My attendance at church and interest in religion fluctuates wildly, but one thing I'm consistently interested in when I do walk into a church – or any house of worship, really – is lighting a candle. And I always want a real flame - the burst of ignition.
In recent years, most churches have installed rows of small electric candles so that one only has to push a button to turn on a tiny light bulb. But on occasion, I get lucky and stumble upon an old-fashioned candle set-up – row upon row of wax votives inside two-inch high colored glass tumblers, and a collection of long slender sticks of wood sunk in a mound of sand. You use a stick as a match, light it with an already-burning candle, ignite a new wick on a fresh candle, sink the burning stick in the sand, and hit your knees. Then you pray... or not.
I don't think it matters one whit what kind of superior being you believe in (or don't). Sometimes I do pray, but more often I simply kneel there and hold in my thoughts whatever new or ongoing petition I have as a mother for my children. For me it's all about solace; about hoping that, when my own mind and heart seem overwhelmed and too small, there's a space out there where I can park my worries and outright ask for help - the kind of help that's beyond what a girlfriend can provide, a doctor can prescribe or a husband can shoulder.
While at the candles, I think of the word "beseech" and how perfectly it describes what I believe every mother comes to at some point - when our children are in some kind of pain, when they have a need or are in the throes of a deep want a parent can't fulfill. The word implies a supplication of some kind - an admission that we are human, but that perhaps something else, something larger and more powerful, may embody and grant the help we seek – sometimes.
I light a candle and I beseech. Because mothers can only do so much.
Since becoming a mother 17 years ago, I've found there are few rituals as soothing and reassuring as lighting a candle, thinking about what one or both of my children need, and offering that prayer, that request, up to the universe, or to God, or perhaps to the combined power of all the other mothers who light candles – whether real or metaphorical.
I don't need to be in a church. I light candles at home, too, and try to conjure the feeling of a quiet corner in a slightly chilly stone church, the flames skittering. But I like the real thing.
Last week, while my oldest child and my husband were on the fast-paced walking tour portion of a visit to a prospective college, I wandered with my younger son at a much slower pace into an unexpectedly large and somewhat modern student church. There we found a candle corner - the old fashioned kind, with sticks and wax and smells of burning wicks. As my son lit two candles, I mentally unpacked my list of worries - my requests of the universe, those that are too big and complex and scary for mothers to keep in, and certainly not solve. I released them instead to the flame, to the air.