Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow

Back in November 1995, my husband Neil and I happened to take a trip to Israel at the exact time that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Being budget travellers, we were staying in the Youth Hostel in the centre of Jerusalem, which had the very strict etiquette of Men’s Dormitory upstairs, Women’s in the Basement.

img234 copy
Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem Old City, November 1995.

Coincidentally, we both had a case of food poisoning, so had suffered a fairly rough night, feeling pretty green when we met at 7.00am in the kitchen as agreed. There were already whispers going around that the Prime Minister had been shot. The First question everybody asked was “By WHOM?”. Because in the very volatile religious/cultural/historical mix of the so-called “Holy Land”, it was one thing to have a dead Prime Minister, but the identity of the assailant may or may not have plunged us all into the proverbial “World War Three”. When it became apparent that the shooter was an Israeli ultranationalist named Yigal Amir, who radically opposed Rabin’s peace initiatives, but was at least from “his own side” there was palpable relief, not only in the Youth Hostel, but in the streets and throughout the city. The mood turned from one of shock and fear, to one of grief and mourning.

And the first thing we noticed was the little makeshift shrines which began to spring up, on street pavements, corners, in shops, homes, anywhere, full of groups of candles, surrounding photographs of the departed Rabin.

In the years since, this has become more and more commonplace. Candles seem to have become a universal sign of remembrance, of grief. When there are people in trouble, or a cause to be brought to the attention of politicians or others in power, “Candlelight vigils” are held. Perhaps in a world where organised religion is becoming less commonplace, or at least has fewer dedicated adherents than in former ages, it is a sign that people still want to express some sense of spirituality, or otherness, or togetherness, without tying it to some historic creed.

But, of course, candles are commonplace in many world religions – Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism (the The Hanukkah menorah springs to mind). Arguably the most important festival in Hinduism is Diwali, the “festival of lights”. Its celebration includes millions of lights – lamps and candles –  shining on housetops, outside doors and windows, around temples and other buildings in the communities and countries where it is observed.

The idea of lighting candles – one for each year of life – has permeated Western social tradition, such that it seems wrong to have a Birthday without a cake with candles.

Candles are used in other ceremonies, too, including in weddings. I have appreciated the symbolism of each of the couple holding their individual candle, lighting a central candle, as the celebrant pronounces the words “the two become one”, then blowing out their individual candles, leaving the central, larger, brighter candle.

I once attended a most moving funeral, for the baby daughter of a friend. Born with a congenital heart defect, the little girl lived less than two weeks. But her short life was nonetheless remembered and celebrated. Although she had never left hospital, her parents wanted, rightly, their daughter to be recognised for the little person she was, and who had shared their lives, however briefly. Around the tiny white casket gathered various people linked to her – her parents, relatives, hospital staff and so on. Each lit a candle and, while holding it, spoke to their connection with the baby and her short time among us, until there was a circle of light around her. [I will never forget the sight of her father tenderly carrying that small coffin down the aisle in both arms at the end].


The light of the candle is seen as mysterious, even alluring. Traditional English Nursery Rhyme “Oranges and Lemons” concludes: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, and here comes a chopper to chop off your head!” And candles are thought, even in this 21st century of every type of electric lighting, to be oh-so-romantic for that couple’s dinner, or relaxing bubble-bath.

A warning not to be too tempted into something which may hurt you, is described as “like a Moth to the Flame”.  Much to my amusement, this is even depicted in a “Wii” computer game. Amongst a suite of Sports simulations, there is one where a candle is portrayed in the middle of the screen, and a moth.

Moth 007 copy

The moth starts to buzz and move around the candle in decreasing, distracting motions. The aim is not to be dissuaded by this but to maintain one’s focus and posture. Those of you who know me and my lack of prowess in all things Sporting will share my delight, that I hold the “Perfect Score” in this activity, my special talent apparently being “sitting very still”.

Last week was one of personal extremes for me. On one afternoon I had a tough meeting with someone I have been working to improve relationships with. In this particular instance I was hoping for some understanding regarding a decision I had made. Accepting I had not followed best protocol, I had found an issue’s solution which, while slightly unorthodox, had the best motives for a positive outcome to a situation with a number of aspects beyond my control. Instead, at least to my ears, what I heard and experienced was criticism and condemnation. This really dismayed me, as I had felt in recent times positive progress had been made between us. I just felt really deflated. I felt so worthless.

On that same day, I received, out of the blue, a gift for no apparent reason from a friend from overseas, who wrote that she had been thinking of me and misses me. Then later that week I had a rare phone conversation with an old friend from University years who always knows what to say, understands me well, and lifted my spirits.

And then, on the weekend, in an unrelated realm, I was tossing around ideas, plans and possibilities for a future project with someone whom I esteem and admire. Who listened to and appreciated my thoughts and suggestions. Who valued me and my input. Who by their very approach built me up rather than tore me down.

In between all this, I have a beautiful family, and some wonderful students and their parents, and some special, giving friends who support me and uplift me, so I must be doing something right.

So how does this all connect?

I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason… within these same few days I came across this:

Candle brighter

Which really got me thinking.

There was a song we used to sing, back in the 1970’s, at our small Primary School entitled “Pass it on” [by Kurt Kaiser], part of which goes like this:

“It only takes a spark

to get a fire going

and soon all those around

can warm up in its glowing” 

A friend of mine last year described me as “relational” and suggested that I function best and achieve the most when I do so in combination with others whom I connect with and bounce off.

This candle illustration seemed to explain well my varied feelings when dealing with different people, and how I have felt that I have achieved more (or less), professionally, and personally, in combination with certain people, than with others.

Some people are naturally good at taking all the small lights of their individual candles, and adding them together into a greater whole. (And in doing so, getting that “fire going”). Those who do this best, are those who are truly “relational” (not my word), and often do so with the least apparent desire to be under the spotlight, to be the one “Centre Stage”, burning most brightly.

In my experience, some of the most wonderful people I have spent time with, I have worked with, have shared their candle-light so beautifully with others, that sometimes their personal efforts and contributions are not even fully recognised or noticed. But the people who matter, know.

Candle Lighting other candle copy

And those wonderful people carry out their roles with Humility and Grace.

I pray that this is something that I can learn better.

“It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

“One measure of your success will be the degree to which you build up others who work with you. While building up others, you will build up yourself” – James E. Casey




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