Lighting candles

My family is big on lighting honorific candles in houses of worship. From the grandest cathedral to the smallest church, if candles can be lit within, we are on it. Using crisp bills, those so worn it's hard to recognize their worth or even a scrounged-together mess of change, we light waiting wicks to remember someone special who has died or on behalf of someone who is ill; a way of saying "Godspeed" across what are usually hundreds of miles.

This week has been ludicrously full of bad health news. I and my family are well, but dear friends ail, and in two weeks, it will be the first anniversary of Nanny's passing. When I spoke to Mom yesterday, I offered to light candles at the National Cathedral; through sobs, she said, "Yes, please." Not long afterward, my sister emailed from Florence; she too would be shining light toward those who need it.

After dropping the boys off this morning, I drove to the Cathedral and arrived a few minutes before it opened. All blue skies and brisk air, today was the consummate fall day, and I settled on the cold stone steps in front of the visitor's entrance to wait.

Every time I go to the Cathedral, usually to light candles (although Jack did go through a phase of loving and wishing to see regularly the Hell-themed stained-glass window inside), I am struck by the myriad folks streaming around and into it, no matter the time of day. Of course there are church members and clergy present, students too, visitors from near and far. But surely there are others like me, there to see or do something specific, perhaps with the regularity or purpose of my candle-lighting. I look around gently and send virtual hugs; who knows what any one of them might be struggling with or worried about. I don't, but something has drawn them.

A security guard unlocked the door from within, and I entered on the heels of an anxious-looking man. Dressed in a suit, he appeared both somber and extremely rushed, and I wished him well as his strides carried him away from me so quickly I couldn't find him again.

I explained to the desk-clerk that I wanted only to light candles, and she said, "Of course. We simply ask that if you decide to look around, you return to pay the admission fee." "Absolutely," I replied in turn, and headed down the cool hall into the great nave before turning right into the transept. As I made my way to the small chapel where the candles wait, I wondered if anyone had ever defied that request to pay for sight-seeing. Can you cheat a church and feel OK? I wouldn't.

The hushed tones and dim lighting always usher in contemplativeness and calm; today was no exception. Though I was in a hurry, I didn't rush. The Cathedral's stained-glass windows are truly magnificent; although the Rose windows are incredibly executed and spectacular to cast eyes upon, the regular ones lining the nave are pretty remarkable too.

Lest you think I've become a believer, I haven't. But I do appreciate tradition and ceremony, which, in my opinion, are the foremost take-aways from organized systems of faith. To me, their meaning has nothing to do with a higher power or the afterlife, but rather with thoughtful, meaningful, purposeful efforts at continuation generation after generation.

Each time I light a candle, I feel that I'm participating in a ritual understood by many but particularly special to me because of its context within my extended family. I like that sense of simultaneous connection with strangers and kin. The simplicity of the action appeals to me greatly as does its driver: thinking of others and making time to wish them well.