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Prayer for the week

20 July 2012

Sometimes prayer is difficult to put into words. Ted Harrison lights a candle


I do not know how to pray.
I do not know what to say.
I do not have much time.
This candle I light is:
something of what I have
something of my time
something of myself
that I leave before the Lord.
This light that shines stands for
my prayer that I continue to
even as I leave this place.

A prayer of French origin

"Je NE sais pas comment prier," said the notice that caught my attention. It was alongside a bank of candles in Sens Cathedral, in France. "I do not know how to pray." The candles were for sale at €1 each, and, judging by the number of people who were buying and lighting a candle, it was clearly a popular devotion.

Visitors wander into cathedrals for many reasons. There are tourists and passers-by, as well as pilgrims and worshippers. Cathedrals are public landmarks and heritage sites, as well as buildings dedicated to God. They welcome all comers, including those who would not normally enter a place of prayer. For many unchurched people today, being in a cathedral provides a rare contact with the spiritual.

The medieval architects certainly knew how to use stone and glass to create a sense of the numinous. And being in a house of prayer gives even those utterly unfamiliar with liturgy and worship permission to pray.

Some might experience a longing to renew contact with God. Others will have an inner pain to offload. Yet many will have only the vaguest notion of how to pray. It is when words fail that a simple devotional act, such as lighting a candle, can express what cannot be articulated.

In Christian symbolism, a candle can represent Christ - the light of the world. Lighting a candle is a creative act. "Let there be light, and there was light," God said. But I suspect that such theological reflections were not uppermost in the minds of those finding a euro for a candle. A candle was lit simply to share a thought, a fear, or a request, with God.

Interestingly, I noticed as I watched that no one lit a candle by reaching for a lighter or striking a match. Every new candle was lit from an existing flame - one that someone else, a few minutes earlier, had lit from someone else's candle. No one encountered God in isolation. Everyone was part of a connected chain of prayer.

Once lit, the candles were left to burn. People came and went. Time pressed. The tourists returned to their coaches. The passers-by resumed their progress through the city. Yet each individual left behind a prayer that continued to shine, offering a continuing, wordless prayer to God. Then, by the time the candle had guttered and died, it had served as a flame for other people to light their candles from, and offer their prayers.

Reflecting later, I recalled that I had seen the prayer in a cathedral before, in an English translation. I looked it up, and found on the Durham Cathedral website that its origins were, indeed, French. I was not surprised, as France today is a very secular society with a high proportion of people, one might suppose, for whom prayer is an unfamiliar practice.

We no longer need candles to see by. But, in a sophisticated Western country, it is interesting to note how we still use them to pray.

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

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