Here is another chapter of Bread and Concrete: Connecting Sacraments and Service that was not published in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine last year. Today’s gospel (John 8:12-20) gives us again the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world.” These reflections are from my time and experiences at Saint Andre Bessette Church in Portland, OR
Searching for Light
“While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” John 9
Two large darkened-brass candlesticks stand together on the right side of the wooden altar for most of the liturgical year. Another candlestick balances the light on the left side of the ambo. These accessories were hand-me-downs from when the parish was in one of its previous five locations within the neighborhood. These become the holders for 19-inch beeswax candles that I purchase from a family owned religious goods store in Portland.
When I began at the parish, two sisters owned the shop, and the able-bodied sister died some years ago. The surviving sister who sells the candles is physically disabled and always seemed to be in the shadow of her business-savvy sibling. She is a great worrier about every detail having inherited the business responsibilities. She never expected to shine on the frontlines of her shop, now everything depends on her. Her gifts are being drawn out from the darkness of her shadowing her sister for her entire life. I drive to the southeast end of town a few times a year to pick up supplies from the business. I am always grateful that I order all of our liturgical supplies from a woman who so struggles to make ends meet. She has overcome so many issues to sell me a few cases of candles, a bag of ashes, a box of palms and the paschal candle for another liturgical year.
Our paschal candle usually stands at the baptismal font near the entrance of the church. However, in the past few years, I have stored the darkened-brass stand and candle in the closet in the chapel after the Easter season. Many times during these past few years people with mental illness have come into our chapel and immediately lit the paschal candle and played with the flame. The flame has been left overnight on several occasions. Even the flame of Christ can also be a hazard in our building.
Sometimes people will come into the chapel before Mass and play with the lit flames at the altar. People are drawn to the flames, especially when the lights are dim and the chapel is quiet just before Mass begins. We all watch carefully that no person gets hurt or that a fire does not erupt, but sometimes people act out quickly and the danger of fire is imminent. We never know when a person surviving the darkness of long-term mental illness or addiction will lash out, shout out or want to play with the flame on the candle or steal the large candlestick. I have seen this happen on several occasions and I am grateful no person has been hurt or that no fire has been set in our windowless chapel.
I admit I do not blame people for wanting to play with the flickering flame. People live in such darkness and dreariness every day. Even the clothing people wear is dark. Their only belongings are in dark colored backpacks and duffel bags. People also want life to change. Even people who have never been in a church before understand that there is something very meaningful, something very holy, and something that curses the darkness at the altar when the candles are lit. So many people are searching our neighborhood for such a light.
Our block is nestled in neon at night. Flames of artificial light draw music lovers from the suburbs. Prostitutes follow the lights of a car slowing down around the block. Some male prostitutes follow the lit cigarettes of guys hanging out at the bar on the other corner of our block. So many lights gather people into dimly lit spaces of the nightclubs and bars all along our neighborhood.
There are many promises that long to be made in the candlelight of a bar. People believe that the nighttime will bring relief from suffering. So many people obsessively believe that alcohol, sex and drugs will all be the light that everyone is looking for in life. Hook-ups made in the dark seldom work out. Binging in candlelight seldom relieves loneliness. Drug deals on dimly lit corners will not take the darkness away. Selling a body in stilettos does not curse the lonely, nighttime fear. It is no wonder that in daylight, people wander into our dark prayer space searching for promises that will set them free. The hangover seeks a new, healing light during the day. The shame-filled act needs a new light even in the dimly lit confessional. People are playing around with many kinds of light and many varieties of fire.
Our worship space is windowless. No natural sunlight enters our room for prayer. This is not because we want to keep the streetlight out of our prayer; it is simply the result of a cheap remodeling job when an old hotel building was renovated to become our parish church. I reflect on this darkness quite often. The dark chapel is quite the contrast to the other churches in which I have served through the years.
Some years ago, I designed nine large stained-glass windows in the parish church in which I was serving in Burbank, California. The windows were magnificent pastel-colored glass depicting our lived sacramental life of those years in California. The stories of relationships and faith were vivid and articulate in glass. I left the parish before all of the windows were installed. I then became the director of a retreat center where the only window in the chapel was a skylight. That chapel could hardly compare to the rich storytelling windows I left behind. Then I came to this parish community where our prayer space has no windows at all. I used to joke to friends that perhaps the next assignment for me was the grave, where it would be completely dark for all eternity.
So I have been searching for the Light in our chapel as many of our people still search for new life and relief from suffering. The light emanating from the altar candles is quite dim but focused and warm. Even the artificial lights that focus down from the ceiling do not fully light up the space. The real light that shines for me comes from the searching of people. The eyes of our street warriors, the expressions of the weary, the grins of the addicts show me a great light.
I hear Matthew’s gospel in a new way in our chapel. “You are the light of the world.” When I witness a woman stepping out of the darkness of addiction and coming to communion sober, alert and selfless, this great light overwhelms me. When I encounter someone striving to live a better life after a recent divorce, or in recovery from an accident or tragedy, this great light overwhelms me. When I hear that an elderly man has one day of sobriety and smiles with confidence, this great light overwhelms me. When I hear that people have decided to take their medications today for their mental illness, this is my light for the entire day. When I hear that a young veteran has a job interview today and that he is searching our dimly lit clothing closet for a suit, this is sunlight in the chapel for so many of us in prayer.
At the Easter Vigil, to prepare people to ultimately come to the Table of the Lord, we begin in complete darkness in our chapel. The new fire comes from a can of Sterno. I realize this is not the perfect liturgical source for the new fire. However, this is the best we can offer when dealing with fire codes in our building. After the smokeless fire and the paschal candle are blessed, the pastor raises up the new candle and chants, “Light of Christ!” After the third proclamation, the new fire is distributed to the assembly. The glow in the assembly is heartwarmingly beautiful. For just a moment, the darkness in life seems to melt away. The obstacles to people’s unbelief seem to fade into the distance. The stress and violence that shadows our streets seems cast in a new view of hope. The faces of people are shadowed in Christ’s love and new light and energy win out for the evening.
We are the Light of Christ. We believe that no darkness wins out. We believe that our baptismal light is stronger than death. We believe the light of our lives become the miracles of survival and service to one another. As people approach the altar on that most holy of nights, the paschal candle shines freshly blessed, the new altar candles seem to light up the night. The faces of people who once stood in darkness now see a great light from the candles purchased from a woman who struggles with her physical pain and her earthly business.
As I ponder our quest for light, I believe that we see the Light of Christ when our lives are most in darkness. I want in our prayer in our urban chapel for us to become instruments for people well beyond our dark walls that light, joy and peace are seen in what the world would consider dark times. Our Church cannot stand as irrelevant to people’s search for meaning and purpose. However, we are called even in our darkest moments to become light for people longing for direction and hope in life. Our windless chapel in Portland must be an example for every parish community, for every believer that even darkness seems to be the only way, new light can shine from the people we least expect.