Sacred Flames

PentecostCommonsA few nights ago, I entered Belmont Chapel at St. Mark’s School in Southborough to light candles for an evening chapel service. A group of theater students were in the chapel rehearsing a performance that they were going to be giving that night.  One of the theater students — a tall, wiry kid with the energy of a thousand suns — immediately dropped character and asked if he could help.

A chorus of students yelled: “We’re rehearsing!”

His scene partners were nonplussed by his inattentiveness.

“Okay, okay,” he said and returned to the rehearsal.

I lit the candles and went about my night — a strange and wonderful chapel service that celebrated art and poetry with a 15-minute performance of excerpts from Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, a prayer for a recently deceased faculty member, and a host of Bhutanese exchange students and teachers dressed to the nines in Bhutanese formal dress — the gho and the kira — for whom this was their first full day in the United States. The theater students’ performance channeled Shakespeare’s Globe as the groundlings reacted viscerally to the performance with gasps and laughter, ooh’s and ahh’s.

Yet, in spite of all that happened that evening, it is the wiry actor’s request to light the candles that sticks with me. Like a moth, he was quite literally drawn to the flame. Throughout the night, I would see him and other students staring up at the Paschal Candle standing tall near the lectern, watching the flame shimmer and dance, spellbound by its tiny flicker.

At a boarding school, a candle can represent the ultimate danger. An open flame can earn a student a suspension according to the Student Handbook because we live and work and play in a 128-year-old building and safety always comes first. The chaplaincy, therefore, with its plethora of candles, lives on the edge.

The candles that we light in our chapel services have become for me an important reminder of the joys and sorrows of life in schools. In meditation services, we light candles and learn to be still and experience the joy of the ephemeral. In services of remembrance, we light candles to symbolize the hope that endures in spite of difficulties. When we find our students in moments of crisis, we offer them an opportunity to light a candle and sit quietly in the darkened chapel with those closest to them, to see the light of life dancing before their eyes. At the beginning of the school year, as we welcome new students into our community, we pass a flame from the returning students to the new and remind them that each of us is the light of the world. 

Fire, of course, has long been an important symbol for Christians. Consider, for example, the Holy Spirit descending on the disciples as tongues of fire on the Pentecost. We can go back even farther than that: the pillar of fire that led the Israelites across the desert at night, Moses’ burning bush, or the flaming torch that seals God’s covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.

Outside of Judeo-Christian contexts, we use fire to symbolize those things that are most alive and free. We describe a spunky person as a “firecracker” and we refer to that genius that animates us as a “spark.” Here at St. Mark’s School, we always say we’re looking for students and staff with “intellectual spark.”

Fire is vibrant and alive, wild even, but it’s also mysterious and inexplicable.

Wild, alive, and inexplicable — is there a better set of adjectives that describe God and the life of the Spirit?

This reminds me of C.S. Lewis’s take on the divine in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. When the Pevensie children are taken in by the Beavers in Narnia, the Beavers describe for them the greatness and majesty of Aslan, the lion, the rightful ruler of Narnia before he was usurped by the witch Jadis and her eternal winter but never Christmas. One of the children, Lucy — quite worried about the prospect of encountering a lion — asks whether or not Aslan is “safe.” Mr. Beaver replies: “‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Likewise, fire isn’t always safe, but it is good. The flames that humans have used to build civilizations have also been used to destroy them. The fire, the spark, the flame is deserving of respect and fear, reverence and awe.

So it goes with life at school for student and staff alike.

The life of the educator, tossed about by the waves of students and parents and colleagues, isn’t always easy or safe, but it is good. The life of the high school student, thrust into new social situations and learning experiences, isn’t always safe, but it is good. The life of the exchange student, witnessing this new ritual on an April Evening in Massachusetts, isn’t always safe, but it is good.

Among those transfixed by the candles that night were students from all over the world: six of seven continents. Yet they all stared into the flame, into danger and goodness, the gleam of adventure in their eyes. No matter where the adventure might lead us, when we look into Aslan’s eyes, when we see the spark inside of those around us (and also ourselves!), we are bound together and come to understand that we are not so different.

As I flash back to that wiry actor — that bundle of energy and potential — and the eyes of the students captivated by the tiny dancing flame atop the Paschal Candle, I know that the Spirit is alive in each of us. It’s not always easy or safe, but it is good. Very good.

About the Author

StephenHebertStephen Hebert serves as the Assistant Chaplain at St. Mark’s School in Southborough, MA. At St. Mark’s, he has chaired the Religion Department, worked as the House Head for III Form boys, and coached golf and basketball. Before working at St. Mark’s, Stephen taught both Religion and English at the high school and college levels in his native Houston, TX. He holds degrees from UT at Austin and Harvard Divinity School, and is currently working on a D.Min. at Claremont School of Theology.