be smaller than a sugar cube. We are space.

We are the space in which this world exists. That can be experienced directly. Look around. Do you experience yourself as an object in space or as the space in which objects appear? Are you an object in the universe or the space in which the universe appears?

We are the space within which the Burning Bush burns. We are the space in which Moses hears the sacred Name I AM. God instructs Moses, “Remove your shoes, for the place [or space] where you stand is holy ground!” Temples, churches and mosques are considered sacred space. The New Testament calls us temples of God. We are holy. So is your neighbor. Remember this and remove your shoes.

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