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VALERIE SCHULTZ: Candles of faith

"There is a candle in your heart, ready to be kindled."

— Rumi 

The striking of a match to hold to a candle's wick can be born of necessity, or romance, or fear, or ceremony, or many other reasons. We depend on candles to illuminate a host of situations, from a power failure to a birthday cake. A candle dispels the deepest darkness with one flickering light.

The simple lighting of a candle holds spiritual meaning in many faith traditions. In Jewish households, for example, Shabbat begins on Friday evening with the lighting of candles. During the annual eight days of Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, the candles lit on successive evenings commemorate the historical rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the miraculous burning of the Temple's flame.

A brief look at some other world religions offers examples of the integral use of candles in various practices of faith. Hindus celebrate the holiday of Diwali for five days with candles that symbolize wishes made for the new year. For believers of Islam, candles help mark the end of the monthlong fast of Ramadan on the Eid-al-Fitr holiday. Candles on the Taoist altar represent the moon and sun or yin and yang, mindful of the harmony between light and darkness in life.

Many of my own Catholic practices go hand in hand with candles. The life of a Catholic in the church begins with a candle, although, if one was baptized as an infant, there is no memory of the event. Some families light the baptismal candle on the anniversary of a child's baptism. Each year, the candle grows shorter as the child grows taller, rendering the symbolic literal.

The Advent wreath is a lovely way to bring faith home, especially for young children. The four weeks of Advent are represented by four candles, and the kid-anticipation of Christmas grows with each progressively brighter week. When all four are lit, Christmas is imminent.

Even a non-crafty mom like me can handle tying some greenery to a wreath base and securing the candles. The family time around the wreath each Sunday is a grace-filled moment to share the story of the birth of Jesus.

A special day for Catholics every year is the blessing of the candles that are used at home. Feb. 2, also known as Candlemas, honors the presentation of the baby Jesus at the Jewish temple, as well as the ritual purification of his mother, Mary. On this day, present-day parishioners are invited to bring their personal candles to Mass for blessing.

One of Catholicism's stranger days is the next day, Feb. 3, which is the feast of St. Blaise: When I was a kid, my grandmother insisted that we not miss the priest blessing our throats, which he did by placing two candles forming an '"x" around our necks.

At the Easter vigil, which begins in darkness, the first thing we do is bring light into the church. We begin with one flame, symbolizing Christ our light. Then the light is passed. Each participant lights the candle of another, and that one another, and so on. The church gradually brightens until at last, the new Easter candle is lit. The vigil is a long but moving service.

In any Catholic church I visit, I always feel like I am home when I see the votive candles burning in their holders. I know that each candle represents a prayer that someone has made from their heart to heaven. The flame burns with the warmth of their hope, with the blaze of their faith. I have lit many such candles over the years.

I still have the little white candle I held during the Mass of All Souls the year my father died. And in a few days, candles will again grace our customary altars for Dia de los Muertos.

The old saying about it being better to light a candle than to curse the darkness reminds us that every candle in our lives opens us to the possibility of enlightenment. Whether or not our spirituality is couched in the traditions of an ancient religion, our souls yearn for a sure and radiant source to guide us. The smallest candle, kindled in the heart, can give that light.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at The views expressed here are her own.

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