Prayer Candles

by Alwyn Marriage

Deep in the dim interior,
pilgrims and casual visitors
pause to light a candle, stand
to watch as white wick glows 
then flickers into life, 
the quivering flame
rising so small a distance
towards heaven.

What thoughts or prayers accompany
this ritual action? From the shadows 
where I sit unnoticed, I half-envy their devotion 
and the concentration they display.

Some come to offer thanks 
for good things that have happened, 
acknowledge them as blessings and accept 
the brightness that illuminates their lives;

some shade their faces from exposure,
ashamed of actions that they now perceive as sin,
and come to crave forgiveness; others simply want 
to test the magic of folklore religion
by simulating faith that might 
lay the golden egg.

For all of them, their gaze follows the flame
as it reaches up, becomes invisible and bears 
their prayers skywards. The simple act completed,
they bow their heads, or cross themselves
and mutter ritual words beneath their breath,
slip a coin in the waiting box, then move away, 
grateful for this vehicle of grace, provided by the church.
at so small a price.

As I ponder, 
wondering whether perhaps I too 
should avail myself of such a simple sacrament,
a verger emerges from a door beside the altar
with a cardboard box. 

As at a birthday party
he takes a deeper breath and blows,
extinguishing all the candles except one,
then picks them off the stand in twos and threes,
packs them in his box and goes away.

I fail to shout in protest 
or leap across the rail to follow him, 
demand the prayers remain until complete. 
I know it shouldn't matter
but I feel he's desecrated something pure and precious
and the votive offerings were not his to take.

Will the prayers that hovered in the smoky air
be the same if someone melts the candles down, 
inserts fresh wicks and returns them to the stand,
ready to bear the next burden of prayer?

Alwyn Marriage’s twelve books include poetry, fiction and non-fiction — most recently, The Elder Race (novel) and Pandora’s pandemic (poetry). Her new collection, Possibly a Pomegranate, will be published in Spring 2022She has given readings all over Britain and Europe and in Australia and New Zealand. Formerly a university philosophy lecturer and CEO of two international literacy and literature NGOs, she’s currently Managing Editor of Oversteps Books.

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