Seemingly within minutes of the massacre in Paris, people gathered at one place or another, in Paris and in cities across the world. They laid flowers. They prayed. They played “Amazing Grace.” They held hands. They displayed the colors of the French flag. They wept.
They also lit candles.
Lighting candles has become a common public liturgy following terrorist attacks. Even though candles in the West have a distinctly religious aura about them, we find atheists and agnostics lighting them as well. Even in post-Christian, secular France.
If you ask a hundred people why they lit candles these last few days, you are likely to get a hundred answers, none of which should be dismissed. Still, we light candles, as we do so many things at such moments, for reasons that reason does not know. Or better, we light them because, in ways we can’t often articulate or fathom, they harken life’s two great mysteries.
John’s gospel names those mysteries like this: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
Glimpsing the Darkness
Candles do not merely shine in the darkness; they help us recognize the darkness of the night. Our fully lit rooms do their best to eliminate all vestiges of darkness. Our eyes are so flooded with light we hardly notice or remember the darkness that hovers over and around us.
Candles, on the other hand, give off only a small and subtle light, whose weak intensity flickering flames are vulnerable to the slightest wisp of wind or breath. Candle light makes us aware of darkness and the threat of deeper darkness should the flame go out. As Anne Frank noted in the face of Nazi horrors, “Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.” As the flame flickers and moves, the surrounding darkness is given shape. The candle doesn’t eliminate the darkness, but it pushes it to the boundary of light, giving us space to reflect.
Among other things, we reflect on the fresh revelation that tragedy brings: Terrorism terrifies because it shows us the slender thread upon which our lives hang, how with breathtaking suddenness and seeming randomness it can end with a literal bang. Most days we can successfully pretend tomorrow belongs to us as much as today. The Paris tragedy startles us out our don’t-worry-be-happy daze, and the flickering light of the candle helps us feel our fragility.
We try to marshal courage. With false bravado we announce, “We will not let the terrorists win!”—by which we mean we will not alter our lifestyles out of fear. Yet we inevitably do. Does anyone remember the days with no airport security lines, when no one checked purses and bags at ball games? We wish it were otherwise, but after each terrorist attack, we institutionalize our fear in new ways.
Thus anxiety penetrates and chills our bones as public sites close in Paris and elsewhere. At venues designed to help us forget about our troubles for a few hours, armed security guards with police patches and shiny guns march us and our handbags through metal detectors.
It’s an exaggeration to say we’ve become a police state, but we’re getting there. And it’s not because government agents watch our every move. Instead it’s because we increasingly agree to police one another. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio recently urged New Yorkers, “If you see something, say something. That phrase is real. It is powerful.”