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
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
Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs