Light the Way: Following my grandfather’s example of faith

Scranton, Pa.: August 2014

It is two days before I leave for college, and you and I are on our final Monday outing of the summer. Three green glass candles nestle in the third row of candleholders in the Grotto of St. Ann’s Shrine in Scranton, Pa. I think the old woman who sits at the teacher-like desk in the corner to collect the offerings sets them out for you right before we arrive every Monday at 1 p.m. You give the old woman $15 as I scamper to the center of the grotto, unable to conceal what is left of my childlike excitement during our brief visit.

I snatch a long wooden stick from a tin can and dip it into the liquid light of another candle. Passing on the flame to our three unburned wicks, I repeat, “For Nan-na, for Aunt Katie and for Uncle Tim” in my head. After extinguishing the burning stick in the sand of another tin can, I turn to see you—my grandfather—praying in the pew directly behind me.


You always have the same focused posture when you pray, resting slightly on the edge of that creaking wood, softly closing your eyes and gently clasping your hands. As I take my place beside you, trying to mirror your image, I wonder how many candles you have lit in the nine years since that terrible summer of unexpected goodbyes.

I come with you to St. Ann’s only during the summer, yet I feel as if I myself have performed this ritual hundreds of times. I try to churn my curiosity into concentration as I begin my prayers for Nan-na, Aunt Katie and Uncle Tim, but my focus soon stalls on the image of the juicy cheeseburgers that we will eat after this at our favorite restaurant. I wait for you to unclasp your faithful hands.

Paris, France: July 8, 2015

It is exactly four months since you passed away, and I am on the trip to France that we talked about over tea and spice cake at the kitchen table during my spring break. Small votive candles encased in thin metallic shells fill a paper box next to a row of candleholders in Notre Dame. I pluck one tiny disc from the top of the pile, and, unable to find a stick to light it with, resolve to perch the candle over another burning wick.

A flame ignites just before my fingers start to sting from the heating metal. As I set the small glimmering light amid the communal glow, I still feel as if I am doing this special task for you. I want to turn around, hoping that the pew directly behind me will not be empty, but I study the glow of the flame instead. I try to think of you and focus all my attention onto my prayer, yet my jetlagged hunger cracks my concentration. I pause for a large group of tourists to pass before I start toward the exit.

In my final waiting gaze, a small wooden pillar next to the box of candle grabs my attention. “2 Euro” is carved into a golden plate affixed to its front. I forgot to pay the old woman in the corner of the room at the teacher-like desk.

Lourdes, France: July 16, 2015

It is the last day of my trip before I begin my travel-writing course in the south, and I have been thinking a lot about you. Long white candles with blue bottoms are stacked like firewood in a wooden trough right before the entrance to the grotto outside the Sanctuary of Lourdes. Remembering my indiscretion in Notre Dame, I push a two-euro coin through the metal slot on the side of the trough and pull out one candle.

I walk into the grotto, passing two rows of charred black stalls containing candleholders, and light my wick from another flame. I set the burning tower in the middle of the third row in one of the stalls. Sunlight streaming through a phrase cut out from the metal backing of the stall dilutes the golden glow of the candles, but concentrates my attention: “This flame continues my prayer.” I study the collection of candles surrounding me. Some new additions, like mine, stand tall; others, half their original size, drip with melting wax; and a few stubs shrunken by time struggle to keep their wicks upright. Yet they all glow, preserving their lights until they no longer exist.

The flames will still burn even after I walk away, after I say my prayers, after I start thinking about lunch. My candle will keep my prayer for you alive even after my mind moves to more earthly things. I no longer repeat this ritual to replay a memory with you, but to honor you. For the first time, I say, “For Poppa.”

Auvillar, France: July 19, 2015

It is the second day of my class, and I am exploring the church alone for the first time. Skinny, egg-white candles rest in a box attached to the back right pillar of St. Pierre’s Church in Auvillar, a comforting sight in a new place. My one-euro coin plunks to the bottom of the nearly empty donation container above the candle box, and I grasp one of the rough wax renderings. I follow the worn path in the brick to the circular candleholder in front of the St. Jacques statue. This is where pilgrims on the Santiago trail come to say a prayer for their safety, a prayer that will endure even after they return to their journey, but I come with my continual prayer for you.

I light my wick and slip the smooth candle into a metal holder. I try to keep my focus on you, but a new feeling arises within me. As I study the flame, I feel like you are here, somehow embodied by the flickering light, comforting me by your presence. I grasp at this present moment, even more than I cling to the longevity of my prayer. Illuminated by the candle’s flame, my ritual reveals itself as more than an act of honor for you. Instead of my usual remembrance, I repeat something new in my head before I unclasp my faithful hands. “Please be with me.”

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