Mesmerising Candles…

At rural boarding school when the power went out

(regularly in the winter as different unions went on strike for better working conditions or higher wages)

it was an inconvenience.

The house I lived in was a large, stately home with hundreds-or so it seemed to me-of rooms and a maze of narrow, dark corridors.

Of course the power always went out as night was drawing in, which in England is about 330 in the afternoon, so we had long, cold evenings in store for us.

When I grew older, more outspoken, I decided that instead of sitting in our darkening common room, moving closer and closer to the window to catch the last of the light, I would ask Sister Pauline, one of the younger nuns,

“May we take the altar candelabra down to our common room to study for our exams by candlelight?”

Sacrilege I knew, but it was worth a try.  She may or may not know the protocol involved in moving a holy piece off the consecrated altar to take to our common space.

I was met with approval.

“That’s a good idea,” she said, “be very careful and consider where you place them though.”

I nodded and smiled.

“Treat them with the respect they demand as representing the Light of the World and put them back when you’re finished.”

I dashed off with the surprising good news and to get help.

Although I thought I was flouting authority I would learn later that most of the religious with whom I lived viewed and treated all things as sacred, including household items such as the porcelain cups we drank tea from, the knives we dropped, the rooms we inhabited.

Our common room was only a few hundred feet down the hall from the chapel and off we went to fetch the pair of polished candelabra, a taper and matches.

There were only six of us and as we gathered around the table with our books and papers I soon found myself distracted by the flickering candles.

By now the room was pitch black and their glow held me spellbound.

I sat, open book forgotten, pen poised, staring at the gently dancing flames; I felt my eyes glaze over, my senses melt, my mood shift into a trance.

The gentle light held me in its pool of amber.

I was mesmerised.

Today I would say I had drawn a little closer to the divine.

With nothing between me and God I had achieved The Cloud of Unknowing, without being aware that there was such a thing.

Unknowing without knowing.

It was Shadow, our grey thieving cat, who looked as though he was experiencing the same thing one evening during Advent, that brought back this memory.

It wasn’t all that dark and he was sitting on the kitchen table staring at the three candles alight on our Advent Wreath.

“How come this one’s not lit?” his quizzical look seemed to be saying.


The more he stared the more he became enthralled.

By the end of our devotion he was still mesmerised as I had been all those years ago.


I gently lifted him off the table and set him in his basket while Hubs blew out the candles.

It took him a moment to shake himself out of the trance that had reminded me of that evening decades ago when I had come close to God under the hypnotic power of fluttering candles.

Perhaps The Cloud of Unknowing is a fleeting communion with God brought on by a transcendent state;

Indescribable and euphoric;

And, like everything else that’s difficult to achieve, it leaves a yearning.

I wonder how Shadow feels?

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