There was a lit candle standing on the round table of the Thurman room. I had seen it before. Its flame had glowed and flickered softly, yet warmly, many times in that same room in the past. But what exactly was it doing here now?
In our one-on-one meeting, Soren asked me how First Sight and Second Thoughts applied to this candle. As I sat and pondered on its familiar yet unusual presence at this meeting, I paused for a few seconds. Then, I told him a story. Well, several stories, to be exact, loosely tied together by this one flame. What follows is a partial remembrance of those stories, and a partial reflection. It is not what I said to him verbatim. I may have added, removed, or changed details since then. The essence, however, remains the same.
This candle was at our most recent Marsh Associates meeting on Monday. Jen lit the candle, saying how it signified the presence of God in the circle. The Holy Spirit was said to have descended among the disciples and filled them at Pentecost, appearing as tongues of flame on their shoulders. It made sense that a flame, of all things, could serve as a symbol for the presence of the Divine.
The candle also reminded me of Jaimie, my friend and a former Marsh Associate who used to sit around that circle with me. She comes from the Unitarian Universalist tradition, and one of the symbols in the UU tradition is a chalice, a vessel with an open flame. I can’t speak to its significance as well as she can. But when I saw the candle, I was reminded of the chalice, and of her presence at the chapel.
Flames tend to remind me of the hearth. My very first reflection when I started at Marsh Chapel was called Where the Hearth Is, a reflection on home and its significance in my life coming to BU. I wrote at the time, “There is a saying that home is where the hearth is. For me, that means that home is a place of warmth, of love, but also pain. After all, home can hurt as much as comfort.” I make a slight distinction between what I wrote about then and the saying, “Home is where the heart is.” In this saying, home is tied to emotion. In the previous saying, it is tied to a hearth, a flame that can be either literal or figurative. The two sayings are closely intertwined, but they are not quite the same.
Thinking of the hearth reminded me of a book by Rick Riordan that was part of the Percy Jackson series, The Last Olympian. The Greek goddess of the hearth and of the home, Hestia, is a prominent character in that book, and probably my favorite of the entire series. When Percy, the series’ protagonist, first sees her in an earlier book, he hardly notices her. She appears as a young girl tending to the fire at the camp where he is saying. It is only when he sees Hestia for a second time that he acknowledges her. When I first came to BU, I wanted to leave home behind me. I wanted to ignore the impact it had in shaping me, the lasting pain that it had imparted to me. There was love there, yes, but it was a love that could both burn and comfort.
In high school, I read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book that opens with the line, “It was a pleasure to burn.” I wrote an essay about how the meaning and symbolism of fire changes throughout the novel. It starts as a tool of destruction, but by the end, it becomes a source of comfort. When Montag meets a circle of wandering ordinary, scholars, philosophers, and thinkers, they invite him to sit with them around a fire. A fire that does not hurt or destroy, but warms and comforts.
That was the hearth I wish my home was more growing up sometimes. But my home had both elements of fire that Fahrenheit 451–the generative, as well as the destructive. I wanted to leave behind its influence, and not let it negatively affect how I treated others and how I treated myself. In some ways, though, it already had.
Percy later meets Hestia again on Mount Olympus, when it is crumbling and almost deserted. Almost. She tells him that when all of the other gods are gone, she is the last one left, tending to the hearth. She is the Last Olympian. When all else fails and crumbles, what’s left is home–where we come from, where our roots are. Percy gives Hestia a jar containing Elpis, Hope. It was a gift given to him by Prometheus, with the message that should he decide to give up, he should let Elpis out of the jar to surrender. He should let go of Hope.
In the end, he decides to give the jar to Hestia. When she asks with astonishment why, given that she is the least of the Olympians, he tells her that it is because she is the Last Olympian, and the most important. He says that home is where hope survives best.
Hestia is a goddess in mythology that often seems neglected. Beyond Riordan’s series, there are very few well-known myths about her that I can think of. Perhaps that is the point. In the mythology, she yields her place on Olympus for Dionysus, the god of wine, and decides to tend to the fire to avoid conflict among the gods. She tells Percy that one of the most difficult things is knowing when to yield. To not always be the center of attention or the center of action, and to let things be. This is a skill that I greatly admire in people, and one that I take to heart and am still trying to develop in myself.
For a long time, I held on to an deeply buried, internal anger against my home, and against those who had deeply hurt me. It was not an anger that I showed or acknowledged publicly very often, but privately I did. I’ve been aware of its presence for a long time. More recently, it has served a purpose in helping me heal. But in my conversation with Soren last week, he pointed out that holding on to anger for long periods of time tends to hurt our relationships with each other, and with the Divine. He made several other points during that conversation, not all of which I agree with. But I will admit that there was some merit to what he said.
One of the things I’ve learned about emotions over time is that they tend to change, by nature. That change is something I’ve tried grown used to and have tried to acknowledge as I get older. There were certain emotions that I held on to, though. Maybe it was out of stubbornness, maybe it was because I lost sight of the fact that emotions can change. Maybe it was to protect myself in the environment I grew up in. But now, when I think about these emotions–in particular the anger, and the contempt I hold for certain experiences I’ve endured–I am reminded of Rick Riordan’s Hestia, who she is, and what she stands for. Home, the hearth, and the warmth and healing in those things as well. Marsh Chapel has, in many ways, become a home to me, as have the people that I’ve worked with and grown to care about.
I am reminded of her words: that one of the hardest things to do is to yield. That message is something that I take close to heart. And perhaps now, I can apply it to the parts of myself that I have acknowledged but ignored. I can yield the anger and contempt that resulted from so much pain. I can yield, and return to where the hearth is.