The ‘false light’ and its tempting promises


I need a time like Advent. So often the concerns of ministry can lead to so much busy work. Suddenly it’s so easy to repress or impatiently look to the sidelines of the narrow path.

And then, every year, Thanksgiving signals the coming of the Christmas season and the opportunity to reflect on where personal growth is leading me. Without this introspection, I sometimes wonder where I would be heading or how much Christ and his becoming a man would mean to me.

Advent makes me appreciate the vessel of clay that I am. Like other people, the tinsel attractions of this time of the year and the frenzied excitement of last-minute shopping can be too time-consuming.

Only one thing is important. Admittedly, the human journey becomes confused. Advent preparation should gently prod us toward our real goals.

Priesthood must embrace the reality of a Savior who unceremoniously came as a babe in a stable and who loved us enough in our sinfulness to leave disgracefully as a failure on a cross.

Dr. Thomas Tyrrell writes in the preface of his book “Urgent Longings” an interesting tale about an actual desert phenomenon which resembles our anxious wanderings.

According to nomadic tribes and pilgrims, from as far back as the days of the Roman Empire, desert travelers were warned of the very tempting “ignis fatuus.”  The “ignis fatuus,” loosely translated from the Latin as “false light,” was the alluring and beckoning campfire which could often be seen off in the distance from one’s true course.

Desert travelers, even today, still plot their way from oasis to oasis using their knowledge of the heavens. The fierce bone-chilling desert winds and the absence of reasonably fixed landmarks make desert travel a painful affair. Danger, the inhospitable terrain, the ever-changing landscape, and the cold night air increase the longing for companionship and warmth.

Yet, in the days before the compass, the “ignis factuus,” with all its tempting promises could be fatal. The flickering light was such a strong inducement to depart from the chosen route that even seasoned travelers would have to discipline themselves.

Oh, the campfire would be genuine, but its actual location might be miles from where it made its appearance. Impulsive travelers easily found themselves lost.

In this story lie the essential psychological and spiritual significance of temptation, infatuation, and the instant solutions of today’s world.

The experience of an “ignis fatuus” urges us with a real light. We wouldn’t be tempted unless there wasn’t something genuinely alluring there in the first place.

Yet wisdom teaches us that this momentary light cannot offer us the fulfillment and warmth of the Light who has come and is now part of our hearts.

When we make gods of our false lights, we make them into demons. Or, if they lead us away from the God of our lives, no matter how bright, they have led us into darkness.

There is a valuable lesson for young people in this story of the “ignis fatuus.” In it, there is the difference between pleasure and joy.

Pleasure pleads impulsively and is quickly spent. Joy lasts and stays in our souls.

In this story are all the differences between what is real and what is like fake gold. Think of drugs. Or the misuse of sex. Think of the hatreds between people. Our false lights flicker and urge, but sputter and are lost in the tides of time.

Like the desert travelers, we have to discipline ourselves to journey in the direction of the One who will come again.

Yes, that’s why I personally need a time like Advent. As an adult, I realize that my journey is still in progress and, despite some wisdom gained through experience, I face the same instant solutions as the young.

As a priest, I might even consider myself the seasoned traveler. But dare I deny the discipline that is still needed?

Christmas is a time when only one thing is important.