Ifirst saw one in the Cave of the Apocalypse at the Monastery of the Revelation on the island of Patmos in Greece; a large bowl half filled with sand, into which thin taper candles were placed as a way of marking particular prayers. I came across something very similar in St Peter’s Church in Manhattan, where I was attending a jazz liturgy, and then again in the chapel of King’s University College in Halifax. Each time I saw one of these candle bowls, I thought of how well we could use one at saint benedict’s table.
We’ve long had a practice of keeping the small chapel at All Saints as a place for continued quiet and prayer following the Sunday liturgy. While most of the assembled congregation more or less explodes into a time of shared hospitality, laugher and conversation, there are always those among us who need just a bit more time of stillness and prayer. We placed a table set with an array of candles at the front of the chapel, and Sunday after Sunday people would make their way into that space to light a candle as a sign of their prayer, and to sit in the calming semi-darkness of that space. There is nothing magical about lighting a candle to accompany prayer, and it certainly isn’t as if it makes our prayers somehow better. Yet to match words—or silence—with an act so simple as igniting a new flame is strangely grounding. And it is quite moving to sit in the gentle glow of lit candles, aware that each one represents somebody’s need or blessing or tears.
But that table of candles always ended up looking just a little ramshackle, and even the smallest of votive candles couldn’t be left burning when I locked up the church at the end of the night. This candle bowl with thin tapers set safely in a bed of sand seemed somehow right.
And then a gifted potter from our community approached me to ask if there was anything she might make for us. I explained what I had in mind, searched out a few images on the internet, and she promised to give it a try. The thing is, a bowl of the size we needed could not be thrown on a wheel, so would need to be shaped by hand; something I have since learned is no mean feat. What’s more, firing something of that size was also not going to be a straightforward matter, and our potter was hesitant to make any promises… but she would do what she could.
The result delights me every time I look at it. The bowl is big and solid—it has some real gravitas, in other words—but it is somehow still elegant and lovely. And now for the most part those thin taper candles can be left to burn out naturally. I don’t have to blow them all out when I leave the church, and even if I’m the only one aware of it, it seems a comforting sign of the way in which our prayers of thanks and of petition continue to “burn” long after we’ve ceased to give them voice.
There is nothing magical about lighting a candle to accompany prayer, and it isn’t as if it makes our prayers somehow better. Yet to match words—or silence—with an act so simple as igniting a new flame is strangely grounding. Simply put, it always moves me to sit in the gentle glow of those lit candles, aware that each one represents somebody’s need or blessing or tears.
Thanks to Bram Ryan for his photographs, and to our anonymous potter for her wonderful gift.