“She would rather light a candle than curse the darkness, and her glow has warmed the world.” — Adlai Stevenson, upon the death of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Stevenson didn’t come up with this expression, nor did Confucius (it may have originated in a 1907 sermon by William L. Watkinson, but it’s long been one of the ideals I aspire to, espoused by one of my personal heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt.
There is also nothing new to the act of lighting candles, or the symbolism of bringing light to darkness even in isolation. In fact, the symbolism of a single candle is at the heart of the Christian Easter liturgy for Catholics and many protestants. Growing up, there was no more powerful service for me than the Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service, where both the Last Supper and the darkening of the world were commemorated. The word tenebrae means “shadows” or “darkness”, and at the church I attended, as the story was told, the lights in the sanctuary were gradually dimmed, until the only light that remained was a single large candle–the Paschal candle–which was then held by one of the ministers through the last, solemn anthem by the choir, and then carried out of the sanctuary. All were given a few moments to sit in total darkness before leaving. On Easter morning, at the sunrise service, the candle was re-lit, and was then carried back into the sanctuary. This, of course, symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection, and although I no longer believe the story literally, it still has great meaning for me.
Candles are also lit in Catholic churches and at vigils everywhere to commemorate the memory of someone who has passed, in token of the life that has passed from this world, either into the next or into the realm of memory. Candles also figure in many other religious traditions, usually playing on the symbolism of light as life in the face of darkness– the Jewish celebration of Hannukah being a prime example.
But the single candle also serves as a symbol of those who fight metaphorical darkness. Amnesty International’s logo consists of a single candle surrounded by barbed wire, recognizing its mission to advocate for the release of political prisoners. The SCA’s badge for the Minister of Arts and Sciences likewise consists of a single candle beneath an arch, symbolizing the desire to illuminate the past through research and recreation. And a single candle in a window is a long-standing symbol of hospitality, a place where both a stranger and a friend might be made welcome.
I am also reminded of the system of beacons in Tolkein’s Return of the King. Gandalf says, “See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Dîn, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad, and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan.” And Rohan, seeing this, responds.
A friend of mine began, a number of days ago, lighting a candle each evening and posting it on Facebook, as a way of sharing light and hope with friends he cannot see in person. I decided yesterday that this needed to spread, like the beacons of Gondor, as we all need light and hope and aid in this dark hour. And so I went to a drawer where I keep a small stash of tealights in the shape of stars. I have had these particular tealights for approximately 14 years. They were one of the last things I purchased at the craft chain Lewiscraft before it closed down. I gave a few away over the years, but there are still eleven of them here, and now I know what they were meant for. So last night, I placed one on my sideboard, covered as it is with mementos of both life and loss, and lit it, dimming the lights in my office for a few minutes of silence. I then posted the image to my Facebook timeline, encouraging others to continue–which several others did.
I find great comfort and meaning in ceremony and ritual, both the private and the public. This particular act acknowledges both the loneliness and despair of the current situation and the feeling that each of us are isolated–but yet we are all connected. Each time I will light this candle in the coming weeks, I will know that I am not alone, though my flame burns in solitude. And the relics of my life show me the joys and sorrows of the path that I have taken, memories which will never be diminished. And prominent place will be given to a bracelet filled with charms that surrounds the candle. I started this bracelet to commemorate each Shostakovich symphony I saw live with a charm for each place I visited in these journeys. I had planned to add two more last month and two more in coming months, but those futures are past. But, should the universe be willing, I will pick up the pilgrimage some day again. Until now, we live in exile from the physical world.
As is said at the end of the Passover Seder, L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim.
Next year, in Jerusalem.