Monday over Coffee: "The Fire"

Published June 6, 2022 by Greg Funderburk

The object of hope is a future good—difficult but possible to obtain.
— Thomas Aquinas

These past few weeks have featured a series of devastating events in our country. Somewhat dispirited and disoriented, I sought hope in an effort to bring me back to myself. I found some nestled within a volume of essays by Karen Swallow Prior called On Reading Well. In it, Prior takes her readers on a guided tour through several great works of literature which shine a spotlight on human virtue—the cardinal virtues like Justice and Courage; the theological virtues like Faith, Hope, and Love; and the heavenly virtues like Patience, Kindness, and Humility.

In each chapter, Prior selects a classic book by a famous or highly regarded author who transmits a deep and clarifying knowledge of one of these virtues through fictional narrative, that is, through the art of story. For instance, from Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, we learn of Justice. From Shusako Endo's Silence, we examine Faith. From Jane Austen's Persuasion, we're guided toward Patience. And from Cormac McCarthy's dark, apocalyptic novel called The Road—as unlikely as it might seem—we learn of hope, as McCarthy brilliantly affirms all that we sense is best inside our souls despite the bleak, nihilistic world in which his story is set.

The Road is a simple yet harrowing tale of a nameless father and son, referred to in McCarthy's spare prose only as "the man" and "the boy." As the story unfolds, the man's wife, the boy's mother, is gone, and the two must reckon with the darkest of realities—the challenge of survival in the aftermath of an existential (though largely unexplained) global cataclysm. Imperiled by unspeakable horrors at every turn, they skillfully avert the harm other survivors wish to inflict on them as they traverse a cold and barren landscape toward the promise of coastal warmth, the sea, and a place where a reconstituted civilization might exist. As they travel on and off the road from which the novel takes its name, the father shepherds and protects his son while the son, in his innocence and devotion to his father, reminds them both (along with the reader) of what is good and right in the remnants of their broken world. Their exchanges are rendered tenderly by McCarthy in spartan dialogue like this:

We're going to be okay, aren't we Papa.

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That's right.

Because we're carrying the fire.

The father and son refer to "the fire" several times in conversation, though McCarthy never directly tells the reader what is meant by this. It's hardly necessary though. Whatever the fire is, it's the reason the son refers to his father and to himself as "the good guys." Whatever the fire is, it suggests that even in our darkest hours, transcendence is still on offer to us through the selfless love the father has for his child. Whatever the fire is, it captures the indelible notion of hope—the thing that we pray emerges when the urge to give up arises inside of us.

While we live in a post-pandemic world, not a post-apocalyptic one, I think this idea—this metaphor of a fire inside of us—may be something to think about right now. Take measure of the contours of hope inside of you right now. Ask yourself what keeps you going through the difficult terrain of life. What tells you the good you hope for is not impossible? The "fire" may be hard to define, but it's the thing inside us that pushes back against the nihilism that's so prevalent in our world today. It's what tells us that transcendence is still available to us through sacrificial love. This is hope. In the face of a broken world, there's nothing wrong in acknowledging the truth that it's difficult to have hope sometimes. It takes practice, and often some real thinking about how to find, then deploy one's moral energy, to hope.

It also takes some skill to avert the things which divert us from hope. If you're dispirited or disoriented and looking to find your way back to hope and back to yourself, you will not find it by using anger or contempt to dehumanize anyone—the other, the ones you hate for whatever reason, the ones you consider your enemy. It's only with love for one another that we find our way back?in practicing the very virtue we wish to propagate. It is available in no other way.

God — Help me carry the fire. Amen.

— Greg Funderburk