Last night I struck one match after another. It was the first anniversary of the death of my beloved, Jerry, and I wanted to honor his passing. I wanted to honor his life. And so on trays filled with sand, I set out many candles, forty-one for our years together. Then I held a match to every wick.
It seems a natural thing to do in loss and grief, to light even a single candle. I had done so many times throughout the year. A miraculous glow spreads around that flame. It may shine in a chapel, where people leave their silent prayers burning at the feet of a saint, or simply on a windowsill at home. This must be an old, old desire in us—a necessity in us—to see the surprising power in one small flame of light to dispel the dark.
The poignancy of a single flame is magnified in many. A Tibetan woman I know called one day not long ago, inviting me to join her and other friends in prayers for world peace. Her voice shook with sorrow for all the wars. “I’m going to offer one thousand lights,” she said. “Please come!”
Two of us arrived early to help. Just outside her garage, under an awning, she had laid some long wooden planks on sawhorses. Upon the planks, she had set out one thousand white tea candles, row upon row, every wick poking upward ready to be lit. She gave us each a long twig wrapped in gauze she had soaked in butter. We lit the tips of our wands and began to transfer their flames to the candles, one by one. It took a long time. But it was a contemplative time bending over the simple, ritual task, sharing her heartfelt intention to kindle this light and offer it up for the world.
Breezes wafted into that awning-covered porch and kept the tiny flames dancing, flickering, often blowing out. I recalled the same problem during community vigils for peace, when week after week, a group of us had stood on a busy corner. The winds of buses and cars, and the winds of winter weather, often snuffed our candles out. And we lit them again. And again.
Our Tibetan hostess improvised a blockade to shield her thousand candles from the wind. The flames steadied. A warmth rose up from the growing rows of light, a heat from the gathered flames. When every last candle was lit, I stood back, gazing into the brilliance.
In Tibet, this offering of lights would have been made in row upon row of butter lamps—those lovely chalices of brass filled with butter churned from the milk of yaks. Each wick would be lit and the lamps offered not because the Buddha wants offerings, but because light itself symbolizes wisdom. As the lamas say, offering light represents dispelling the dark of our own ignorance, so that we too can attain the luminous, clear wisdom of a Buddha. The light is offered not for oneself alone but to illuminate the way for those who have died, and to help all beings, including ourselves, awaken to our own “true wisdom nature.”
The butter lamps would flicker and shine on an altar covered in brocade. They would glow in a cave, or a temple with painted pillars and walls. But outside the garage of our Tibetan friend, a thousand tea candles burning in thin aluminum cups, all set out on plain planks, were just as glorious. An expanse of single lights spread out before us, flames burning together in silence, the many and the one light.
Our human hunger for light has never waned. Today, rather than light a thousand flames we might just flip a hundred switches. Light is light, and yet it would not feel the same. A candle’s flame burns at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit, and the blue part of the flame is even hotter. It is fire, of course, fire. And for eons, we human beings have lived with its burning, transforming power. What feeds a fire turns into something else, both heat and light, with a nature akin to the sun. All around the world fire is seen as one of the four elements, with earth, water, air, and in some traditions a fifth element, space. So the flame of a butter lamp or candle belongs to an elemental force we know, deep in our primordial bones.
For untold centuries, wherever there were olive groves and olive oil, we could light a wick placed in oil in a simple dish of clay. In other places, we dipped pithy rushes in fat, or we lit papyrus, tightly rolled. In some Asian lands we pressed oil for light from the bodies of insects, or from the fruit of the cinnamon tree. For a long time in Europe we made candles of tallow, the fat rendered from cows and sheep slaughtered for food. We found a sweeter-smelling wax in the Middle Ages, one made by the labor of countless bees. Not everyone could afford this golden wax, but it was used for candles in churches.
We even hunted another fuel for light from the seas, when whalers in the eighteenth century found a wax inside the great heads of sperm whales. It burned so bright, that a pure spermaceti candle became the standard measure for illumination. A century later, we began pumping a more ancient oil from deep in the earth. The paraffin wax used for most candles today is taken from that same petroleum, the oil made of ancient, fossilized creatures under great pressure. Even the body of a candle is made of passing time and life on Earth.
All the candles I have seen burning in quiet chapels, on altars, or set out in rows on planks, left a radiant, flickering image in my mind. As the first anniversary of my partner Jerry’s death drew near, the image rose up as an inspiration. I, too, could make a similar offering of lights.
It would be indoors and I would need to insulate the surface beneath my candles to keep it safe. Baking trays filled with sand would do. So I went to a shore where earth and water meet. Once it was mountains of rock, ground down by the millennia to pebbles and grains, rock that was once molten, fiery stuff, even the stuff of stars. Now, on a beach where the tides still rub, wash, and flavor the sand eternally with salt, it came to be scooped up by a pair of human hands.
As I filled my buckets, this gray sand felt cool and smooth. Tiny shards of shell spilled through my fingers too—all those living things that had once been. Waves sighed and sloshed nearby, waves of the same salinity that welled up inside me and spilled from my eyes. I carried the sand home in the trunk of my car. Then I poured it into trays, spreading the sand like small beaches, and memories spread with the sand.
Jerry and I had camped on a remote shore all summer, our first summer together, and I watched him light our cooking fires and marveled at his skill. We ate brown rice and beans and sat on a log for hours watching sandpipers, eagles, crows. We walked for miles and let the constant shushing of the waves wash the rush of city life away. When it rained, we kept dry in the shelter Jerry built for us, warmed by the fire he made in an oil-drum stove. We sat on the sand together in meditation. At night we read and loved by candlelight.
Last night, I placed a photograph of Jerry as he was then, the face I have loved ever since, near the forty-one candles set on the sand in the trays.
As I struck my matches to light one wick after another, it struck me again how bodily, how earthly was the fuel for these flames. They sprang from the material of this world—yet each flame seemed to appear out of nothing, out of a space where there was no fire a moment before. Each flame seemed to flare up also inside the cave of my own emptiness, the hollow place in the chest where I feel the ache of loss. But the void held more than my loss alone. It was everyone’s, for we all feel the same sorrow of parting from a loved one. So the flames too were lit for everyone.
Last night, the whole world was here with me in the gray sand and bits of shell. It was here in the paraffin wax, drawn from the earth, pressed from countless beings deep in the past. It was here in the air with every slightest breath making the flames shift and dance. It was here in the ocean water that streamed from my eyes. It was here in the red gladiolas by the photo of my beloved, who slipped out of this life to another I can’t yet know.
The world was here in the words of the prayers I chanted alone in my room. It was here in the night outside the window and in the moon that rose behind the black trees. Inside, the many flames assured me of a larger and more luminous space that is holding all of us. For everything joined in the private, yet universal alchemy—burning a loss into light, and grief into gratitude.
Image credit: By Nanda93 (own work, public domain) via Wikimedia Commons.
Essay ©2012 Barbara Helen Berger