I have been reading, thinking and writing about darkness throughout Lent, but recently I’m contemplating candles. A friend’s wife passed away, and those who grieve for her -- and for him -- are lighting candles in her memory. The neighbors placed luminarias on the couple’s front porch so that her spirit can find her way home. And I’m struck that in this modern age -- when we don’t rely on candlelight to see, we still light candles to help us see better.
Candles themselves may be 5,000 years old, originating, perhaps, in ancient Egypt and perfected by the Romans. Through the centuries, candles have been made from oils or fat derived from plants, animals, insects, and sea creatures. Depending on what candles were made of, they sometimes smoked or emitted noxious fumes. But their essential light outweighed their material shortcomings.
In the Middle Ages, candles made from beeswax burned cleanly with a pleasant scent, but they were expensive and rarely used in everyday life. In the 19th century, paraffin, made from petroleum, resulted in clean burning candles. Now, soy candles are all the rage, often infused with strong (sometimes still noxious) fragrances. I’ve burned some scented with balsam pine that made my eyes water. The one on my fireplace now, fragrant with “bergamot, Cuban tobacco leaf and ylang-ylang,” clears the air and the living room after only five minutes.
What was once necessary for everyday life (and still is in many parts of the world) has become more than a means to an end: more than a way to see the sock I am darning, the writing on a page, or the faces of a family gathered around a table. For many of us these days, living with the luxury of electric lights, we still light candles to add warmth to a room or a dinner table. Candlelight is also a companion in times of loss or worry, meditation or prayer.
When we are sitting vigil, for someone who is lost or ailing or for a holy day or even out of fear, we may sometimes use our cell phones, but the staunch standby is candle light. A good friend of mine, whose nightly ritual involved Reese’s miniature peanut butter cups and Anderson Cooper, used to light a candle after her snack to ease her into prayer. Sometimes, I light one to keep me company as I knit my way through Law & Order: UK.
Like faith and fear, life and hope, the flame of a candle is not steady or unchanging. It flickers. And it does not last forever. We blow out a candles before we head to bed. A breeze or draft may extinguish it, leaving behind a wisp of trailing smoke. Sometimes a candle drowns its own wick, burning itself out. And still we light them. Flash lights, cell phones and gas-fired eternal flames require batteries, charging time or a steady fuel source. Their light requires more than the quick scratch of a match against a rough surface. Candles, whether they are holiday leftovers that fill the drawers in my dining room or the ones stashed safely away for when the big earthquake strikes, always lie ready and waiting. Like faith itself. Ready when we need to remember a loved one, create sacred space, send forth a prayer, or rekindle hope. We still rely on candles.