As I reached the tiny tea-light candle out to the flame of one of the hundreds already dancing on the small metal structure, I held my breath and prayed, starting out the same way I always did: Dear Lord, please protect my family and friends, and please help me find some peace and hopefully some happiness in this life. As I thought the second part, I squeezed my eyes closed, as if shutting out the rest of the world – the shuffling tourist groups, the loudly ‘whispering’ couples, the heavy sighs of bored children – for that brief moment would somehow strengthen the chances of my wish’s survival. Because it was really a wish, not a prayer. I don’t know how to pray, never have; I know how to express deep desires, so strong I have to hold my breath while I think or say them out of fear that they won’t come true, and I know how to be endlessly grateful for all the many opportunities I’ve been given in my life as a result of the crapshoot of birth, but I don’t really know how to talk to God. If he exists, that is, and even then if he’s listening.
I used to light candles for the dead – when we traveled as a family my aunt always liked to light a candle for her son, who died far too young, and I enjoyed the ritual of it, the quiet stillness of the church, the lively flicker of the flames… I started lighting candles for my cousin at statues of St Anthony, then for my grandmother too, and then as my other cousins got older and started having kids I said prayers before the Virgin Mary and lit candles for their soon-to-be-babies. When I traveled with friends my own age, they often found this spiritual side of me strange; I was always agnostic, almost atheistic, in the rest of my life. Certainly I was not religious. But here I was, eyes closed, kneeling before some old statue of a guy in a robe that wasn’t even Jesus. It must have seemed out of character, but in fact I’d always wished to be more religious. It seemed a comfort I desperately needed, to know that someone very important is always listening, always has your back.
I almost had that with my ex. I don’t mean to liken him to God, only to say that before his presence in my life I felt profoundly alone. I never felt a constant certainty that someone had me in his heart, was thinking of me and wishing the best for me, was missing me when I wasn’t there and thanking his stars for me when I was. For a lot of non-religious people, I think they get that inner confidence from knowing that their parents are there for them, that they are their parents’ top priority; I didn’t have that, for whatever reason. I suspect my parents don’t know why I never felt I was the most important person in their lives (didn’t even share the honor evenly with my siblings), and I certainly haven’t found any solid answer, but the fact remains: I was alone. And then I met my ex, and suddenly this hole I’d carried just under my sternum for my entire life was filled up. I walked the world with a wonderful stillness in my heart, a confidence that no matter what might happen, any potential calamity or failure would be bearable because somewhere out there was this person who put me above all others. It was an incredible feeling, so good it took me years to accept that it was real. And when it stopped, I caved in on myself. I didn’t know how to live without it anymore.
That day in the Duomo, surrounded by cold stone and warm bodies, I felt the depth of my desire for peace like an icy wind through the place in my heart where that calm confidence used to be. I was trying my best to fill that space on my own, with a stronger sense of self that couldn’t be taken away so easily, but it was slow going and hard work. The scaffolding was still up, and it was rickety. I was exhausted. What I wouldn’t give for some supreme being to come along and fill it up for me with His eternal grace, the kind of love that never betrays, and never goes away.
PS If the above photo doesn’t show up, blame the internet here and click through to Instagram.
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