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Got a light? The flame of faith burns brighter when a community of candles comes together.

"IT IS BETTER TO LIGHT A CANDLE THAN TO CURSE THE darkness," says an old Chinese proverb. It's a beautiful sentiment, and--apparently--a universal one. Nearly every Catholic church I've ever visited houses at least one metal rack of prayer candles. Many are lit, while others sit waiting for visitors to drop a donation into a metal box, strike a match, and transform their deepest prayers into flame.

This connection between fire and prayer is as old as humankind and hardly unique to Catholicism. In fact, in the early church the use of candles was strictly regulated-even downright discouraged--because of its association with pagan rituals. But the Catholic faithful, drawn by the powerful symbolism of light, continued to express their faith with candles. By the fourth century candles were formally accepted and widely used in liturgies. Out of these developments came the devotional practice of lighting prayer candles to represent an intention or need. Flickering quietly in the church, these little flames symbolize that our prayers continue, even after we ourselves have left the building.

These small points of light have always been there in the background of my Catholic life, casting their quiet glow on Masses and weddings and funerals, on celebrations and struggles alike. As with so many devotions, I've found that they've gradually crept to the forefront of my mind. The more I reflect on them, the more I feel them nudging me toward a greater understanding of what it means to be part of a community of faith.

Watching those little flames burning within their glass walls, I notice an astonishing variety. Some quiver and vibrate, like a plucked harpstring. Some dance from side to side wildly, as if responding to a wind all their own. Others stand straight and tall, hardly wavering. Watch any candle long enough, and you'll see it do all three.

I like to think that these candles symbolize not only prayers, but also the people who pray them. Each of us touches the match to the wick with a degree of faith that is entirely personal. Some of us have belief that never falters; lighting that candle is simply a visible testament of our certainty that God will intervene. Many of us quiver from time to time, touched by passing currents of doubt. Others of us flicker and waver as the forces of pain and despair seem stronger than anything God can or will do.

But even in the face of doubt, we light the candle all the same, and it's that decision that moves me. Each little flame bears witness to the fact that someone chose to walk through the church doors, to pick a candle, to strike a match. Someone's heart was right here, motivated by the belief that lighting this candle will somehow bring comfort. These candles are proof that even when we struggle to believe, there's something in the church that draws us home.

That's why, although prayer candles seem at first to be deeply private devotions, I've come to see them as a call to think outside of myself. They remind me of the many lives and struggles, known and unknown, that burn within my church. Even though I don't know the intentions that are symbolized by each little lick of firelight, I can pray for them just the same. Faith isn't a solitary endeavor, after all; just like the little candles themselves, the greatest energy is created when we come together.

I WAS REMINDED OF THIS MEMORABLY A FEW YEARS AGO ON Good Friday. As I meditated during our parish's "Seven Last Words" ceremony, I shivered, wondering why the church was so cold. Then I noticed that the votives were all extinguished. I was amazed at the difference. Tiny though each candle is, collectively they generate a palpable warmth.

More than anything, then, these little votives remind me of the vital importance of community. They help me remain open to the needs of others, recognizing that we have a powerful role to play in nurturing each other's faith. And whenever I see a flame dancing wildly, I'm reminded that even when I grapple with doubts, the decision to keep praying is in itself a witness to others. After all, faith doesn't have to be perfect to create energy and warmth. Even a wavering flame can light the darkness, inviting others home.

GINNY MOYER, a writer and teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.
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Author:Moyer, Ginny
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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