Fighting Fire ... Fighting Evil

Bishop Robert Vasa's picture

Everyone is familiar with the adage, “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” When I was bishop in Baker, Oregon, there was a time during the summer of 2001 when one would been well advised to reverse the phrase, for it was obvious that, “Where there’s fire, there’s smoke.” The frequent haziness masking the mountains and reddening the sun was a constant reminder of the existence of numerous fires. Unseen were the hundreds of men and women who battled these blazes day in and day out, men and women who came face to face with the extreme heat, the adverse living conditions, the rugged terrain, the physically and emotionally draining work.

Certainly, they worked to put out a fire or multiple fires, but they understood that what they did had a greater significance. They understood they stood in the breech between the fire and private homes, between the fire and beautiful forests, between the fire and people’s livelihoods. Please remember these unnamed and largely unknown persons in your prayers.

The images presented of people fighting fires tend to gravitate toward the heroic, the rugged, the idealized, even the glamorous. The reality, however, is quite different. It is hard work, sometimes excruciatingly hot, sometimes absolutely terrorizing, sometimes boringly routine and mundane.

Of course, it also has its joyful and celebrative moments as one gains ground on a fire, gets it encircled and contained, and as mop up is finally completed, gets extinguished. Completion, though, is a kind of fiction, for there is always another fire, another challenge, another ordeal, another lightning strike about which to be concerned. Even if the life of the firefighter can sometimes be seen in a rather glamorized fashion, the reality is that it is hard and dangerous work.

That same summer, at the cathedral in Baker City, I witnessed and received the perpetual vows of a hermit. In the Ceremony of Profession, hermits take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. They pledge to live a life more intensely focused on God, and one of relative isolation for the rest of their life. These religious often live in a wilderness area, and like the firefighters, are engaged in a daily battle.

Now some may consider this type of contemplative life and think that anyone who would choose it wanted to withdraw from the world. That, however, is overly simplistic, because the purpose of such a “withdrawal is not to seek peace [or escape] but battle.” The Venerable Bede speaks of St. Cuthbert “as an athlete and of his life as a warfare.” In his book, The Monk and the Martyr: The Monk as the Successor of the Martyr, Fr. Edward E. Malone, OSB, tells us:

“Monks were ‘the champions of the Church who carry on the battle with evil spirits, and with the spirit of evil in the world. They are forever engaged in a wrestling match with their own passions; they are running a race for which they expect an incorruptible crown; the world is the arena in which they engage in a spirited contest with all that is opposed to the will of God.’”

The monk, the hermit, is not one who fled human society in order to find safety any more than the firefighter would be said to have fled to the forest to find solitude. Both go to seek battle, to confront forces that seek to destroy. Both go to the place where the battle lines are drawn and where there is greater clarity about what needs to be done. Ultimately the work of the firefighter is to battle against fire, not just a specific fire but any fire that is raging out of control and taking over territory destined for better things.

In a similar sense, ultimately the work of the hermit is to battle not just some specific evil but any evil that goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour (cf., 1 Pet 5:8). The battle is waged within, first seeking to rid the self of evil, while desiring at the same time to rid the world of that spirit of evil, as well.

The work of the firefighter belongs not to those persons alone but also to every person who has an opportunity to extinguish a match or douse a campfire. As Smokey says, “Only you can prevent forest fires!”

The work of the hermit belongs not to the hermit alone but to every person who knows they have an evil inclination that needs extinguishing or a bad habit that needs dousing. Evil, like fire, needs prevention, resistance, avoidance, and steadfast perseverance. The hermit is in the fire line, but each of us must contribute to the cause.

There are many fires (i.e., manifestations of evil) presently raging in our society. For instance:

  • Loss of respect for human life is a great one, a fire that burns rapaciously and will destroy much more than its enamored observers can imagine.

  • Society’s preoccupation with and idolization of sexual gratification is another great evil, a fire which once ignited is difficult to contain.

  • The glorification of the body and the tendency to see physical health as the only absolute good to be preserved at all costs, even if it means human experimentation and destruction, is a smoldering match of evil requiring a firefighter.

  • Our society looks at artificial birth control as a sign of progress, necessary “health care” for women (since when did pregnancy or the ability to reproduce become a disease?), a mode of true liberation.

No. It is an evil. Many would dispute this, observing it looks, if you will, like an innocent campfire that harms no one. Only a firefighter is able to see the true danger, the real potential for harm, the destructiveness of the choice to leave this campfire unattended.

No one wants to acknowledge their campfire set the forest ablaze. Similarly, no one taking the “Pill” wants to acknowledge they are actively participating in and supporting a real evil in our society, an evil which can destroy families, diminish respect for girls and women, and corrupt genuine love that is the total gift of self and mutual donation between husband and wife. It may even pave the way for abortion, that extreme fire which has already destroyed millions of, not acres, but human persons. Contraception and abortion are “fruits of the same tree.”

Each summer or dry season brings many fires, but there are many more evils than there are fires. Everyone must recognize that the words of Smokey refer not only to fire but to evil as well: Only you can prevent evil. Only you can work to ensure that your life is lived in a manner consistent with good, evil-fighting techniques. Whether you see the campfire as a potential destructive force or not, Smokey says to douse it and cover it, even to feel the ashes to make sure they are cold. You may not believe that your “campfire” could possibly be part of the problem. What you believe about your camp fire, however, does not change its reality. Only a very few, really malevolent persons start forest fires intentionally.

May the presence of the hermit Arsenius remind all of us that we, too, must work, struggle against, and extinguish evil, first in ourselves and then in the whole world.

Only you can prevent evil.