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Vicar's Musings for Ordinary Sunday 19

12 August, 2012

Kapekapea tea hi tamou;
Whakamatahorokakahia te mura ahi

(Clear away the covering ash and stir up the embers;
Ignite the fires of my heart from the core of the earth's bosom.)
(Words of the ancient Maori priest and leader, Nga-toro-i-rangi)

This week Mount Tongariro, in New Zealand, blew its top. My marriage partner, Dr Ree Boddé, belongs to the Maori tribe Ngati Tuwharetoa through her maternal grandfather. When we were watching the news Ree said: "that's my mountain". She then reminded us of the myth of her great ancestor, Nga-toro-i-rangi, one of the first Maoris to arrive by canoe in New Zealand. On his early travels across the North Island Nga-toro-i-rangi saw the great mountain Tongariro and decided to climb it so as to claim all the lands of the central plateau. But a terrible storm arose and lashed by violent gales of snow and skin-lacerating winds the explorer finally slumped on the icy rocks; all but the beat of his heart was frozen. As he lay there dying the sage called to his sisters in far-off Hawaiki: "E Kui e! E Hau e! (The south wind assails me. Send me fire!)" Nga-toro-i-rangi and his family were directly descended from the ancient volcanic fire-god Pupu, and his sisters summoned the gods who speedily sent several kits filled with volcanic fire underground across the vast Pacific ocean. Just in time the molten lava burst out of the ground, forming the craters of the majestic Tongariro range, its warmth miraculously revived the Maori priest: "Ahi tamou, ahu mowai hu ana; honoa e! (Molten fire, warm the earth; heat her juices to steam and rise to heal my aching bones.)" Volcanic fire is a primal symbol of divine providence and salvation in this story, and it marks out one of the great leaders of the Maori people.

The ancient Israelites fleeing Egypt experienced God's agency in a remarkably similar way: "Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the mountain shook violently . . . the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up" (Exodus 19:18-20). The great sage and leader of the Hebrew people ascended what would appear to be an active volcano. Spared by God from what should have been certain death, Moses returns with the Ten Commandments. His position as leader is strengthened and God empowers him to lead the grumbling Israelites on through the harsh desert towards the Promised Land.

"Ignite the fires of my heart" pleads Nga-toro-i-rangi as he struggles for life on top of the mountain. Our struggles today in the City of Melbourne might be less dramatic but they are no less real and no less threatening. The daily breakfast programme for the homeless is a stark reminder of that for me each morning: there but by the grace of God . . .. And as we gather for worship we each bring our own needs. Some of us are struggling with depression or addictions. Some of us face financial difficulties or secret sins of which we are deeply ashamed. Some of us are burdened with illness or the illness of someone close to us. Or our hearts may be weighed down by the hurts we have absorbed from others or just the everyday worries of the world. As we sit in silence and come simply and plainly before God, perhaps we feel emptiness inside. How is my relationship with God? Perhaps I have lost something of that fire of love I once knew. Perhaps I have never experienced that gentle yet powerful touch of God's love.

The medieval mystic and Hermit, Richard Rolle, wrote an inspiring book on contemplative prayer and the Christian life: Incendium amoris or The Fire of Love. In the prologue he writes: "I cannot tell you how surprised I was the first time I felt my heart begin to warm. It was real warmth too, not imaginary, and it felt as if it were actually on fire .... Before the infusion of this comfort I had never thought that we exiles could possibly have known such warmth, so sweet was the devotion it kindled. It set my soul aglow as if a real fire was burning there." Rolle's book is an encouragement to seek God in stillness and meditation, and to be open to the physical experience of God that may be given by God's grace. It is easy for our religious life to become dry, frozen even, and perhaps today as we prepare to meet God in the mass we might pray with Richard Rolle for that fire of love which wells up within and renews our life of faith:

I will express my joy and gratitude
Because You have made me like one of those
Whose superb song springs from a clear conscience.
Their soul burns with their unending love.
And your servant too, when he or she sits in prayer,
Glows and loves in fervour ... and burns with fire.

The Rev'd Dr Hugh Kempster

Illustration for Ordinary Sunday 18 Musings

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