A friend once sent me a card of the Upper Basilica of St Clement in Rome: ‘James, I lit a candle and said a prayer for you here.’
Lighting a candle in church is an act of poetry as well as piety. Electric candles are not the same. They do not have that quality of a wax candle which diminishes even as its flame stretches upwards, so that, in giving light, it is at the same time disappearing. The candle is a living, vibrant presence. When we leave a church, we know that, as the candle we lit dies down, it will be replaced by other candles and other flames, just as other prayers will be added to ours.
All over the world people are coming and going in churches and temples, lighting candles and votive lamps, and saying prayers. We think of the tongues of fire at Pentecost and are reminded of how, now more than ever perhaps, people long to be set on fire and inspired. As we read in the Book of Esdras, ‘I shall light a candle of understanding in thine heart, which shall not be put out.’