A few months ago, in the midst of my whirlwind pilgrimage around France, I had the opportunity to visit Lourdes for the first time. We arrived in the early evening, settled into our hotel, and sat down for dinner. As soon as the dishes were cleared away, we were off again, headed to the main square for a candlelit procession. It had been raining off and on all day but my phone wouldn’t connect to the hotel’s wifi to tell me the forecast and the patch of sky I could see from the door was blue, so I decided to chance it, heading down to the outdoor ceremony with only a denim jacket to protect me from the elements.
I’m not usually one for extra ceremony in the best of circumstances, preferring silent time to pray as I like over litanies and processions, so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit for this rosary parade. But I’m always ready to try to have the full experience (and I wanted to set a good example to the young people) so I bought my 50-cent candle with its very flammable paper bobeche1 and off I went.
The procession started out as expected, with a chanted Latin credo I only knew one word in twenty of2 and hundreds of people walking slowly around the square behind a large statue of the Blessed Mother. Not long into the second decade (led in various different languages) it started to rain. I took a deep breath, offered it up, and kept going, shielding the flame on my taper candle more carefully. The rain got heavier, and my candle was out. So I lit it again off a friend. And once more off a stranger. I shared the light with various people around me, all the while wishing I’d brought my umbrella.
After 3 or 4 times relighting my candle, I gave up. If I’d been there alone, I would long since have gone back to the hotel, but I wasn’t going to leave my friends, so on I trudged, sopping paper dangling from my dripping candle, rain running down my face.
Eventually, someone with an extra umbrella offered it to me, as people around us did for any number of strangers. I invited a friend to share my umbrella, and we kept walking, finally arriving at the front of the square to finish the rosary in lashing rain. The pilgrims around me were cold and bedraggled, each holding an unlit candle.
Then out came the sun, as though she hadn’t abandoned us for nearly the whole ceremony. Tentatively we put away our umbrellas, but the sky promised to remain closed and the whole party seemed to breathe a sigh of relief as we prepared to dry out.
As soon as my umbrella was down, Jared, for whom I’d been holding the umbrella, was gone. I was ticked, thinking only (of course) of myself, of the sacrifices I’d made to hold the umbrella for him and he didn’t even have the courtesy to stand by me when he didn’t need me any more.3
And suddenly he was back, holding out a lit candle to relight mine.
I’d forgotten about candles. It had been impossible to keep mine lit, but evidently somebody, somewhere had managed it. And Jared had remembered why we were there when I’d forgotten anything but self-pity. He handed on the flame and I was off, lighting candles for friends and strangers.
Some sputtered out immediately. “Don’t worry about it,” one young woman said after the third failed attempt. “My wick’s too wet.”
“Then we’ll dry it out,” I said, holding my candle to hers for 2 or 3 minutes until the flame finally burned clean and strong.
“My wick broke off,” another friend said. “It can’t light. But it’s fine.”
“It’s not fine. I’ll melt the wax down until you have a wick again.” Another few minutes, holding my flame to her useless wax stick until it became a candle again.
I held my hand to block the wind for some and fished candles out of backpacks. On and on, the flame spreading, until once again we were a candlelit crowd. And the whole time, all I could think was what a parable it all was.
We’re given this light of faith at baptism, and maybe you cherish it. Maybe you protect it, turning to the community to rekindle it when the difficulties of the world extinguish it.
But it gets too hard. Again and again you light the candle. Again and again the flame is snuffed out until you can’t see anyone around you with a flame and it just seems futile. So you put away the candle and keep trudging through the dim light. Eventually you forget that there ever was a candle and you get used to the darkness.
Until someone walks up beside you and offers you a light. You remember again what this is about. Maybe you’re like me, forcing that flame on everyone around you. But maybe you’re too discouraged. “Don’t worry about it, it won’t work.”
Fortunately, you’ve got a friend who won’t settle for that. “You can’t carry this flame right now, but I can carry it for you. I can stand with you and love you and hold my faith up until God burns away the brokenness and rekindles the light of faith in you.”
This is why we need Christian community. Every one of us4 needs people to remind us of the faith that once drove us. We need to people to fight our battles for us, people to stand with us to protect our faith, and people who we can encourage and support.
I tell you what, I felt like a hero that evening. I was saving the day left, right, and center with that flame. But I never would have had it if Jared hadn’t remembered what I’d forgotten. I’m blessed to spend a lot of my life lighting people’s candles, but it’s only possible because of the community that supports me, praying for me, holding an umbrella, offering me a light.
We need each other, you and I. We need friends and strangers to keep these flames lit. We need real community, not just handshakes before Mass starts. We need to know each other and love each other if we’re going to hold each other up.
I hope you’ve got people walking with you, helping you keep your candle lit. If you don’t, don’t settle for that. God wants you to live in community and community is possible. So pray for it and then go out and find it. Start a Bible study, join the Altar guild, meet your evangelical neighbors.
Community might not look like a whole bunch of people the same age, race, and marital status talking about things they already agree on—all the better! Get coffee with the little old ladies who pray the rosary every day before Mass. Offer to babysit for that mom your daughter’s age. Invite Father over for dinner. Serve the Church. Because, with rare exception, real Christian community doesn’t just happen. It’s sought and built and fought for. But it’s worth it.
- Apparently that’s the word for the cup thing that they put around candles at church to keep the wax from going everywhere. Who knew? [↩]
- Don’t worry, I sang the few passages I knew triumphantly. Et ascendit in caelo!! [↩]
- I get double cranky when I’m cold and wet. [↩]
- Unless God has called you to be a hermit, which he almost certainly hasn’t. [↩]