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.

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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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