Monday, March 29, 2010

candles and sacred space

When the earthquake hit in Haiti, I was struck by how people responded to the crisis and left me wondering about some of our prayer traditions, even in secular circles. Namely, why do we light candles in remembrance and prayer? Is it a leftover from pagan traditions or Catholicism? And if so many of us aren't either, then why do we do it in moments of collective sorrow? Because we do. When there is a school shooting, we light candles, for 9/11, we lit candles, for major earthquakes, we light candles. We hold midnight vigils, with lit candles. What is it about this act of lighting a candle that we are so attached to?

What does it do?

Is it about comfort? Because let's face it, the warm glow of a candle is soothing. Or is it that the flames that lead us into quiet contemplation? Staring in the fire is sure to bring the least introspective of us into a meditative trance like state. Is that why candles appeal to us in these moments? Because they light the dark and allow us to look at the darkness within, a quasi beacon of hope to guide the way?

Or is it more about the ritual? About creating a sacred space?

In yoga and nia we start with acts that focus our intention. With Om or the act of stepping in, both traditions ask us to define our focus and create a sacred space before progressing. And soon the act becomes a ritual in and of itself and the mere act brings about the mental state we hope to develop within the practice.

Perhaps our candle vigils are a combination of these two elements. Whatever the case may be, lighting a candle or focusing my intention in order to create that sacred space, even if only for a few moments, really is a beautiful tradition.

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