Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lighting The Way

"Someday perhaps the inner light will shine forth from us, and then we'll need no other light." (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

I'll tell you a little secret; nothing dark and devious, but something few people know about me.  I was once a Catholic altar boy, and one of the jobs I took most seriously then was lighting the candles before Mass.  Carefully igniting each of the tall white candles on and near the altar was a very sacred duty to me.  I was bringing light and warmth into the church, and believed that with that light also came God....very serious stuff to think about when you're 12!

And to this day, I'm still the little altar boy around our house during the winter:  lighting candles in all rooms, happiest when there is a glow and warmth in the room; gently blowing them all out when we head to bed.

I'm drawn to light, just as I think we all are.  We like light when it warms and comforts us.  But what about the times when the light glares and reveals something we don't really want to see?  Ahhh... that seems different.

These thoughts have been inspired by the latest book I'm reading, Sarah's Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.  This novel describes a sad and mostly forgotten tragedy during the Holocaust of World War Two, when the French police rounded up 1000's of French Jews and brutally shipped them to Nazi extermination camps.  The climatic event in this deportation was known as the "Vel d'Hiv Roundup", in which 13,000 Jews were taken to a bicycle stadium near Paris before being shipped to Auschwitz.  It is an event that few Frenchmen wanted to remember, ashamed that the government had aided the Nazis 70 years ago.

The story brought back a very vivid memory from a trip I made to France 8 years ago.  While in Paris with a tour group, our guide took us to a small, seemingly unremarkable park near Notre Dame to visit the "Memorial des Martyrs de la Deportation".  It was an underground memorial built to commemorate the 200,000 French men, women, children (mostly Jews) who were deported to Nazi camps during World War Two who never returned.  

As I approached the memorial I remember thinking when I saw the flat gray concrete structure, "This isn't much.  Why would anyone want to see this?".  But then we descended down a staircase, taking us below the Seine River.  The staircase became narrower and narrower, forcing us into a single file.  When we reached the bottom, we could no longer see most of the sky.  We then entered a small door that took us further down into a small, dark room.  Our guide whispered to us that the architect had deliberately engineered this to give visitors a feeling of claustrophobia, and impending darkness, just as those who had been taken away must've felt.

As we entered the small dark room we saw an eternal flame burning in the center of the room.  Inscribed in brass around the flame was the somber message:

"They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return."

Inscribed in the cold walls around us were the names of the camps which were the victims' final destinations.

We were hushed and sad at what we were seeing and feeling.  And then we saw the highlight of the memorial - a sight I'll never forget.

In that tiny dark room, a beautiful corridor stretched away from us.  Lining its narrow walls were 200,000 crystals - one for each of the victims - back lit to reveal a heavenly glow - all leading towards a single light.  A nearby inscription read:

"Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps.  Forgive, but never forget."

I have been in many churches and cathedrals, but I've never felt a place more sacred and holy than this.

I think it was the light.  The architect's use of the light to both reveal that which was tragic and horrible, and yet at the same time commemorate and celebrate its triumph over darkness.

I want to remember to always welcome the Light and to remember that it's always present, even on a dark day.  A dark day can be a rainy and cold December afternoon, or it can simply be a day when I'm feeling stressed and filled with anxious thoughts.  It seems so easy at times to go down that narrow staircase, just as I did that June afternoon in Paris, and feel like all that is bright is gone.  The walls of "I've got too much to do! and "What's going to happen next?" can be just as claustrophopic as the gray walls at the Deportation Memorial.

But the light is always there.  Sometimes to warm and comfort us.  Sometimes to show us when we've taken a wrong turn, and to beckon us back.  I think that's why I also love lighthouses.  They remind me of that.

Heceta Head Lighthouse, one of my favorites!

And I want to remember one more thing as the holiday season approaches.

"There are two ways of spreading light:  to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it."  (Edith Wharton)

The best gift I can give anyone this season is a little more patience; a little more attention; a little more compassion; and to be willing to reflect a little more light.  Those are the Pearls that can make a change in my world.

I guess the world still needs a few more altar boys (and even altar girls!)