Incarnation and Private Devotions, Water and Light
For many people, “private devotions” references a regular (or maybe occasional) practice of Bible reading and reflection, often with a book of thoughtful devotions. This discipline of reading and prayer can give shape to a day and, over time, to one’s life. A daily practice shapes the soul, slowly, over time, through years and through the stages of one’s life.
But private devotions can also be done in public, in the context of our worship together. They can be a meaningful way to focus on a moment that touches one personally and all of us as fellow seekers and worshippers. These are devotional practices such as lighting a candle in prayer, or blessing oneself with holy water.
We have recently added a votive candle stand in the sanctuary, and last Sunday, opened the baptismal font filled with holy water for personal devotions. Beyond common safety and courtesy, there are no specific rules on how to do devotions with candles and with blessed water. As creatures made of both spirit and dust, candles and water speak to us without words. We are creatures that carry deep yearnings, concerns, and cares on our hearts and mind—and we carry these yearnings, concerns, and cares in our fragile, mortal, bodies made of same stuff of the world around us. Lighting a candle, touching water and then touching head, hand, or heart, are ways to enact love and care, to wordlessly express what we carry inside. The wordless languages of gesture, focus, and the senses are every bit as meaningful and heartfelt as the most beautifully crafted prayer.
For myself, as I light a candle I often say the names of those I carry in prayer. Sometimes I know that I need to light more than one candle. Sometimes so many names start crowding my consciousness that I just pray “Lord, have mercy” as I light my candle. There is no magic in holy water—just the knowledge that it has been set aside and specially blessed precisely for you, here, now. Feeling the coolness on my fingers and then my forehead is a comfort as well as a point of entry into the sanctuary and worship. Sometimes as I touch the water I think about baptisms I’ve witnessed, and wonder what mine was like. Sometimes I think about my desire to move toward to holy and the pure. Taoists talk about how humble water is, taking the shape of its container, taking away dirt and detritus; yet water is strong and can wear away stone, drop by drop. Water reminds me of the moment when preparing the altar for the Eucharist when the server pours water over my hands for a ritual cleansing and offers me a small linen towel. I always pray “Create in me a pure heart O Lord, and renew a steadfast spirit within me, lines from psalm 51. Usually, however, I just touch the cool water, touch my forehead in the shape of the cross, and from there move into the moment of worship, the water as familiar a point of entry to the sanctuary and worship as “Hi, how are you?” is as we pass each other on the street.
But this is me, not you. If you feel drawn to light a candle or to bless yourself with holy water, please do so in a way that is most meaningful to you. If you need to extinguish a candle, there is a small snuffer in the space under the candles. If you can, hold the snuffer over the flame for a few seconds without dipping it into the molten wax…but if the snuffer has a little wax on it, no worries. We will extinguish the candles before the sanctuary empties at the end of the service. When you bless yourself with water, try to keep the drops away from the floor as people walk over that space. And whatever you choose to do—or choose not to do—remember that you are always in the presence of the Holy One, and that our sanctuary is a place to bring our awareness of that Presence closer and more immediate, heightening sensitivity and attention to the moment at hand.