I love to light a candle most evenings as I turn down the covers on the day. The dance of the flame and the scent of the candle are magical to me. Sometimes I voice a few words in the quiet of my home, welcoming the invitation to release the day and rest in the moment. Please don’t think I sit in silence and meditate the night away in a state of zen. Sometimes music is blaring, dinner is cooking, or Netflix is streaming. But the candle seems to ground it all in some mysterious way. I sometimes light them at work as well, reminding me of the Trinity’s presence and the invitation to join Them in holy work throughout the day.
This past year, candles no longer brought comfort. They brought terror. Like for so many of you, the past year has been a hard season. The autumn winds of 2020 stirred up fear and anxiety in the depths of my soul. Political turmoil, pandemic weariness, the cancer diagnosis and death of our pastor, Doyle Sager – my mentor, my friend. There were few things I recognized during that season. It was all unfamiliar, unwanted territory, yet we had no choice but to walk it.
The anxiety I was feeling about ALL the things strangely transferred to my practice of lighting candles. I would lay awake, heart racing with the questions, Did I blow them out? Did I make sure to extinguish them thoroughly? On a couple of nights, I drove back to the office around midnight to check even though I was nearly confident I hadn’t even lit one that day. I was sure I would be responsible for everything going up in smoke – literally and figuratively. (Which is a real fear for a church that went through a devastating fire many years ago.) I eventually removed all the candles and matches and didn’t light them at home or work. I still had moments where I’d wake in a panic but could eventually convince myself my anxiety was unfounded (and misguided). There were no candles or matches to be found, let alone lit. I missed them, but I could not risk it. And I wondered if it would ever be able to enjoy them again.
This past week, on a long overdue vacation, my friend and I hiked or walked each day. On the last day, we hiked a trail that wasn’t clearly marked. Sometimes it felt like we were off the path entirely or walking in circles. “Didn’t we pass this strange rock formation before?” “That creek bed looks familiar.” Then, some landmark would register as new, or there would be a marker showing we were indeed on the correct path and headed in the right direction.
I’ve learned grief can feel like being lost in the woods or walking in circles. The past few weeks have brought fresh waves of sadness and aching for Doyle. I miss him deeply and profoundly. Haven’t I walked this path? Am I going in circles? Shouldn’t I be near the end? Then I see something I haven’t seen before or a marker showing me I’m on the right path even though there are still miles to walk. I don’t know if we ever reach a trailhead this side of heaven with grief. From what I’ve learned from others who have experienced significant loss, I think perhaps not. Maybe it is enough to trust the markers around me that whisper, “You aren’t going in circles. You’re on the right path. Just keep going and don’t miss the beauty and the Companionship along the way.”
On vacation this week, I lit a candle each evening and voiced a welcome for the evening and gratitude for the day. Not one night did I awake with fear I had failed to extinguish it. This is my marker of hope. I’m still on the journey, but I’m making progress. I’m not ready to light any candles at work and make a late-night drive to ease my fears, but home is a start. And as the flame flickers beside me tonight and the aroma of sugared birch fills my home, I give thanks. For Doyle. For markers of hope. For Companions on the journey.