Don Bosco

Don Bosco Man of Fire: A contemporary spiritual hermeneutics

Don Bosco Man of Fire:

A contemporary spiritual hermeneutics

Jack Finnegan, sdb

Is not my word like a fire? (Jer. 23:29)

Spiritual texts associated with the name of Don Bosco, like many texts of mystical and spiritual theology, are normally descriptive, experiential and performative. First of all they are texts of reflection and meditation where rhetoric is not centered. Mystical and spiritual writers tend to revolve around sensitive and recurrent images, returning to them frequently to express a vision, a value, an intuition that is better understood by meditatively abiding on images rather than analyzing texts or doing logical demonstrations.
Spiritual texts invite meditation rather than structural analysis or deconstruction. Concern concerns spiritual theology understood as wisdom for life. The purpose of spiritual writings associated with figures like Don Bosco is to produce Christian saints rather than scholarly scholars. His spiritual writings tend to reveal pastoral and pedagogical motivations. We are confronted with the reality of applied theology rather than with that of speculative thought.
The critical study of Don Bosco's spiritual and educational texts requires a suitable method. The preferred approach here is based on Wittgenstein's notion of "appearance vision" in the context of Weltbild,an image, or concept, or vision of the world. The method is useful for at least two reasons. First describes a way of seeing, a horizon of interpretation that respects the rhythms of changes in appearance, a way of seeing that facilitates "the passage from saying, to showing, to doing" [1] , which is the characteristic quality of the overall approach of Don Bosco.
Secondly, attention to the dynamic nature of spiritual growth, of the movement in transformation, justifies efforts to explore the writings of a mystic engaged in pastoral care like Don Bosco, not least because the method is essentially experiential and performative, something embodied and lived rather than communicated in a theoretical way. Don Bosco wrote, but he lived and incarnated what he wrote. As a pastoral educator he is less interested in philosophy than lived reality. At the center of his thought is a relationship with God that flows from the heart and arouses a knowledge full of love.
The method evokes Ephesians 3: 17b-19, which influenced the approach of St. Bonaventure:
May Christ live by faith in your hearts and thus, rooted and grounded in charity, be able to understand with all saints what the breadth, length, height and depth are, and to know the love of Christ who surpasses all knowledge, so that you are filled with all the fullness of God.
In post-modern contexts, such a method highlights the allegorical and symbolic senses of spiritual and mystical texts, an approach linked to the patristic and medieval vision of hermeneutics that dates back to Origen and his somatic, psychic and pneumatic senses: the literal, the moral and the spiritual. Under the influence of Gregorio Magno, Origen's three senses became four, summarized in the famous verse composed by the Dominican Agostino di Dacia who died in 1282: [2]
Littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria. Moralia quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.
The letter teaches the facts, the allegory what to believe, the moral sense of what to do, and the anagogy to strive for.
Dante's description of the four senses in a letter describing how he should read his play influenced the use of symbolic methods in post-modern approaches to spiritual literature. Dante bases his description of the method on Psalm 114: 1-2. [3]
In fact, if we look only to the letter, the exit of the children of Israel from Egypt, at the time of Moses, is signified. If we look at allegory, the redemption accomplished by Christ is signified to us; if we look at the moral sense, the conversion of the soul from mourning and from the misery of sin to the state of grace is signified; if we look at the anagogic sense, we are signifying the exit of the holy soul from the servitude of this corruption towards the freedom of eternal glory. And although these mystical senses are called by various names, they can all be called generally "allegorical", being different from the literal or historical one. [4]
By applying the fourfold model to the images of fire, flames and furnace as they appear in Don Bosco's writings, especially when we understand them as qualities of the human heart, we discover a series of changes in appearance in symbolism that suggest ever deeper performative and experiential potentials , the very qualities that Don Bosco tried to disclose from the lives of the young and his Salesians. Literal or historical understanding places us in front of fire as an event and a fascinating natural force. The moral or tropological understanding suggests the transforming nature of fire, an ecology of dynamic virtues studded by the power of charity and love; It also has a pedagogical force because the fire sheds light on every action and behavior. There are always new spiritual lessons to learn,
The allegorical or typological interpretation of fire and flame suggests the radiant light and warmth of the personal encounter with the living Christ; at the level of faith, the fire alludes to a pedagogy in the growth and development of faith. Anagogy, or ascent, represents the world of the mystical sense, or of transcendent self spirituality. Brings fire to the highest level of unitive experience, the level of a passionate desire for God and of union with Him in all aspects of life [5]. The movement between the different levels is rather fluid, especially if we are interested in the symbolism of love and the heart, with the pastoral and spiritual passion that characterized Don Bosco himself in a special way. In such a light it is not difficult to discern the clarity of the transfiguration, the purifying, creative and renewing encounter with the warmth of divine / human love in the heart of Christ: the furnace of spiritual life.
Within the Salesian tradition, other images are suggestive: the heart of Christ where two fires meet, or the transforming passion of the self involved in contemplation. There is also a relationship between self, learning, community, ritual, sacrament and symbol, and anything else that is the subject of experience in space and time. Love and knowledge go hand in hand along the path to God. [6]The best spiritual texts take us beyond ourselves. Pointing to the path towards the other / the Other, they lead us to places of fire. For these texts, the living encounter with God is not a matter of deduction from first principles, or the result of logical synthesis and philosophical analysis. They tend to be practical, inductive, diachronic and descriptive of God's experiences. They reveal the divine touch in consciousness and in human awareness.
These images and metaphors are not proper to Don Bosco who learned them from the spiritual tradition and inherited them through Don Cafasso, who wrote: "let us ensure that our heart is like a furnace of love, then there will be easy with words, with sighs, with fiery prayers, ignite others too. With fire in the hand one can also give flame to a forest the most leafy and green, so if our heart, if our tongue sends flames of fire and love, we will win, and we will set fire, so to speak, to the most obstinate and steadfast . ”( Spiritual exercises to the clergy. I: Meditations, 641-642). A reading of the writings of Don Cafasso confronts us with the paradox of fire: a fire that frees the human spirit and a fire that imprisons the human heart. He again taught that the priest's heart must be a furnace of divine love, living on love and exhaling the love of God, not a cistern of polluted water (Ibid. 639-640). Don Bosco learned the lesson well.
Similar uses are central to the writings of St. Francis de Sales. The Salesian spirit celebrates a heart inflamed by the love of God (See Oeuvres, XIV, 81-82; letter CDLXXXVIII). Acts of charity and love, of true service to others, are wood that nourishes the fire of sacred love (Letter DCXXII). In Salesian spirituality the heart fills different functions. It is a means to describe and understand the life of God, to look at the heart of God as the source and support of life. The reflection of Francis de Sales on the heart of Christ opens two images: it is the bosom of the spiritual birth and the means of access to the heart of God, a full access of grace of unity and unitary possibility. This is the fire that Christ throws on the earth (Lk 12:49).

We can hear echoes of Don Cafasso and Francesco di Sales in the words of Don Bosco when he writes: “Finally, from the heart of a Levite, where you nurture the ecclesiastical spirit, can not be, that as a fiery furnace, do not erupt outside sparks of zeal , to procure the glory of God, and the salvation of souls. This was the sign that he affixed the seal to others ". ( Instructive outline of perfection , 21). Below we find other examples: "fire of love" "flame of love" "inflaming the heart of a most ardent love", ( Historical notes about the life of B. Caterina De-Mattei , 22); "A splendor of living flame" (ibid, 33); "It seems to me to have a fiery furnace within me" (ibid, 40); "inflamed Charity" ( Historical notes on the life of the cleric Luigi Comollo, 17); "Inflamed charity" (ibid, 9), "inflames charity" (ibid, 17); "With a torch lit in his hand (symbol of faith, of which his heart must have burnt)" ( Conversion of a Valdese , 26).

What we are talking about with the interactive image of fire, flames and furnace is a mythopoeic metaphor, without which we would be unable to understand and create visions of reality [7] . There is in the symbolism of fire a desire for spiritual completeness, for regeneration, for renewal, for shared participation [8] in the divine, and for liberation from all the forces that diminish life, which block and hinder the touch of God's transforming love. In fact, Edward Hussey identifies a fascinating cycle of meaningful associations to the processes of spiritual unfolding: wisdom-God-fire-soul-wisdom. [9] Fire acts as a bridge. It also suggests the highest destiny of the soul. [10]Fire is spiritual because of its connection with light, this ancient means of communication and divine presence. [11]

The furnace, on the other hand, is a symbol of spiritual gestation, a metaphor with implications of processes, transformation and ascension. But it also represents the fire of the soul touched by grace. [12] In this light, it is possible to see the fornax amoris as a metaphor that endows the inner inner worlds with sacred and cosmic proportions, and it should not come as a surprise to discover that, for Aristotle, the heart itself is a furnace. The heart-furnace indicates the sanctity of the heart and its potential for spiritual enlightenment, for liberation from unitary ignorance and rejection of paths that illuminate and touch the lives of others. Surely as Don Bosco uses it, the human heart as fornax amorismaintains clear pastoral and spiritual educational consequences. The furnace heart is the engine that guides spiritual projects.

For Don Bosco, as even only the most superficial reading of his writings highlights, the heart is a complex symbol, operating on different levels, sometimes spiritual, sometimes pedagogical, sometimes pastoral but always central. In Don Bosco's spirituality, the heart represents a central relational value. It is at the same time a center of emotional warmth, of tenderness, of trust, of kindness, of wisdom, of compassion, of confidence, of vigor, of unity and closeness; and it is the rise of all the best qualities of character, especially when they are touched by the diffuse light of holiness and by the grace of the divine presence. It is as if, in Don Bosco's creative mind, the Salesian was simultaneously before God and in front of the young man with his furnace heart in his hand, so that in his heart and with his heart inflamed,

Don Bosco's use of metaphor is creative and intuitive, revealing the bases of his spiritual and educational-pastoral vision. His favorite images, his metaphors and his symbols, especially his weaving heart, fire and furnace allows us to find the relationships and connections that he perceived as at work in the human spirit, using an image of the real world to make the map of spiritual realities. Thus an intuitive understanding allows the metaphor to unfold in holistic representations of birth and spiritual growth. As an educator and pastor he clearly appreciated the creative side of his metaphors and the powerful impact of their pictorial logic.


In its various expressions, fire is the metaphor of powerful forces: love, energy, passion, transformation, purification, light and illumination. According to a history of the Jewish Talmud, the Pentateuch itself was written in two types of fire: a black fire and a white fire. Moreover, the Pentateuch is sealed with fire and immersed in tongues of fire. One way of understanding this paradoxical description, this marvelous metaphor of words and pages written and wrapped in fire, is to imagine black letters written on a white background in which the black of words and the white of the pages are both burning as meaning and divine possibilities; and the white spaces between the words are also bright flames. There is something here about the mystery of divine holiness, like the Devouring Fire that emerges between the words and behind them.

God's silence is just as significant as his words. God's passionate fire transforms and renews through words and silences that are equally infinitely eloquent, infinitely flowing; full of grace and gifts of wide transformation. Without silence and white fire, nothing can be heard, nothing can be read, nothing can be seen, nothing understood. White fire makes black fire visible, loads it with meaning, and makes meaning possible. What does God tell us through the invisible language of white fire, in the unheard-of whisper of sacred eternity, in the music made of tongues of fire and outpouring of the Holy Spirit that plays with the sounds and rules of language? At least part of the answer is that the Spirit always tries to open new paths to peace and love. The problem is:

What is said by the marginalized to the most numerous, content with themselves? What does the feminine spirit say to the male spirit? What does a child's smile say in the magical tranquility of a moment that extends into eternity? What do lovers say in the luminous silence of the sunset? Is everything written that makes sense? Can everything that is significant mean it? Are the major tones possible without the minor tones? Are close-ups possible without second floors? How is the word of God expressed to the universe? Is cosmic language a language of light and fire? Is spirit a domain of fire? Who speaks white fire, makes its potential visible today? Those who are passionate will say what the transformation of the world requires, those passionate about the world, passionate about their God.

Who is ready to embrace spiritual fire, white fire, black fire? Who is ready to embrace the absolute splendor of transcendent love? Is fire the realm where the cosmos and humanity find a common space? Jesus the risen, freed from the prison of Golgotha, revealed as a bringer of fire, is the giver of the transformation? What happens when fire, mystery and passion are absent from our way of being in the world, even rejected? What happens when we forget to make room for light and fire, for mystery and passion in our lives, due to the internal pressure of failure, the bitter gall of rejection and pain?

And where is the mystery of fire staged if not in the human heart? In the mystery of the fire of the word of God, the mystery of the fire of the human heart is unfolded as a fire of the soul, a passion for Jesus, the passion that gave form, informed Don Bosco's pastoral heart. It unfolds in the light of the journey to Golgotha ​​and beyond, the journey through the pain of the world, the desert of the world, the loss and the apparent abandonment of the world. How can there be a growth of the soul without the fire of the soul, a fire lit in the quiet by the divine fire? But the divine fire represents a dangerous domain, a domain where we no longer have control, where we are no longer anchored in the apparent security of areas of family comfort and collusive models. And here is the obstacle.

Fire is something numinous, something powerfully transforming, but also something destructive and devastating. It is numinous, symbol of the vibrant presence of God: God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; 2 Chronicles 7: 1; Hebrews 12:29); and Moses meets God in the flame of a bush that is not consumed (Exodus 3: 2). The word of God is a fire (Jeremiah 23:29). The symbols of the covenant with Abraham are a fuming vessel and a burning torch (Genesis 15: 17-21) and the living creatures in Ezekiel's inaugural vision are like burning coals, lit torches (Ezekiel 1: 13). But fire is also destructive. Hail, storm and lightning fall on the Egyptians (Exodus 9: 22-26). There is the fire of Gehenna, and the fire that falls on Moab and the fortresses of Kerioth (Amos 2: 2) and other similar places. There is the refiner's fire test (Malachi 3: 2) necessary for the waste to be removed and the silversmith to produce something beautiful, truly whole (Proverbs 25: 4). There is the furnace of Egypt and the furnace of Babylon.

Fire is also a transforming blessing. This is clearly expressed in the Baptist prophecy about baptism in spirit and fire (Luke 3:16; Matthew 3:11) and in the encouraging image of the psalmist: God makes his winds his messengers, his minister his burning flame (Psalm 104: 4). The wind and the fire come together at Pentecost when the apostles were transformed and became fully messengers and ministers of life (Acts 2: 1-15). Is it really a surprise if John of the Cross uses the image of the flame and the fire of love? Is it really a surprise if it speaks of a flame that transforms the soul into itself, to the point that "the soul behaves like an immense sea of ​​fire"? [13]

Transformed by love, the soul catches fire, yearning for God, and the passion for God becomes an inner flame. It is not difficult to see in all these examples of fire powerful suggestions of the Holy Spirit of God. And it is not difficult to imagine the fiery impact of the Spirit in the life and mission of Don Bosco. How can anyone become prophetic without transforming fire? How can he become a servant? How is the Christian mystic formed if he does not enter the furnace of love? Only by becoming, like Don Bosco, a furnace of love. Are we ready to embrace his power?

Three concluding questions

How does the image of fire help us speak to the spiritual void of our time?
How does it help us speak to consumerism and materialism that has engulfed the lives of many people, in post-modern and post-secular cultures, leaving them spiritually unsatisfied?
Without the touch of fire how can we, as pastoral educators, speak to the unprocessed core of the human psyche where the endless search for meaning and meaning goes on, and where the passion for the transcendent was born?

(Translated from the English by Antoine Rabe, sdb)

[1] Peter Tyler, The Return to the Mystical: Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila and the Christian Mystical Tradition (London, New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011) x.

[2] Quoted in Ewert Cousins, “The Fourfold Sense of Scripture in Christian Mysticism” in Steven T. Katz, editor, Mysticism and Sacred Scripture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 118-137, 123.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Dante Alighieri, "The Letter to Can Grande," in Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, translated and edited by Robert S. Haller (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1973) 99.

[5] See Ewert Cousins, “The Fourfold Sense of Scripture in Christian Mysticism”, 124.

[7] See Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus: An Edition of the Fragments with Translation and Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979) 279.

[8] On the participatory significance of fire in early thought see Geoffrey Noel Berry, Under the Dominion of Light: an Ecocritical Mythography (Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies,  Monash University, 2009) 68, 69.

[9] Edward Hussey, The Presocratics (London: Duckworth, 1972) 58.

[10] Berry, Under the Dominion of Light, 71.

[11] See Sergius Kodera, Disreputable Bodies: Magic, Medicine, and Gender in Renaissance Natural Philosophy (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2010) 146-147.

[12] See Hussey, The Presocratics, 56.

[13] Living Flame, 10, 11.