Some years ago, before I was editor of this magazine, I wrote a shortish piece that the editor, Walt Collins ’51, rejected. I reworked it several times, and each version got a thumbs down from the bearded journalist I greatly admired.
I thought my little story was quite clever.
It was about how this tribe — long ago in a land far away — had happened to witness a thunderbolt striking a tree, setting it afire. And how someone — a risky visionary — captured the fire, kept it going, then learned to use it for warmth and light and cooking.
The fire-tender maintained the flame and the flame — both mysterious and powerful — transformed their lives.
The story talked about how the fire-tender — a simple, devout man — lovingly labored to keep the fire lit through cold and rain. And when the tribe traveled, the fire-tender carried the flame along, turning branches into torches, managing to keep fire alive, a constant companion for the people sharing its energy, bringing light and warmth and cooked food.
In time, though, a gathering of people thought the flame too valuable to entrust to this single fire-tender, so they decided to form a committee to discuss the nature of the flame and the important duties of maintaining it.
They made a list of rules and regulations that governed such maintenance. They appointed a select group to oversee the flame (excluding the original tender), and agreed upon the proper attire to be worn by those now holding on to the fire. And the tools for handling it. And the selectmen were organized into a hierarchy of importance and responsibility, authority and truth.
They also prescribed laws and practices for viewing the flame, for its distribution and how it would be apportioned to others. In time, though, the fire — the one true flame — was deemed too valuable to share and too precious to leave in the hands of just anyone. Only these designated Fire Keepers held onto The Fire.
Now it is true (the story went) that pieces of fire continued to be used by the many. After all, the people had grown accustomed to light and warmth and cooked food. Fire had its utilitarian purposes, and many saw in their own flames the sacred strands to the original fire. And many, in fact, were prayerful and reverent in the handling and keeping of fire — the essence of fire — in any form.
They knew that any life force is happiest when encouraged to spread — and not stifled by custom or code.
But the Fire Keepers, consumed by their august responsibilities, had other thoughts.
They created housing for the flame. They made a place, a sanctuary, an altar for it. Eventually it was enclosed for safekeeping. Finally it was embedded in an elaborate glass case (like one would see in a museum or art institute) for both protection and viewing. And only the high priests had access to the key. And The Fire was only visible to those allowed to view it by those responsible for guarding it.
In time, though, because fire needs air to breathe and fuel to burn, The Fire — so safely enclosed and apart from air and fuel — expired. Was extinguished. Died out.
Not to worry. By then, this tribe had discovered electricity. It had light bulbs and wires, generators and switches. And it was a fairly simple procedure to devise and construct a new fire, something that would survive easily, perpetually, eternally in captivity. And The Fire had been so deeply embedded in the artifice, and for so long, that this new fire — this modern fire — was virtually like the real thing anyway. Who would know the difference? Especially buried there so deep within the holy tabernacle.
That’s pretty much the little story I wrote some years ago. That’s where it ended. I thought it spoke to all manner of organizations that wring the joy and spontaneity out of the endeavors they take over.
Finally, Walt Collins, the magazine’s editor at the time (surely tired of young me resubmitting my reworked efforts trying to earn acceptance), simply blurted out: “It’s an allegory. I just don’t like allegories. If you’ve got something to say, just say it straight out.”
But I guess I’m still not ready to do that. It’s so much easier to hide behind a tale that implies stuff without nailing down tangled and slippery truth. So I’ll remain on the edges with all this.
But let me say: I’m very encouraged by the choice of the new pope. And I’m very encouraged by all the talk of renewal and reform and the spirit moving again through the Church and all its people, like it’s a new day.
Maybe someday soon the little story will get a happy ending.
Kerry Temple is the editor of this magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.