We went camping this weekend with some of our friends.
I am an early riser at the best of times, but when I am camping I am usually awake as soon as it starts to get light. I enjoy being awake early, and I like sitting at a fire while it is still cool and say my rosary.
On Saturday, of course, the children were also up with the sun so there was very little solitude first thing. By Sunday a full day of play and a late night had taken some of the bounce out of them so I had about an hour and a half sitting there, tending the fires. My goal was to burn what wood we had left, but to make it last a couple hours so that I could boil some water when everyone woke up, and at the same time to burn it as cleanly as possible without leaving any unburned chunks behind.
The trick is to have a shape that allows you to get enough oxygen in to allow the wood to burn, but not so much that it just blazes away. So I built my fire very carefully with the larger pieces and the half burned logs, split some kindling from a dry plank with my knife, and got it going with some crumpled newspaper. After the initial blaze died off I kept a pretty good frame with two of the bigger pieces, and built my coal bed in the middle. I laid one piece at a time across the frame and let each one burn away to coals which fell into the gap between the frame before adding the next. This worked until my frame was burned. Then I scraped the coals against the metal firepit and used that as my frame.
It worked quite well. I had a lovely bed of coals and only one more piece of plank at 7:30 when everyone else was starting to get up. We made some coffee and hot cocoa, and then burnt the last piece.
As I worked I said my Rosary and meditated.
The mistake most people make with their camp fires (and the reason you usually find the fire pit full of half-burned bits and ends of logs) is that they just let the fire burn out as it lies. Each individual coal, left to itself, loses its heat to the atmosphere too quickly to sustain the combustion necessary to consume it entirely. In order for the dying fire to be kept going, it has to be scraped together. You must huddle all the coals together in one place as closely as you can where the ones at the inside can provide the inner, glowing heart of heat, and the ones at the outside can take advantage of the oxygen and keep burning. This preserves the coals that you will need when you do put a fresh piece on.
It seems to me that this is sort of what is going on the Church in America right now. We are bleeding off members, and even those that do remain tend to be isolated. We show up for Mass on Sunday, we say the responses, half-heartedly mumble the songs, and leave without talking to our fellow parishioners when the Mass is over. There are no processions, no confessions, few prayer groups, low attendance at parish events, and for most Catholics our primary social circle and our parish circle are two separate groups. That is, we spend the majority of our time with people that we are not going to Mass with.
Without banding together and reinforcing our faith, our fervor grows cold, and goes out.
It also occurred to me that the first part of the fire, when the paper and wood takes off, was always my favorite part as a kid. The bigger the flames, the better the fire, in my opinion. That still holds true. I love big flames, just for their own sake. But that is the immature form of a campfire. That is not the useful fire. The fire that is useful for boiling water, cooking food, heating a house or a camp consistently, is the fire that is mostly coals. The dirty flames from all the brush, bark, cardboard, and other impurities have burned away and what is left is the solid heart of the wood, slowly being consumed. The harder and tougher the wood, the better the coals, the more useful the fire.
And of course, whenever the coals start to get lazy, all it takes is a little pneuma to get them going again.