Smoke and Candles

In the heat of summer, I wrap a sweater around my shoulders to combat the chill in the nave. I have four, thin, beeswax candles in hand, purchased in the foyer, called the narthex, on the way in. I fancy I smell honey in their golden softness.

I cross myself as I enter, first three fingers of my right hand pinched together for Father, Son and Holy Spirit, ring and pinkie pressed to my palm for the two natures of Christ, and sweep my fingers from forehead to abdomen, then from right shoulder to left shoulder, “Push, not pull,” as taught. There are no windows in this space, save for those which let in a small bit of light from the windows in the narthex. Soft up-lights cast a glow on the ceiling. Recessed lights direct light onto each of the tall icons running the length of the room on both sides. In the gentle, unobtrusive light, the candles and vigil lamps in front of the altar area cast a warm glow. There is a familiar scent of spice, resin and rose incense, an aroma which permeates everything.

I make another reverence in greeting to the icon of Michael the Archangel, whose stand is just behind the pews. I ask him to pray for me, to guard me and to help me, before another reverence. At the end of a slow walk down the center aisle is an icon stand, so beautifully carved I want to caress it with my fingers and examine every centimeter of the polished surface. On the stand is the icon of the week. This week, as it often is, it is the icon of the Theotokos, Mary, Joy of All Who Sorrow. Mary is depicted standing, in a red cloak. Around her are small scrolls which state what she is credited with; but the print is too small to read so the explanatory scenes that surround her remain a mystery to me. This icon, as the others, is precious, otherworldly. The deliberate lack of perspective can be unnerving at first; but over time these representations of Saints, Angels, and  the Holy Trinity have become as beloved as treasured family photographs.

Beside the icons of the Theotokos and  Jesus Christ are large, gleaming brass stands for candles. After bowing and crossing myself, lean in and kiss the icon of Christ, soundlessly; the scent of beeswax and frankincense fill my senses. The icons are mounted with gold leaf which shines in the light of the candles. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” My whispered words, as I lean in to kiss the icon again ask, “Help me.” I cross myself again and bow slightly, always conscious that the truly devout often bow to the floor. I wonder, is my bad knee an excuse to avoid embarrassment should I need help getting back up from the floor, though there are few others present at the moment. I ask forgiveness in case that is true, as, taking a candle from my hand, and lighting it from the central flame, I whisper the name of a friend who longs to be married and have children. The smoke curls up toward the heavens, taking my prayer with it. The candle burns for about an hour and a half, and in all that time, that smoke will be a representation of my heart cry, the whispers of my soft prayers.

I cross the narthex to stand before another icon of Mary; this one showing Christ coming forth from her, a representation that she carried the creator within her, a wonder that cannot be fathomed by my human mind. I cross myself, bow my head, kiss her icon, and breathe the words, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” Pausing, then continuing, “More honorable than the seraphim and more glorious beyond compare than the cherubim, who as a virgin gave birth to God, the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you.” I cross myself and bow again, pondering the honor that Jesus might wish me to show to his mother. I ask forgiveness for any lack of respect or understanding I might have. After lighting my other candles, I placing them in the stand filled with wheat berries to hold the candles upright. These candles represent the loved ones who have died. I whisper their names, “Robb, Bob, Pat, Jack, Rich.” A co-worker’s son passed recently, so I add, “Nicholas.” I whisper the names of my grandparents and my niece, also deceased, “Chet, Doris, Berger, Isabella, and Tiffanie.”

There is a song we sing during Lent that runs through my mind as the smoke from these candles goes up, “Let my prayer arise in your sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” There are clouds of smoke from the incense curling around the doors to the altar, and soon the service will begin. I am happy to be here early to have time to greet the saints that line the walls, Joachim and Anna, Saint George, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Seraphim (a particular favorite of mine), another favorite, Saint Nicholas. There is Saint Xenia, who lived in the cemetery by her husband’s grave from her late twenties until she died, no matter the weather, with only her late husband’s overcoat to keep her warm. Many of the saints have stories as yet unknown to me, but I greet each of them with a kiss. I kiss my fingers and touch their cathedral size icons on the walls. I whisper to each of them, “Pray for me. Help me.”

Saint Seraphim, for some reason, always brings tears to my eyes. No matter which depiction of him it is, I recognize it immediately; and as I gaze into his eyes, I think of the icon of him I have at home, an icon that is so peaceful I can scarcely bear the holiness.

My final stop is the icon of the Synaxis of the Saints of Carpatho-Russia, which looks over the area where the choir sings. Most of these saints have stories I do not know, but greeting them, asking them to pray for us, and to give us strength to sing the service well is a special but ordinary part of this preparation.

It is in this time before the service begins that my mind and heart is calmed. This is the time to try to set aside the worries of today. Soon the rest of the choir will come up the stairs, music stands will be shuffled, purses stowed beneath the seat, precious floor space apportioned, elbow room claimed, and it will be difficult to pay attention to the prayers arising from those candles. I entrust my prayers to the saints, to Christ and to the Theotokos, and trust that they do not need me to guard these prayers, but that they are safe where they are.

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