Fire at the Table

Every Divine Liturgy is a bottomless Mystery. In the Liturgy itself, we’re reminded more than once that the Angelic Hosts are active participants. What most of us see in church is only the earthly part of the whole Divine-human Liturgy. A few Orthodox Christians have at times been granted the grace to see a bit more of the Liturgy’s vastness; a small number of those have spoken about it.
I’ve been reading The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina, which includes this awe-inspiring example. As a cantor in our parish church, I could easily sympathize with the plight of the cantors in the story.

On another occasion [Elder Ieronymos] told us about a certain priest of Kelveri named John, married and with a family. He was very compunctionate and when he served the Liturgy he wept and sighed and cried like a little child. He would often tarry at the time of the epiclesis when the Precious Gifts are sanctified — five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and more. The chanters didn’t know what to do in their bewilderment. They would slowly chant “We hymn Thee, we bless Thee…” once, twice, thrice — after that they didn’t know what to chant. Begin to chant the Polyeleos? But that would be out of place. Chant the Communion Hymn? That wouldn’t do either. So one day they said to some of Father John’s disciples, ‘The Teacher [that is, the priest] takes a long time at the epiclesis, and we fall into despair about what to do. We chant ‘We hymn Thee’ over and over, but the blessed one doesn’t finish, we don’t hear the ‘Especially our all-holy, immaculate…,’ and everything’s in confusion out here.” They in turn said to Father John, “Venerable Father, you often take a long time at the epiclesis, and the chanters and the people are waiting outside. The chanters fall into despair and perplexity about what to say. Forgive us, is it not possible for you to finish the prayer, that confusion might be avoided?” At that the blessed one answered them, saying, “How can this be?” “Easily,” they said. “As you are prostrate, get up, seal the Precious Gifts with your right hand with the sign of the Cross, and say ‘And make this bread… and this cup… and the rest of the prayer, and so you finish.” “The prayer I know,” he answered. “It’s even written in the book. But I can’t.” “Why can’t you, our Father? Forgive us, it’s easy! Just say the prayer and seal the Precious Gifts, and then we can finish.”
“It’s not that easy. For there is a fire round about the Table, and I am not able. I say the prayer up to a certain point, but suddenly I am unable to enter into the fire to seal the Precious Gifts. There is fear and terror then, and I don’t know what to do. I fall down prostrate, I weep, I sigh, I beseech the Father of Lights, my sweet Jesus, the All-holy Spirit. I cry out, ‘Lord and Master of my life! My Fashioner and God! Spare Thy creatures and take away these flames so that I can approach and seal the Precious Gifts.’ I then lift up my eyes and gaze towards the Holy Table. If the flames have ceased, I get up and seal the Gifts. If not, then I pray again and beseech with tears and deep sighs until either the fire ceases, or a way is found that I might be able to enter into the veil of fire without being burned. Sometimes the fire ceases and everything is as it was before. At other times the flames divide to one side and the other, and become like an arch, and thus trembling I enter and dare to stretch out my hand and seal the Precious Gifts.”
Hearing such astonishing things, they didn’t bother Father John any more about the length of the epiclesis.

The Elder Ieronymos of Aegina by Peter Botsis, Pub. Holy Transfiguration Monastery; pages 282–283