When I began seminary, I bought a pine forest-scented candle for my apartment. That summer I had discovered how watching a burning flame had the power to quiet my soul and help center my attention on my own thoughts. Candles have aided thousands of people over the centuries in doing this, and with my studies just beginning I wanted to remind myself of what I was pursuing; that it wasn't just a degree but something deeper.
I often lit this candle late at night, during what I intended to be a time of renewal at the end of the day. Yet that first semester featured a much more difficult adjustment than I expected, so those evening sessions usually came with questions of identity and feelings of longing that often pushed me past a reasonable bedtime. The flame was my life raft in a sea of self-doubt, the scent an added bonus that I didn't intend.
This candle has made every move with me since. The wick has been burned far too low and drowned too often in wax for it ever to be lit again, but I can't bring myself to throw it out. I've always found a place for it on a bookshelf or desk or side table, and thankfully nobody yet has questioned its placement or thought disposing of it would be doing me a favor.
Even though I can't light it any more, there's a power to this candle that largely goes unseen by the casual observer. Every once in a while I'll pick it up, put my nose right into the melted center, inhale, and be transported right back to my basement seminary apartment where it provided the flame by which I wrestled with God every night. A single whiff of this candle's particular aroma (no other "pine forest" scent has recreated it...believe me, I've investigated) brings it all rushing back, and I remember the One who held me in check and urged me forward in the dead of my own spirit's night.
Many people love this season because it means that you get to do certain things you don't do the rest of the year. It means baking snowman cookies with Grandma or singing carols in worship or going to that party that so-and-so always organizes. These events and activities make this time of year what it is.
But as much as Christmas can mean you get to do things, it can also symbolize the things you don't do any more. Maybe age or mortality has declared that we can't gather in Grandma's kitchen for baking any more. Maybe now "Silent Night" brings thoughts rushing back of someone no longer able to join in the chorus of voices. There's no party this year, because the host took a new job in another state and you don't talk as often as you used to.
It could be years since you stopped, but the right smell or song can bring the memories right back in a moment, and you remember what you used to do, and you've been wondering what this season is without them.
I smell my candle, and the difficulty of that time isn't really what overtakes me so much as how far I've come since. I needed those days of doubt and growth more than I knew as they happened. If this week is about peace, maybe thoughts of days gone by can bring it by reminding us of where we've been and who we've been with, but also who we've become by being there.
This peace becomes more complex as we get older. But beneath the smells and the sounds, it still wafts and flickers, calling us into quiet assurance.
Image via FreeFoto.