Scientists tell us that the most powerful trigger of memory is the sense of smell. When I catch a hint of a certain aroma, it transports me back to my childhood at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Milledgeville. It’s a warm combination of beeswax, old wood polished many times, dust in the carpet, and a lingering vapor of incense. To me, it is the smell of holiness.
Our church was tiny, the only Catholic church in this small, southern town. The congregation was filled with Yankee transplants and Cuban immigrants. We were the former. The church was hushed and quiet, and so crowded that we were often in the parish hall, which joined to the side of the sanctuary. Mass was still in Latin in those years, so there was plenty of time to look around and let a child’s mind wander. I dearly wanted to wear a beautiful mantilla like the “Spanish ladies,” but my mother said no. I had to wear a hat.
There were candles on the altar, of course, but also votive candles in a bank of red holders off to the side. A person had to put some money in the box to light a candle, and then their prayer was supposed to go up to God for as long as the candle lasted. I thought they cast a lovely glow, but when I later became a Protestant, and my family visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, I eschewed them as pagan, since there’s nothing in the Bible about prayers in candle flames, and because they were often lit to pray for someone’s soul to be released from Purgatory, another unbiblical notion. Besides, they were often in a little alcove in front of a saint’s statue.
My mom was not a spiritual person. She was glamorous, gregarious, and efficient. She was a Protestant before she married my father, so she went to Mass and said her prayers privately, avoiding the more mystical aspects of the faith. She didn’t deny them; she just didn’t care for showiness in religious matters. Mom spent decades of her life caring for sick and dying relatives, pouring out her precious days in service to those she loved, while never going a minute without eyeliner and lipstick. I mistook her practical faith for shallow belief. Two days before her death, her Birkenstock-wearing parish priest came to her hospital bed to give her the last rites. He said, “Margaret, do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he died on the cross for your sins?” She looked full in his face, eyes wide and childlike, and said, “I do.” This is one of those moments in my life that is forever fresh and crystal clear. I visit it occasionally to consider what it says about my mom and about myself.
A year or so ago, my brother and I had a day together in Manhattan, and we trekked down to the 9-11 Memorial and St. Paul’s Chapel, and then we went further down the island to the oldest church in New York, Trinity Episcopal on Wall Street. Whereas St. Paul’s Chapel is more tourist site than church these days, Trinity was quiet and filled with worshipers. We strolled the historic graveyard and quietly admired the beautiful architecture and pipe organ in the sanctuary. Off to the side, there is a little chapel room with a sign asking for complete silence. I sat down and spent a little time with others in prayer and meditation. Coming out, I saw a bank of glowing red votives. I lit a candle.
In Jewish tradition, it is usually the woman who lights the candles at the beginning of religious ceremonies, symbolizing the fact that women bring life into the world. Messianic Jews further interpret this ritual as a symbol that a woman brought forth the Light of the world. In any case, it is, as they say, a mitzvah.
Most evenings after dinner, around seven o’clock, I head out to my back porch to read my Bible and spend some time with the Lord. My porch has become a holy place. David will usually join me a half hour or so later. But before the Bible is opened or any prayers are said, I light a candle.