Monday 23 March 2009

Symbol and Symbolised

Where do consciousness-altering symbolism and twee fluffiness meet? When does restrained representation become unnecessarily frugal? And just how much stuff can one person carry? Being a visiting chaplain means thinking hard about the purpose of ritual accoutrements, not least because they have to be contained within something you can carry without hiring a mule. I’ve spent long, happy hours browsing church supplies websites for inspiration

or search ‘church supplies travel sets.’

O how I would love to walk into the ward with an small chic black handbag which would ping open to reveal a deep blue velvet lining, popup pentagram, a delicate chalice, four tiny beeswax candles, a cut glass cruet filled with mead, and a minute organic loaf. As it is, I have a tiny rather naff basket, some blue glass bottles, a chalice and a white damask napkin. A bread roll fits into the bag alongside the bottles. It’s good enough. The obvious omission is candles.

I can’t decide if these battery-operated candles are hideous or not.

They’re not candles and yet they offer that moment of attention as each quarter is called, and if the symbolism of the lit candle is that a presence has joined us then does it matter how light is produced? A flame is problematic in any institutional setting; oxygen and other gasses, plastic tubing, flammable linen and ill people – emotionally or otherwise - all being a fire risk. I’ve never worked with candles as a chaplain and personally don’t feel the lack. But patients do. At the very least they’ve read about lighting candles for various purposes and many will have done so. They know that naked flames aren’t allowed and so don’t ask for one, but they’d like one in some cases particularly because it’s not possible.

To date, I’ve not talked about it but just got on with explaining what calling each quarter means, the quarter gets called and later thanked and that’s been fine. Christian chaplains told me about these battery candles and I’ve bought some. When next we do ritual in hospital I’ll suggest we use them and see what people think. You can tell I’m not enthused.


Oregon Chaplain said...

Regarding battery-powered candles: Make sure to get ones that flicker, such as the ones at the link you provided.

In the U.S., we also have a version that looks like votive candles, approx 1.25 inches tall. With these, the (flickering) light is inside, giving the sense that the candle has burned down some, leaving the walls of the candle standing. To me, they seem much more real than the ones where you can see the "flame."

I've not used any of these with patients (I'm a student Chaplain) but have done so in ritual with my classmates. The trick is to be able to dim the room lights as much as possible. And then concentrate on the ritual. Candles are but one part, and the rest of the experience can bring attendees into the frame of mind where the candles become almost real. As you say, it's all about symbolism, anyway.

Anyway, at the end of a ritual, I find it great fun to "blow out" each candle as I switch it off. I wish there was a match-looking item to "light" the candles electronically, and another one to "snuff" them.

Clare Slaney said...

Thanks for this useful information. I used my flameless, flickering tea lights at Beltaine and they were surprisingly successful. There are battery operated candles that are lightable and turn-off-able by blowing at them, and they cost about £5 ($8) each.

They can pay me for advertising them at some point!