See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life's sacred fire. That's a lyric from a song by Gordon Lightfoot that tries to interpret the struggle going on in the heart of Miguel de Cervantes' mythical hero, Don Quixote. Goodness separates him from the world, even as he understands that wickedness has the same source.
There's perplexing irony in this: Both the wise and wicked, saints and sinners, feed off the same, sacred source. The energy that fuels the dedicated selflessness of the saint who dies for the poor also fires the irresponsible acting-out of the movie star who proudly boasts of thousands of sexual conquests. Both feed off the same energy which, in the end, is sacred.
But it's easy to misinterpret this.
For example, one major criticism made of religion and the churches is that they too frequently use God to justify war and violence. We commonly see terrible violence being fuelled by faith and religion, as is the case with extreme Islam today.
Christianity is hardly exempt. In the Crusades and the Inquisition we have our own history of violence in God's name. There is more violence than we have the courage to admit still being done today by Christians who draw both their motivation and their energy from their faith. We can protest that, in these cases, the energy is misguided, perverted or usurped for self-interest, but the point remains. It is still sacred energy.
John Lennon (Imagine) famously suggested that we would move more easily towards love and peace if religion were eliminated ("Nothing to kill or die, and no religion too"). There's a dangerous naïveté in that, but he's right in saying that the sacred energy found in religion often works against peace and love in this world. Misguided religious zealots also feed on life's sacred fire.
However, what this criticism and many others do not see is this: Misguided, misused and perverted religious energy does not witness against God's existence. The opposite: The very awfulness of its power, its blind grip, its capacity to totally take over someone's life and its sick over-confidence point precisely to its godliness, its awe, its sacredness and its roots within a reality and energy that dwarfs our own. Sick religion is powerful precisely because it is real, not a fantasy. It may be sick, but it's real.
That's also why religious cults are dangerous. They're dangerous because they're real, monstrously so. People often die in cults because the divine fire that its misguided leaders channel is as real as the electricity that burns up a body when someone sticks a knife into high voltage electrical outlet. Religious cults feed on life's sacred fire, but tragically they do so without the proper precautions and filters that the great spiritual traditions have taught are necessary. Cults are naïve to why Scripture warns us to approach the divine with care: "No one can see God and live."
What we see in bad religion is true too in our personal lives. This is sometimes hard to see (and often difficult for religious people to admit) but what's wild and wicked in the world is also fuelled by life's sacred fire.
Our over-restless energies for creativity, sexuality, achievement, enjoyment and to know and be known within human community are often used narcissistically, manipulatively and destructively.
The wild and wicked ones, those with sufficient nerve and insufficient conscience, often simply take what they want from life, without regard for morality or consequence. Thus our world is often driven by wild, powerful, creative and erotic forces that can look like the antithesis of sacred energy.
Again, the power, seeming irresistibility and wildness of this energy is not an indication that our sexual and creative energies are secular and devoid of holiness or, worse still, at odds with what is holy and sacred within us. Rather, their power and seeming irresistibility lie precisely in their godliness and sacredness. Their fire is so powerful because it is sacred, divine, God's energy inside of us.
Scripture says we carry in us the image and likeness of God and that this is our deepest identity and the source of our deepest energies. But we should not picture God's image within us as some beautiful icon stamped inside our souls.
God is fire, holy energy, infinite creativity, infinite freedom, wildness beyond our imaginations and an energy that is boundless and fuels everything. That fire lives, breathes, searches for meaning and loves.
Sacred fire fuels all of life and infuses everyone, saint and sinner alike. God has given us the freedom to use it as we choose, wisely or wickedly. We feed on sacred fire and we become a saint or a hedonist, a peacemaker or a warmonger.