Amid the flames, a road to Damascus moment

As a theology student, in the distant past, I was introduced to the writings of Episcopal priest and philosopher Geddes MacGregor. At that stage I apparently found humour more meaningful than philosophy and so I mentally recorded the following poem:

If one day whilst roaming around
A noble wild beast greets you
With black stripes on a yellow ground
Just notice if he eats you.
This simple test will help you learn
The Bengal Tiger to discern.

Later in life the depth of those words gradually seeped into my own understanding of religion and ministry. It’s possible to approach faith from a solely observational point of view, gathering pieces of information, using them to prove something to ourselves or others, supposedly weighing them in the balance. It can be a rather seductive process during which we may be gradually consumed by the mental gymnastics of it all without acknowledging along the way that faith doesn’t rely on intellectual nutrition alone.

A Bengal tiger in the forests of India’s Bandhavgarh National Park. Credit:Shutterstock

Jack was a firefighter deployed to Cann River in Eastern Victoria during the horrendous bushfires of late December 2019. On New Year’s Eve, he and his crew found themselves trapped by a wall of flames many metres high.

Retreat was not an option and surrounded by intense heat, smoke and flying embers, Jack was convinced that he and his mates were going to die. At that moment he could only think of his wife and three children at home in Melbourne.

It takes both deep fear and profound love for a seasoned campaigner to grasp for his mobile at such a time to say goodbye to his family, but that’s what he did. The conversation was fleeting, tearful, traumatising and unforgettable for all concerned. Jack is not religious but, as the group tried to find shelter, he heard himself praying aloud to be shown a way out of that horror. It was a prayer from the inner self; the heart, not the head. He and his colleagues were rescued soon after by the sheer courage and selflessness of other firefighters.

Jack will ponder the deeper meaning of that event for the rest of his life, but faith that reveals itself after being pushed to the brink – the discovery that new avenues open up when all seems hopeless – is a gift to be nurtured. Reaching out to God without setting ourselves benchmarks of intellectual assent is the kind of faith that has been discovered by millions over the years to be healing and sustaining, even after the most confronting of challenges. Mystery, beauty and wonder are often food for the soul when reasoning falls short.

Jim Pilmer is an Anglican priest.

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