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The hour was so early it was still night outside as I entered the church. To call it a church was almost a misnomer. More like a cathedral, its vaulted ceiling so high it shimmered in the dim lighting, the arches swooping up as if great arms held the heavens in their carved and smoothed never-ending strength.
The damp chill almost crystallized on my face as I closed the huge wooden door behind me. The silence set upon my ears like an insulating blanket, warming me despite the chill.
Emptiness echoed my steps as I turned to the left and walked the isle toward the chapel I needed. I passed two other alcoves on my way, but their saints were not the one I had faith in.
For years it’s been a habit of mine that whenever I visit a church or cathedral, I light candles. Thin ones, fat ones, tall ones, short ones, sometimes in little glasses, red or clear. Sometimes they sit on spikes, sometimes in metal holders in rows. Sometimes the candles just take up space on a wax-dripped surface all mixed up in size. Once, in a small chapel in a cave, the candles were on an uneven, smoothed by time and many hands part of the wall that jutted into the tiny chamber and served as a candle holder.
Traveling as much as I have, churches have become a mainstay, some famous, most not, yet each of them infused with a sense of purpose, and solemnity, of quiet and peace, and sometimes hope, no matter the faith of those who built or used it.
This time I had not come just to visit. I’m not a religious person in the traditional sense. I feel Spirit in everything and everywhere. Sometimes it doesn’t feel god-like to call it God, but I do because others are more comfortable with that name. The moment I entered this church, that by someone’s deeming was unfit to be labeled a cathedral, I felt the calm and peace I so desperately needed. I hurried my steps. My heart yearned, my need overshadowed everything.
I reached the small chapel of St. John and now felt trepidation. I had lit so many candles all over the world thinking of the many friends or family I knew that I felt would be happy to know someone thought enough of them to light a candle in another country for them. This time was different. This time my heart was on the line, and so was another's.
I have, since the day I met her called my mother in law my other-mother. She took me into her safe keeping before I even met, much less married, her step-son, and made me her own. She is the cherished being who understood much in me, a young woman searching the world to find herself but still at the mercy of random bouts of homesickness. She gave me tea, aspirin, and a hot water bottle when the homesickness hit, without questions, and then taught me how to walk a dog and polish a silver teapot. A practical woman.
Now my other-mother lay in a hospital fighting for her life. Her amazing, loving heart was damaged. So, I approached the chapel now with my own heart fighting against doubt and hoping against hope that lighting a prayer candle for her would help. She was in another country from me, so I couldn’t sit by her bed. I couldn’t hold her hand or give words of comfort. All I could do was this simple act. A simple act that had over time become more meaningful for me than anything I could describe as simple.
I stood in front of the chapel. There was the candle rack with at least ten candles burning. There were the new candles waiting to be lit. There was the little box for my coins or paper money. And there were the matches in case they were needed.
Seeing the ten candles already burning on the rack fortified me against my worry. The warm golden light they cast created shadows within the arched chapel area. St. John stood with arms spread, hands open, vulnerable, offering, as if of himself, to sacrifice whatever it would take to give solace to those in need.
I didn’t want to ask anything for myself and yet my need overwhelmed all but the image of her. The thought of losing my other-mother was more than I could bear. She was my angel on earth. She was my haven. She had given me strength for over thirty years and I wasn’t read to lose her.
But today was not about me. I sighed and walked to the candle rack. The first candle my fingers touched was white, smooth and cold. It had a small seam running down its side, slightly damaged, not perfect. I smiled. This was the right one. I reached over and lit the wick from a ready flame on one of the ten who awaited this one. The candle flickered in my hand while I searched for the right spot on the rack. Once I placed it, my eyes found St. John again before I closed them and lifted my face to the heavens. It was my turn to give to my other-mother as she had given to me. So, I gave my prayer to her, to the chapel, to St. John, and to the heavens.
In the shadowed, cool silence my heart lifted, leaving behind my worries and doubts. The slender candle resting in its place on the rack unerringly sent out its warmth and light. It didn’t know how hard its task was, didn’t know how far away she was. Just as my other-mother had given me love over all these years without question, the candle gave light and warmth and hope to me in the dusky cradle of the church.
Copyright Lisa Buie-Collard
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