Grace Fuller muses on the spiritual role of candles
in public ceremony and private practice.
Ask Google for a definition of the word Candle and you get around 25 answers, varying from the plain (‘a stick of wax with a wick in the middle’) to the ludicrous (‘a single by the band Skinny Puppy, taken from their 1996 album The Process’). There is surprisingly little reference to faith or religious ritual, apart from a link to a glossary of terms used in The Book of Margery Kempe (a medieval mystic), which observes that ‘processions with candles were invariably a part of solemn devotional moments’.
Of course, this is a specific reference to Christian practice, but discs or cylinders of wax, wick and flame play a crucial part in almost every religion (and none). Only in Islam is the light of a candle insignificant. There are candles at Buddhist shrines, for example, placed with flowers before a statue of the Buddha to represent the light of his teaching. There are candles lit weekly in Jewish homes to mark the start and end of the Sabbath, at other festivals in the Jewish calendar and on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, when a memorial candle burns for 24 hours.
Hindus, Jains and Sikhs use lamps and candles at Diwali – the Festival of Light – to signify the victory of good over evil, knowledge over ignorance. ‘Candle magick’ plays a key part in pagan religions such as Wicca, where a candle is also used in a ritual circle as one of the four classical elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water.
It’s curious, isn’t it, that a burning candle can deliver up such a powerful sense of spiritual wholeness, of meditative calmness, of personal stillness. Clearly, there’s something about a leaping candle flame that transcends faith, and dips into some universal well (or fire) of life. It’s ironic that so much havoc is wreaked in the name of faith, when the adherents of different religions use the light of a candle to symbolise similar values and truths.
And, deeper meanings aside, candlelight enhances almost any situation in which relaxation is the desired goal. Take a bath, for example. Water, soap, flannel: end result – one clean body. Add a scented candle (carefully positioned), a cup of tea or a glass of wine and a book; end result – one clean body and one chilled mind. You may only have ten minutes’ peace, but the addition of candlelight lifts a mundane experience into another plane.
Even those of us without faith occasionally find ourselves – in a holy place in some foreign city, perhaps – drawn to light a candle in memory of the dead. Who knows why? Some vestige of belief inherited from an earlier generation still running through our veins, perhaps? I was told recently, though, that I shouldn’t be lighting candles for the dead but for the living, for those who are in need of care. There are plenty of those in my life, so that’s what I’ll be doing in future. A little light in a small dark church is a lovely thing, whatever you believe…