Although it’s not yet summer in the meteorological sense, oppressive heat has settled into Middle Tennessee. I’ve been known to light a fire even when I must open the patio door to keep the space from getting too hot, but that arrangement doesn’t work anymore. The steamy days are followed by warm nights that lead to mornings still in the mid-60s, and I’m reluctantly surrendering to summer and have turned off the gas to my fireplace.
I’ve always loved a fire. For 30 years I nurtured a wood-burning fireplace and enjoyed the process almost as much as the resulting smell and flame and embers. The presence of a fireplace, although gas-fueled instead of wood, is among the many gifts of my current home, and I use it almost daily from mid-October through mid-May. I especially love a fire when it’s raining outside – the soothing duet that’s created between the splatter of the rain and the sizzle of the flame.
Fire, of course, can be both nurturing and dangerous. I’ve known the devastation of a house fire and from the flames of passion (remember, the root word in Latin for passion means “suffering”), as well as enjoyed the healing warmth of a hearth. Fire is like water, which also contains a dichotomy of destruction and sustenance. Floods killed 20 people in rural Middle Tennessee last spring, and as the deepening drought in the West illustrates, water provides a crucial element that’s required to sustain life, both plant and animal.
For me these days, a soothing fire or steady rain are representations, only two among many, of the old-fashioned concept of contentment. Far from the modern notion that being content means some mediocre state of “settling,” the original construct is much richer. In a psychological sense, contentment is an emotional state drawn from deep agreement with your situation, body, and mind. It doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of difficulty, loss, or pain; rather, it is a state of serenity irrespective of the ease or challenge of circumstances.
In a spiritual sense, contentment is spawned by faith that God is present in all of life: in the joys and sorrows, the plenty and want, the forever and not-yet, the old and new, the birthings and dyings that unfold through the changes of life. Contentment is rooted in trust in God’s steadfast love and sufficiency, whether these seem apparent in the moment or not. In a spiritual feedback loop, practicing contentment prompts a clearer awareness of God’s love and provision.
Contentment is different from happiness, which is fleeting, unpredictable, and usually based on either achievement or luck. Contentment is to happiness what joy is to pleasure: It is the solid internal state of being at peace with yourself and with God in a way that transcends momentary situations.
I am graced these days with sweet contentment and even sweeter joy. My life looks very different from what I imagined at this stage, yet I am peaceful, blessed, and grateful. There’s something about sitting quietly in the warmth of a fire or the sound of rainfall that always makes me smile inside.
At the same time, I find the last fire of the season a bit sad, especially because I typically don’t know that it’s the final one. Although sometimes life has sudden terminations or alterations that are tragically memorable, most of the time endings are routine, mundane happenings. You don’t realize this is the last time you’ll see the baby crawl because she’s walking steadily now, or that it’s the last visit to a favorite retreat before the landscape is marred by “progress.” You discover, sadly but not dramatically, that the dog can’t jump unassisted into the car anymore, or that the robins that have nested for years in the eves haven’t returned this season.
There’s something about a dancing fire or a soothing rain that invites presence. Each calls me to be still for a moment to breathe deeply, to savor the peaceful connection with earth and spirit, with fire and rain, with self and others, even if we’re connected only through heartstrings rather than in person. Being present is a flush of joy in and of itself.
The fireplace is extinguished for the summer season, yet the warmth remains. I invite you to look around, to identify, and to be present in the contentments that warm your life.
Marnie C. Ferree