Monday, January 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Candles

I think that the New Year could do with a heart-warming story, don't you?

Last Wednesday I had reason to visit Piccadilly. Whenever I find myself in Piccadilly I try to allow time to spend a few minutes sitting quietly in St.James's church.
Part of Wren's magnificent legacy to London, St. James's is far more than a beautiful building. In the words of its current statement of purpose, it is called, amongst other things:

* to create a space where people of any faith or none can question and discover the sacred in life through openness, struggle and laughter and prayer
* to a common commitment to be in solidarity with poor and marginalised people and to cherish creation.

If you wander in, as I did last Wednesday, you can be certain to encounter a wonderful cross-section of visitors. After settling myself in a pew at the back of the church, I looked around.
The middle-aged couple holding hands, what had drawn them to St. James's? Were they celebrating good news, or marking a wedding anniversary? As I watched, they crossed to the metal candle-stand, carefully lit two candles and, smiling happily at each other, placed a donation in the box as they made their way out of the door.

Several people were sitting quietly in the pews, some were curled up asleep. A tramp, with his meagre cluster of possessions beside him, rose to his feet as the couple departed. He, too, was drawn to the candle-stand. After facing the flickering lights for a few moments, he bent down, took two candles out of the box, lit them carefully, placed them in a prime position and then, after a moment of quiet reflection, returned to his pew.

I had an appointment, it was time for me to go. However, I needed to say 'thank you' before leaving. Rising, I crossed to the stand where eight candles were now burning brightly.
Candles are surprisingly powerful. How often in our daily life can we create a living light? How often can we leave a tangible, lasting memory of our departed presence in a place that we value?

But my intention was thwarted. The only candles were those already burning, the candle-box was empty. It was foolish, I told myself, to feel so disappointed. There was nothing to prevent me from leaving a donation without actually lighting a candle.

I was about to turn away when I realised that someone was standing at my shoulder. It was the tramp. Reaching forward, he removed the two candles he had placed in position only a few moments previously. He then blew them out and ran his grimy fingers down the wicks to quell the smoke. When this operation was complete, he carefully returned the two candles to the box. After giving me an engaging, conspiratorial grin, he made his way back to his pew.

The candles were still warm as I retrieved them. Carefully, I relit the wicks and returned the candles to their previous places on the stand. Was it my heightened imagination, or did they shine even more brightly on this second occasion?

I made my donation as I left . . . a totally inadequate recompense for the gift that St. James's had given me.