There’s nothing quite like the fluid warmth of candlelight. One small flame illuminates a dark space with a nonjudgmental gentleness — its light welcomes everyone regardless of our crimes and misdemeanours, our successes and glories. It is fully itself. It shines. No other questions asked, no responses needed.
There’s so much anger rising up in the world that this gentleness feels utterly foreign on my skin and to my eyes, even invasive. Have I become so distant from it that I can no longer recognise gentleness now when I encounter it?
What I do know is that candlelight is powerful enough to stave off the cold darkness in the mid-winter. As I pour myself another cup of tea, the thought of curling up under a blanket, candles lit, is one of deep comfort and rest. My world is free to be a bit smaller instead of overwhelmingly big. Part of me wonders if my congregation would be willing to let me preach from this very spot over Facebook live.
Oh well, worth a try.
What strikes me most beyond the candle flame itself is the changing and deepening of shadows around the light after the match is struck. The light is not a piercing noonday light that banishes the shadows from my existence. Rather, it changes the shape and voice of these shadows to become something new altogether. It invites them to support the light to be itself. Sometimes I wonder if the light even creates them into new things.
Some days I don’t really want to believe that the light needs the shadows. I want the shadows gone, exorcised from life. Creating more of them seems like inviting disaster on top of tragedy. Why bother?
What if candlelight — small, confined light — is the energy I need to explore my shadows?
What if harsh noonday sun would dim the shadows so completely that I can’t really learn who or what dwells within the shadow world? What if tiny, gentle light is what’s required? What if, in grappling with the shadows, I would need the gentle welcome of candlelight as a healing balm and not searing brightness of midday?
John O’Donohue, in his poem For Light, writes:
In the glare of neon times,
Let our eyes not be worn
By surfaces that shine
With hunger made attractive.
That our thoughts may be true light,
Finding their way into words
Which have the weight of shadow
To hold the layers of truth.
That we never place our trust
In minds claimed by empty light,
Where one-sided certainties
Are driven by false desire.
When we look into the heart,
May our eyes have the kindness
And reverence of candlelight.
That the searching of our minds
Be equal to the oblique
Crevices and corners where
The mystery continues to dwell,
Glimmering in fugitive light. –John O’Donohue, For Light
I wonder what energy within me compels me to see the shadows as entirely external, as terrifying, as other? Where is the space to understand the shadows as womb? As creation? As possibility? As retreat? Is the removal of my sight all it takes for me to believe that anything that dwells in the darkness, or even the darkness itself, evil?
What do I fear the most in facing my shadows?
The light of a candle gives dimension to my shadows. Instead of rejecting them, it beckons to them, “I see you. Come closer. Welcome!”
As they come closer, the darker these shadows become. Rays of orange-gold light play on the walls, on the ceiling, and shatter into a kaleidoscope of flickering shapes against the furniture (which, by now, appear as fearful hulking mounds). If the invitation has already been extended to the shadows, I suppose I have to move over and makes space.
Sigh…if I must I must.
However, the choice to explore those shadows now sitting uncomfortably close to me is still mine alone. Candlelight retains its gentleness, after all. It won’t invade my spirit to explore the other guests within its golden ring. I have to choose to explore these depths, regardless of what I might find.
What do I fear more? The possibility of darkness within me? The skeletons I try to keep hidden from the world?
Or am I more afraid of the possibilities being nurtured here?
My English professor during my undergrad took me aside after class one day and told me: “Erin, most people are deathly afraid of failure. But some people are really afraid of success. Remember that.”
And I have.
Every time I self-sabotage while on an unknown path, every time I fuddle up a decision, every time something new comes around and I can’t quite see the way before me. Of course I’m not expected to be perfect on any journey (although like most people I do expect a level of unattainable perfection of myself). However, I find that I engage in sub-conscious actions that make me feel powerful in the moment but are really designed to keep me down here in this spot, shadows held at length, but confined to a restricted time and place because I won’t let myself leave.
Oh the power of candles.
I believe that there are genuinely terrifying things that dwell in the shadows — people and structures that lurk under cover of darkness and emerge only when unseen to engage in inflicting pain, trauma, and fear. Seeing a candle welcome those shadows almost creates a resentment in me, a sense of un-safety. But if I focus on the nature of the candle’s light, I’m also able to broaden that one perspective to see a little bit more.
Heck, there’s even desire to explore the shadows. They aren’t a monolithic group of ethereal desperadoes waiting to gobble me whole. There’s possibility here, growth, wisdom, femininity, masculinity, queerness, and so much more all tangled in with the fear, the shame, the doubt, the hate, and the despair.
How like life in the daytime.
I wonder, then, what my life might look like when I intentionally light candles in order to create the shadows. When I begin to engage this shadow-side, what aspects of God might reveal themselves to me that I’ve never encountered before?
This non-judgmental light will remain quiet and healing through it all. It won’t expose all of my failings or weaknesses to the entire world. It won’t share my secret possibilities or dreams with one and all.
Only to myself and to God.
And She keeps a powerful confidence.