When we walked into the Church of John the Evangelist in the resort town of Monterosso al Mare, the first sight was the array of candles.
I love candles for décor, but never understood them as part of religious practice. As a child, arriving early for mass, I was perplexed by those who took the pilgrimage down the side aisle of our plaster walled post-conciliar church to light a votive beneath the abstract windows awash in primary colors. The flames were small. And what did they do exactly, other than cost a dollar?
God loves us, candles or no. God can’t be bought off with a few coins. Yet I found myself in San Giovanni longing to light a candle, and confused by my desire.
I always thought I was comfortable with mystery. I love the Trinity, after all! But that was before mystery burrowed into my very body: we don’t know what causes your disease. We don’t know what will make you feel better. We don’t know what your prognosis is. So now, when I turn to God’s own mystery I do so pining for certainty. Remove the questions. Make me well.
In this new church, far from home, that was my prayer, and I wanted to light a candle. I wanted to dip its wick into a flame and cause that flame to double as sure as I was standing there. I wanted to put 1€ into the box marked offerta and be healed. I was ashamed.
Just as all that swirled inside me, making me want to disappear into the black and white marble floor, he stepped beside me and said simply “I want to light a candle for my mom.”
I almost wept with relief and admiration. How is able to make things so simple? He wanted to commit an act of love, of literal enlightenment, and he was able to do it without overthinking.
“I’d like to light one for my health,” I whispered. So he drew out a 2€ and let it fall into the box where it landed with a clang.
We stood shoulder to shoulder, our intentions wordlessly merging. My prayers were made muddier and more mysterious by my gratitude for standing so close to someone who still helps me learn to pray.