Every week after Mass I light a candle. I love the smell of hot wax and matches, the action of my own hand kindling one small flame that will burn for hours, a visible sign of my unseen petition flickering beside the anonymous hopes and burdens of others. I’ve always clung to this little ritual.
In those moments of life when I’ve felt most powerless, when I’ve felt there’s no comfort at all for myself or a suffering friend beyond a cry for divine help, lighting a candle has made me feel like I’ve at least done something, turned my body and my heart to some purpose, performed an act of faith that has changed the atmosphere of the dark night even for just a moment and lit the room with prayer.
“Better to light one candle than to curse the darkness” is the motto of The Christophers, an organization that recognizes work that “affirms the highest values of the human spirit.” Last month at their annual awards ceremony, The Christophers honored Love and Salt, the book I wrote with my friend, Amy Andrews.
It felt really good to win something, especially for this book, which grew out of years of personal letters chronicling the crushing grief that followed my mother’s death, and so soon after my co-author Amy’s conversion to Catholicism, the stillbirth of her first daughter.
But when we read about the other winners—stories of a priest who saved a life by grabbing the barrel of a gun, humanitarians who built schools in third world countries and provide healthcare to the working poor in North Carolina, grieving parents who support medical research for rare conditions that will improve the lives of other people’s suffering children—we wondered, what were we doing among these people who had accomplished such dramatic acts of goodwill? These were really good people, special people, people who’d made tremendous personal sacrifices to help others and change the world.
Amy and I are not humanitarian aid workers or inspirational speakers or even exceptionally good people: we’re writers. We wrote letters to each other. A lot of letters. But still.
“I am not a mystic, and I do not lead a holy life, ” Flannery O’Connor once wrote. “Not that I claim any interesting or pleasurable sins…and what is more to the point, my virtues are as timid as my vices.” I’d never claim to be in the same ballpark as O’Connor, or even approaching the parking lot, and in fact I’m certain my virtues are actually much weaker than my vices. I’m not going to build a school in a third world country any time soon. I can barely get my own two kids to school on time.
Love and Salt is a book of letters, alternating essays Amy and I wrote to each other in an attempt to understand if and why we still believed in God after the sudden and inexplicable losses of those we loved most. Through writing those letters we forged a friendship based on a mutual desire for God. It’s a dark book at times, but not a hopeless one.
“Where did we get the idea that only edifying, pretty statements are enlightening?” Amy wrote to me once. Christian women in particular feel an intense and absurd pressure to be full of joy and gratitude at all times—especially when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood and life in the domestic church.
I’m an ardent believer in the beauty of “living faithfully a hidden life,” as George Eliot wrote so beautifully in Middlemarch, but I also want women to know they don’t have to be full of joy all the time to be a light to another. Motherhood is a blessing, yes, a vocation, and a holy work. But it is also a cross. To claim we should be filled with visible joy all the time diminishes the sacrifice that motherhood requires, and it diminishes the power of the cross to be a powerful sign of life.
Motherhood requires our whole beings, and at times it feels we’ve sacrificed everything: our physical bodies, our mental health, our professional ambitions, even our spiritual lives. We give all of this and more, all while risking the greatest heartache and disappointment a woman might be asked to endure. We give birth and devote our lives to creatures who will live and sin and bless and disappoint and, ultimately, die.
Stillbirth in particular is a great taboo of motherhood, but so many of us are carrying crosses of grief and deep pain, and we carry them in shame and isolation. We need stories and art that give us a way to articulate our suffering, that let us know we’re not alone, that we are blessed even when we can’t be joyful. Sometimes being real and honest and letting others see your suffering is the way to bring Christ to another. Sometimes sharing your pain and your struggle to believe is what kindles the light that another soul so desperately needs to see.
So with this post, I want to thank The Christophers and especially Tony Rossi for recognizing Love and Salt and for their own good work, which reminds me that God is not only a God of dramatic action but a God who acts in hidden ways, tending us through the hands of friends and strangers, and asking for our hands, too, to do his work in the world—including the quiet work, the unseen work.
And God uses the hands of those who aren’t ready and will never be perfect and haven’t found their joy and aren’t very good. So I will keep offering mine and lighting my candles in the dark.
Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published essayist and the author of the memoir Love & Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, winner of the 2014 Christopher Award. She lives in Northern Michigan with her husband, writer David Griffith, and their two children.