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In Part 1 of this essay, I argued that the structure of a flame is, at certain levels, similar to the structure of life. The flame suggests that human nature, and even divine nature, is self-gift with a purpose. The stress of burnout may be a sign that the gift is misaligned somehow. But once it is misaligned, how is it to be rightly aligned? If a flame burns too hot or too cold, how can it become ordered again?

One answer to this is found embedded deep in the structure of the flame. Look past the burning glow to the very center of the phenomenon, around the wick where the flame originates. This inner core is not visible but invisible, an open inner core in the heart of every well-ordered flame. As an academic seeking to live and teach with fire, I would do well to keep something like this open inner core in the heart of my being, through faith, and prayer.

Each flame is open, in a sense, down to its very elements. Despite what the Greek Philosophers said, there is no single chemical element for fire. Rather, fire is a structured process in which a handful of elements react in a cycle of reactions, repeating in space and in time. Heat melts wax, wax meets oxygen, wax binds oxygen, releasing light and heat.

At least, that’s what happens when a candle is lit on the International Space Station.1 Down here on terra firma, gravity changes the shape of the flame and complicates the structure of the process.

In a typical flame, the wax doesn’t meet enough oxygen when it first leaves the wick, so it floats around the wick in a halo of vapor. Only when the wax reaches a certain radius from the wick does it start to react with oxygen, making carbon dioxide, water, and soot particles. It’s these solid particles that provide the light, glowing red-hot and pulled upward by convection of hot air.2 The result is that the candle flame has an empty hollow in the middle, where the vaporized wax droplets await their turn to meet oxygen.

This open inner core happens automatically, unconsciously. When you blow out a flame, you disrupt this structure. Technically, there’s more oxygen than before, but oxygen isn’t enough to keep the flame going. You also need the ordered structure, with rising hot air and silent inner core.

Therefore, a candle flame is not a “thing” but a structured process of reactions, open in the middle. The same combustion reactions power you. And, in a way, you have an openness in the middle of your own reactions.

At the sub-cellular level, the mitochondria that power your cells are hollow, carrying out oxygen-combusting reactions in the mitochondrial membranes rather than the mitochondrial middles. This most important chemistry happens not at the center, but the periphery and on the outskirts.

Also, your bones are hollow tubes of solid calcium phosphate filled with soft marrow. This living, dynamic tissue makes immune cells for the body. Each cell is powered by mitochondria, by combustion reactions, by fire.

And just like fire, the immune system can destroy or save, through autoimmunity on the one hand or anti-viral immunity on the other. When you are infected with SARS-CoV-2 and contract COVID-19, your immune system can produce antibodies to save you, or can run amok through accidental overproduction of cytokines like IL-6.3

The double edge of immunity even works at the cellular level. Neutrophils will sacrifice themselves, turning themselves inside out to make a thick web of chromatin that traps everything around, immobilizing both the good things and the bad together. One review calls neutrophils a “double-edged sword.”4

In the center of the sacrificial flame is a hollow, lightless core. The end of a flame is also empty. When the flame has burned out, nothing but ashes remain. Prayer is an act that trusts that God can work at these times too—the times we call burnout—just as God can work in the light:

“Now, a Perfect Act leaves nothing behind: all the remnants are gathered up, twelve baskets full. … here below time is creature passing away; the past is lost – that is why it is considered inalterable or necessary – and the present exists as a hair’s breadth, fragile and windblown, all lost to us as the future bears down on us from a dark beyond. Not so is Eternity. It just is God, because it is the Act that does not pass away.”5

God holds and restores even the years the locusts have eaten. Victor Hugo Velázquez wrote in a previous post on this site, “True flourishing is grounded on a state of deep dependence—dependence on God.”6 As Julia Hedjuk put in another post, in Christ, “just because people are dead doesn’t mean they’re not alive.”7 And just because a lecture feels wasted, or a student doesn’t pass after so much effort on both your part and theirs, that doesn’t mean the work’s not worth it.

The academic life is a gift, but a costly one, bringing to mind a poem by Wendell Berry: “The gift is balanced by // Its total loss.”8 Like fire, academic work burns through our stores of energy and is not a thing—it is “no-thing”—but an act in time that passes like a song.

Especially in this time, with so many burdens and so much burnout, the structure of a flame tells me that even the brightest candle gives no light from its center and leaves little behind when it is done. There is a time for waiting and rest in the middle of each living thing and at its end.

So, as an academic I must structure my own time to allow for flexibility in the middle of work, and to humbly accept that if I am left with nothing at a project’s end, God holds even that. I need to structure my work around an empty core of trust and rest, so I might need to make my own sick day policy or to step back and let a student make a mistake in lab. If I’m in charge of others, I make policies that benefit and trust them. This would be an administrative equivalent of the “stepping back” I make myself do in teaching labs.

In the open core of teaching with fire, if there is work to be done, it is the “work” of prayer. This is definitely not measured in ergs. In the past few weeks, I had times so busy that I had far more thoughts than prayers. This business led to exhaustion, the type where I was too tired to think,9 much less pray anything more than quick “arrow prayers.” There’s a place for these, but there’s more, just like there’s more to food than fast food.

One abbot in the Soviet Union advised an avid reader, “You should read no more in a day than you pray.”10 This challenges me not to read less, but to pray more. So this week, I made myself stop and actually focus on prayer.11 This open, even empty, act somehow structured the rest of my time around it, like the glowing warmth of the flame around its empty core.

Sometimes prayer is rest, but other times it is work. The Living God never speaks in exactly the same way twice. The Word spoken is eternal, unchanging, etched into the structure of the universe and the shape of every flame.12 Keeping this openness in the center of life is one way to seek first the kingdom and to learn that the God who calls us is faithful, and will do it.

Footnotes

  1. The flame is also spherical and bright blue! See https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2013/18jun_strangeflames
  2. Don’t believe your eyes – the particles are emitting more red light than yellow. The candle appears yellow because our eyes are most sensitive to green, so that we perceive the yellow wavelengths better than red. Objective measurement of radiant flux shows that a candle emits more red, and even more infrared, wavelengths. See http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/candle.html
  3. André Santa Cruz, Ana Mendes-Frias, Ana Isabel Oliveira, Luís Dias, Ana Rita Matos, Alexandre Carvalho, Carlos Capela, Jorge Pedrosa, António Gil Castro, and Ricardo Silvestre. “Interleukin-6 is a biomarker for the development of fatal severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 pneumonia.” Frontiers in Immunology 12 (2021): 263.
  4. Mariana J Kaplan and Marko Radic. “Neutrophil extracellular traps: double-edged swords of innate immunity.” The Journal of Immunology 189, no. 6 (2012): 2689-2695.
  5. Katherine Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity: Processions and Persons (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020), 45.
  6. Victor Hugo Velázquez, “Lessons from the Pandemic: Situating Human Flourishing,” Christian Scholar’s Review Blog, posted January 14, 2022. https://christianscholars.com/lessons-from-the-pandemic-situating-human-flourishing/
  7. Julia D. Hejduk, “’Friending’ the Dead (Part 1),” Christian Scholar’s Review Blog, posted January 12, 2022. https://christianscholars.com/friending-the-dead-part-1/
  8. Wendall Berry, “Sabbaths 1998, VI.” Poetry Chaikhana. http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/Poets/B/BerryWendell/Sabbaths1998/index.html
  9. Somehow I was still not too tired to scroll through social media on my phone, proving that it doesn’t involve much thinking, does it?
  10. Stephan Freeman, “A Terrible Knowledge.” Glory to God for All Things, Ancient Faith Ministries, posted January 21, 2022. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2022/01/21/a-terrible-knowledge-2/
  11. Including an eye-opening First Nations translation of the Lord’s Prayer. Reviewed by Tovjstf Beck, “First Nations Version: An Indigenous Translation of the New Testament,” Experimental Theology, posted January 24, 2022. http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2022/01/first-nations-version-indigenous.html
  12. It goes along with The Grain of the Universe, as Stanley Hauerwas titled one of his books.

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland, Professor of Biochemistry, Seattle Pacific University.