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Issue 02

A Candle

Istine Rodseth Swart

Photo: Marit Greenwood

On the eve of 2021 our president, Cyril Ramaphosa, asked the citizens of South Africa to forgo the traditional New Year fireworks and suggested an alternative: to light candles at midnight for those who died from the Coronavirus, those suffering from and because of it as well all health workers and caregivers.

Thus, at midnight, on my own, I prayerfully lit a single candle. There was an unusual hush for a few minutes after midnight which was shattered by the explosive celebrations of those who did not heed the president’s plea. There had been, however, a pause for some reflection.

While the skies flashed, sparkled and glittered noisily around me, I was in awe of my candle as I contemplated its brave, audacious little flame, offered unselfconsciously and without apology for its smallness.

Mathematics teachers introducing calculus have the difficult task of explaining how numbers can be so small that they are treated as zeroes in certain calculations, while they are emphatically not actually equal to zero. There are some helpful examples: The fact that small currency denominations are disregarded when money is being counted in millions and billions when speaking about the finances of a country, say, does not mean the small money is in fact without value. Yet having to learn to do mathematical procedures with an infinitesimally small, non-zero number is a challenge, not helped by having to use a tongue-twisting word for a mind-warping concept.

If I set my humble candle against gargantuan swirling, pulsing galaxies, I have the same sense of a minuteness that is nevertheless not nothing. The infinitesimally small flame – and I – are not overwhelmed by the inconceivable vastness of the cosmos. Consequently, there is great comfort in the knowledge that small is not zero in the sight of God. There is great comfort in the understanding that our seemingly insignificant lives, our meagre gifts to the world and our puny prayers are not nothing in the sight of the creator and sustainer of subatomic particles.

As we approached the 18th of July, Mandela Day, fuses were lit in our country that ignited anger, frustration, desperation – and malevolence – into a conflagration of looting and destruction that will cast long shadows over our future. Now I set my candle against the darkness of loss, pain and fear, knowing that there are a host of candle prayers sparkling in the dark; knowing that we will be seen and heard by the God of the minute.