They say a picture is worth a thousand words. That, I believe, is a true statement. It seems to be true for no picture more than it is for this simple one of a candle.
The candle is a photograph taken the night of Christmas Eve, 2004. The round candle was standing straight and tall as part of the altar display at my church, which I was photographing between services. What makes this photo interesting from a photographic point of view is that it was taken in a fully illuminated room. Thanks to God's good graces or fluke exposure settings, what would've otherwise been an uninteresting stock picture came to represent so much more.
Candlelight vigils take place because of the power this image holds to symbolize hope, memories, or souls of individuals.
There are many times in life when I feel like this picture, as a single candle burning in darkness. It seems as though I am all alone, with nothing in sight but the darkness which surrounds me. At those times, I use what light I have just to see the road in front of me, though only a little at a time can come into my field of view. It is at those times that I fear I may be bound forever to be a single candle, endlessly wandering between one small group of candles and the next, searching for the one to which I belong. It is also in those moments that the gentle fragility of my single candle flame becomes most noticeable. Only the slightest of winds or one unlucky raindrop is required to severely dampen the candle's flame and threaten, each time more sternly than the last, to put it out. Those are the times when I seem to have forgotten that this picture was taken in a fully lit room.
At other times, this image is a reminder of the warmth felt only through the love of friends and family. The flame stands straight and tall, the warmest and brightest it can be. The warmth and light outside and near the candle penetrate its opaque waxy surface and reach down into the heart of its being, something that only love and light can do. Although the image itself can appear rather cold when set in a crystalline context (or viewed in black and white), it can in context also appear warm and inviting, showing within itself how deeply the love has penetrated.
Occasionally I find myself in physical darkness with only candlelight to guide me. Every time, I find that I never cease to be amazed at how much light a single candle flame provides. As part of a demonstration I gave when directing Night Camp last summer, I placed a single tea light (the smallest of candles) on a stone in the center of the fire circle, and asked everybody seated around there to cover one eye and stare silently at the candle for five minutes, and the light from that one tiny candle was enough to clearly see the faces of everybody seated in the circle, while our large fire earlier was not. A single votive flickering in an otherwise dark bedroom is enough to accomplish any reasonable work in the room, yet we insist all too often on flooding our homes with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of candlepower supplied by artificial bulbs and controlled by the flip of a switch.
Are we afraid of ourselves becoming "candles in the wind," or do we fail to appreciate the power a single candle has to offer?
Novelist Edith Wharton once noted, "There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it." In my work and especially in my work as a photographer, I generally imagine myself more as a mirror reflecting God's light than the as the source itself. This photo, in its simplicity and message, challenges me to think about light-spreading in a different way. It refers to the popular worship song known by two titles: "Carry Your Candle" and "Go Light Your World." The song and all that it stands for encourages listeners to use what gifts and faith they have, no matter how little, to help others and make the world a better place. 1 Peter 4:10, which says pretty much the same thing, forms the first part of my career mission statement. The song's metaphor is present here in this image, a candle standing proud and tall, ready to be carried out into the world to illuminate where there is darkness and bring hope to those in despair. If one person can do all that, imagining the world-changing power of a church of 200 seems almost overwhelming. Yet, each Christmas Eve, that potential is represented during the candlelight service and singing of "silent night," our symbolic sharing of the light, and a very perceivable illumination of the church amid the arrival of a new birth and opportunity. It's a visual "what if," "what if this were the year that we decided to change the world?"
So what if this were the year, this the day, and this the very hour in which the changing of the world was to begin? This image of a burning candle, a captured moment removed from place and time, reminds us at the same time of both life's fragility and potential. Will we accept the challenge to each carry forth our candle, unafraid to stand alone, to seek out those whose flames of life and spirit have flickered or gone out, to shelter and strengthen them until their own flames are nursed back to life? Will we accept the challenge to seek out those single flames bravely wandering among the darkness and walk with them, combining strength for protection from the harsh winds and heavy rains that accompany life's storms? The choice is one we have the opportunity to make each and every moment, a choice silently persisted for by this simple image of a candle.

-WBT, "1000 Words: Candle," © October 2005.

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