Reflecting on “Burning Ember”


“Judge for yourself how great man is – how great man may become. God abides in him and he in God so that Christ himself and not a man lives in a devout Christian; the whole soul becomes Christ’s, just as the iron in burning coal becomes fire as if it were burning – everything is fire, everything is light!” *

~ Father John of Kronstadt, Russia 1829 – 1908

Who knows why one day your eyes pass over a sentence languid and bored, perceiving nothing, and the next day your soul catches fire and flares bright with ardor and insight. I remember the day Father John’s words did so for me.  I was on a silent retreat at St. Benedict’s Priory just a few miles north of Winnipeg. The retreat was mandated as part of a soul-care requirement of the ministry I worked for at the time.  For someone like myself, growing up Evangelical and active, intentional silence and stillness were strange. And being naturally extraverted as well, the inner, contemplative pursuit was one that I looked on with curiosity but from a bit of a distance.

The sisters were lovely. They seemed to float around on a breeze. The older ones dressed in their habits, and the younger ones in civilian clothes. When they looked at you, you felt seen.  The room I was given was plain; a single bed, a desk with a lamp, and a window looking out onto the parking lot.  Nothing special. But it was serene and quiet. “Nothing much” ever happened there, just rest and prayer, and you could feel it.

Fr. John of Kronstadt

And so, in that place, reading Fr. John’s diary, I briefly caught vision of what it might mean to come alive and be fully human; to live my life in God and for God’s life to abide in me… mutual indwelling… mutual othering; so absorbed in the other that the self is forgotten yet never more fully realized. The theological word is perichorisis. The experience is joy.  Deep joy.

And then melody started to come with a lyric inspired by Fr. John’s ecstasy:

aaaaaaaa Judge for yourself how great is the one
aaaaaaaa Who lives in God, whose God is Love!
aaaaaaaa Like an iron when left in embers bright
aaaaaaaa Everything is fire! Everything is light!

It is remarkable that if you take a rod of iron and place it in a fire, the properties of the iron are such that it is able to take on the qualities of the fire. First heat and then light; glowing red initially but eventually white hot if left in long enough.  Further, when you then take the iron out of the fire, it can retain the energy and light of the fire on its own. You can hold it up as a beacon, you can warm with it, burn with it and you can start another fire with it. But if left out of the fire for long, it returns to cold metal.

And so, it has been the insight of the saints that the fullness of humanity is revealed thus: as we lay our lives in the fire of God’s divine love, we become by grace what God is by nature.” Anything less is beneath our dignity.

aaaaaaaa Judge for yourself if a fire isn’t safe
aaaaaaaa When cities fall before its face
aaaaaaaa Yet a flower can endure the course of a storm
aaaaaaaa By bowing to the tempest’s rage
aaaaaaaa Burn forever, let me never
aaaaaaaa Curse the pain you bring
aaaaaaaa Somehow I know, I will be whole in your glowing.


Here’s the rub. Fire consumes. And love is no different. It is the Christian conviction that eventually all that is not love will be consumed by love.

Bernadette Soubirous

On the same retreat, I read a biography of the life of St. Bernadette. Singer/songwriter Jennifer Warnes had just released her celebrated CD of Leonard Cohen songs, Famous Blue Raincoat, and on that CD is a song she co-wrote called Bernadette. The song is so achingly beautiful that I had to find out who Bernadette was. In the library at the priory I found her story.

As a young girl in France, Bernadette received several visions at a grotto in Lourdes.  So remarkable was her countenance while receiving these visions, and so beautiful and elegant her words about the experience, she quickly rose to enormous fame. Eventually she was whisked away and cloistered in a convent where she lived the remainder of her short life in obscurity and ill health.  She died at age 35. But her biographer tells of her profound humility and forbearance in the face of tremendous suffering that marked her life after her brief celebrity.  “She was like a flower in a tempest. Where unbending oaks are snapped in two, the supple field flower remains.”

And so it is with love, fierce and unrelenting, humbling all that resists it – leaving behind nothing but itself.

aaaaaaaa Burning ember, shine forever
aaaaaaaa In the darkest tomb
aaaaaaaa Warmth of heaven, hidden secret
aaaaaaaa In a mother’s womb
aaaaaaaa Flame of beauty blazing through me
aaaaaaaa So that all might see
aaaaaaaa Somehow we know
aaaaaaaa We’ll all be whole in your burning.

In ancient church tradition there is much use of the censer. You’ve seen it in movies if you haven’t in person. The censer is an ornate metal cage on a chain. Inside is lit a block of incense swung about by the priest until every nook and cranny of the sanctuary is filled with its fragrance.

The censer can be thought of in several different ways; the tomb of Christ from which arises the new humanity; the womb of Mary that nourishes our hope and our future.  Or, it is I, it is you, created to “house” heaven for the sake of the earth. This is what we’ve been created for. Anything less is beneath our dignity.

Arise oh man! Arise oh woman! Know who you are!  We are too easily and woefully satisfied with so much less.

~ Steve Bell

*My Life in Christ by Fr. John of Kronstadt
Holy Trinity Monastery, Printshop of Pochaev
Jordanville, New York, USA 1994

(click song title to LISTEN)


Music and Lyric by Steve Bell
St. Benedicts Priory  November 17/ 1992

Judge for yourself how great is the one
Who lives in God, whose God is love
Like an iron when left in embers bright
Everything is fire
Everything is light

Oh Love most beautiful you are
Oh flame of joy within my heart

Burning ember, I remember
Love’s first light in me
I was cold then, like a stone when I
Saw your flickering
Oh what beauty as you drew near me
I could scarcely speak
Somehow I knew, I would be new
In your glowing

Judge for yourself if a fire isn’t safe
When cities fall before her face
Yet a flower can endure the course of a storm
By bowing to the tempest’s rage

Oh Love, more fierce than all the rest
Oh raging joy within my breast

Burning ember, I remember
Love’s first light in me
I was cold then, like a stone when I
Saw your flickering
Burn forever, let me never
Curse the pain you bring
Somehow I know, I will be whole
In your glowing

Oh Love, more lovely than the rest
Of flame of joy within my breast

Burning ember, shine forever
In the darkest tomb
Warmth of heaven, hidden secret
In a mother’s womb
Flame of beauty, blazing through me
So that all can see
Somehow we know, we’ll all be whole
In your burning

© Signpost Music 1992


The above version of Burning Ember was recorded for Steve’s CD The Symphony Sessions. To view, listen to tracks or purchase, click HERE




The original recording of Burning Ember was recorded for Steve’s album of the same name. To view, listen to tracks or purchase, click HERE




Burning Ember was also included on SOLACE | For Seasons of Suffering (compilation). To view, listen to tracks or purchase, click HERE




18 thoughts on “Reflecting on “Burning Ember”

  1. I love this background info Steve…Somehow I thought you adjusted to the solitude more evenly…not that you are saying you didn’t. There was a time when the view of the parking lot would have included me sleeping fitfully in my car…odd.
    Bernadette is a masterpiece to me as well. Lately I cannot seem to get “rough as they are” out of my head.

  2. I have had ‘Burning Ember’ deep in my heart since I saw you first perform it. I began my tangible spiritual growth from there. This is my 57th birthday. Thank you for ‘Reflecting on “Burning Ember”’: it is quite the gift.

    Happy Birthday Patricia! ~ Steve

  3. I love this song…especially the part that says ,”let me never curse the pain you bring”.What a prayer.
    Thanks for listening to the still small voice at the retreat.

  4. Thank you for the insight.
    Yes, “never let me curse the pain you bring”.
    How often I have had that thought pass through me, since the passing of our young daughter in her prime of life.

    I will hurt and I wilkl be grateful to the hurt for it bares witness to the depths of our meaning. Had I not loved so very much, I would not hurt so much. I would not want to diminish that precious love by one fraction of an ounce..
    For that pain I will be eternally grateful.

  5. Thank you for the musings, I appreciate the background now even more since I was there at the first performance in Winnipeg. Did you get away from the mould Steve, and get professional help to remove it? It is nasty stuff, I am losing my voice.

  6. I’ve always loved this song – it has so much mystery in it, and the analogy of the burning ember for a soul excited by the love of God is evocative. Thanks for sharing this meditation.

  7. Thanks, Steve, for sharing the story behind the songThis for this and all the other life giving facets of your ministry.

  8. Burning meber is one of my favorite songs. I call it to mind (or if that doesn’t work I play it) when i’m going through difficult times. It reminds me that this is but a passage which will eventually bring light and bring me that much close to my God!
    Thanks Steve!

  9. Hi Steve! Thanks so much for your background on Burning Ember. I have been so encouraged by it today What a rich gift god has given you. I enjoyed the fragrance of His love in you as I listened and worshipped!. If you see my brothe,r Gord Johnson, say hello for me!!

    Carol Kilgour
    In Christ

  10. I was encouraged (yet again) by the reminder that “we’ll all be whole” in HIs burning — that I will be whole in HIs burning. What a gift this inspired song is to the Body of Christ.. Thanks Steve.

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