Abide in God’s Love and Set the World on Fire
In the view of St. Catherine of Siena, being the light of the world means having the light to see who we are and what God expects us to do.
What does it mean to live in the joy, confidence and abundance of God’s love for us? What does it mean to step into our true identities as sons and daughters of God? How does this change the way in which we show up in our lives, as public or as hidden as they may be?
Posted near my desk is St. Catherine of Siena’s famous exhortation: “Be who you were born to be, and you will set the world on fire.” I see this as both a challenge and a promise. Being who we were born to be means, at its root, that each and every single one of us is here for a reason. God knew us by name before we were formed in the womb, and he knows the plans that he has for us, as we read in the Book of Jeremiah. What is so beautiful about this is that it shows us the two distinct ways in which we should follow St. Catherine’s advice.
First and foremost, our deepest identity is as a son or daughter of God. We belong to him, and everything we are flows from his love. In my interview with Bishop James Conley, he encourages us to live with the joy and confidence that comes from being sons and daughters of God. If we lean fully into this identity, it will guide all of the ways in which we show up in the world. In many ways, the Oracle of Delphi was right when it indicated that to "know thyself" is the root of all wisdom, because understanding that our deepest worth is tied not to achievement or appreciation but to God’s deep and abiding love for us, as we are right now, gives us true freedom. As Father Jacques Philippe says in his book Interior Freedom:
The person God loves with the tenderness of a Father, the person he wants to touch and transform with his love, is not the person we’d have liked to be or ought to be. It’s the person we are.
Father Philippe goes on to say that there is no actual contradiction between striving to grow in perfection and accepting who we are. If we recognize that we do all things in and through Christ, and that it is through abiding in his love that we receive the grace to transform our lives, we can begin to free ourselves from the weight of our fear that we are not enough. As Christ says in the Gospel of St. John, “I am the vine; you the branches: he that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). A few short verses later, he says, “As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love” (John 15:9).
When we move from that place of stillness, of abiding in God’s love, we are able to cooperate more fully with God’s grace. This brings me to the second way in which we can follow St. Catherine’s exhortation. When we accept ourselves for who we truly are — sons and daughters of God who are on the pilgrim road to Heaven — we begin to act like sons and daughters of God. As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says so beautifully in his poem “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”:
I say móre: the just man justices; Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is — Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his To the Father through the features of men's faces.
We “act in God’s eye what in God’s eye [we] are” — and by being the person of Christ to others, others are able to see Christ in us and through us. We do this through our particular calling. To return to Jeremiah, God knows the plans he has for us, and being who we are born to be means that we live out this calling to the best and fullest measure.
And this brings me to the second part of St. Catherine’s exhortation. What is the result of living in the fullest expression of our identity as a son or daughter of God, with a particular way we are meant to show up in the world? We will “set the world on fire.” But what does this mean?
Fire is a tricky thing. The Roman poet Virgil suggests that fire is, in some ways, an element of contradiction and paradox. In the Aeneid, fire represents desires that burn out of control in the inward heart. Fire destroys cities and ships, but fire also signifies divine favor and election. We think of the imagery of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit descends as tongues of fire that do not consume or destroy, but illuminate and inspire. Even in our own common usage, fire appears in the phrases we use to describe enthusiasm, passion or success: we are “fired up” or “on fire.” Being the light of the world, in St. Catherine’s view, seems to mean that we are called to “light it up” — to unapologetically and passionately stand in the security of who we are and who we are meant to be and do the work we have been called to do.
When someone turns up the wattage on the light of their life to the brightest setting, it will either challenge and inspire others to turn up their own lights, or it will make them shrink into a desire to dim that person’s light to match their own. Christ exhorts us not to hide our light under a bushel basket, but so often, we allow fear, self-doubt and other people’s opinions to do just that.
We are called to serve, to love, to be God’s hands and feet and heart in the world, each of us in our own beautifully unique and powerful ways. Abide in God’s love, let your light shine, and set the world on fire.