“that place in us that carries the light”
Some of you may know me, but for those of you that don’t, I am Patsy’s daughter (aka “mini-me”) and I work as an Oncology Social Worker at a Comprehensive Cancer Center in Greensboro, North Carolina. It seems the holidays are an extra hard time for our patients and families as they cope with cancer and loss. While we sometimes forget, this can also be very hard for staff at the Cancer Center. Recently, there has been an influx of patients passing away and we recognized that the caregivers often do not have the time to process these losses. We wanted to create a time of reflection for the amazing, compassionate caregivers at our center.
One of my dear friends, Terry Moore-Painter, who serves as the chaplain at our center, always finds a way to bring depth and meaning through stories, poems, art, or just her presence. She adapted a reading from a wonderful book, ‘My Grandfather’s Blessings’ by Rachel Naomi Remen. If you have not had a chance to read this, I strongly encourage you to read this and Remen’s other book ‘Kitchen Table Wisdom’. We met with many nurses and caregivers at our center and read this together and took time to reflect on those we have lost this past year as well as to share how we each find light through our work.
I hope you enjoy the reading below as much as I did. May it bring you comfort, light, and new perspective.
A Reflection on Light
At this time of the year when the days are short and the nights are long, all of us are particularly aware of darkness. And we often equate darkness with sadness or loss, and it is in these times that we yearn for light. Many of us who care for people with cancer have experienced over time a significant amount of loss. Perhaps we, more than those in many other professions, know the feeling of loss and experience of darkness. Because of the suffering and the loss we see, we know the need for light in our lives.
Light figures prominently in all religious traditions at this time of the year. In the Christian tradition, we light candles during Advent and read about the star of Bethlehem, that great light in the night sky, leading the wise men to the Christ child. In the Jewish tradition, Hanukkah, the holiday of light is celebrated. Rachel Remen tells the story of her grandfather, a rabbi, introducing her to the meaning of Hanukkah.
On the first day of Hanukkah, our teacher showed us a Hanukkah menorah, a special candlestick with a place for 8 candles. Each day at sunset another candle is lit until there is a candle burning in each of the eight places. The Hanukkah story is the story of the Maccabees, fierce Jewish warriors, who fought long ago to defend the Jewish people. They fought until all provision had run out, even the oil for the eternal lamp that hung over the altar in the synagogue. This lamp, lit when the synagogue was consecrated, was never allowed to go out. Its burning presence meant that God’s spirit lived among the Jewish people.
Everyone believed the end was near; once the lamp went out, God would abandon the people and they would be lost. But the lamp continued to burn for eight days even without oil to feed it, and so Hanukkah, our teacher told us, is about the “miracle of light”.
My grandfather, who was a rabbi, told me that people throughout time have told stories of light in times of darkness, during the winter and the long nights and in times of sadness and loss. “Winter is a time of darkness”, he told me. “The nights start earlier and last longer. So, in the dark, people tell each other stories about light to strengthen their hope.”
My Grandfather told me about the darkness in the beginning of creation and how the world begun with the gift of light. “Now”, he said, “I will turn out the lamps and there will be darkness like there was in the beginning. We will see what it is like to receive this gift.” At the time I was afraid of the dark, and the thought of turning out the lights was not easy for me. “Will you stay right here with me in the dark, Grandpa?” I asked a little shakily. “Of course,” he replied, “I will be here and God will be too.”
We lit one candle each night for seven days and by the end of the week, the room was filled with light. It was so beautiful that my heart ached and tears filled my eyes. “It’s beautiful, Grandpa,” I told him. “Ah yes,” said my grandfather. “But God’s menorah is even more beautiful. God’s menorah is made of people, not of candles.”
Puzzled, I turned to look at him. “The story of Hanukkah says that God’s light burns in the darkness even without oil, and it is so. That is one of the miracles of light. But there is more. There is a place in everyone that can carry light. We are made this way. And we not only have the chance to carry light, it is possible for us to kindle and strengthen light in one another, passing the light along. This is the way that light will shine forever in the world.”
After many years I have found that we often discover the place in us that carries the light only after it has become dark. Sometimes it is only in the dark that we know the value of this place. But there is a place in everyone that can carry the light. This is true. My grandfather said so.
We are, Rachel Remen’s words, part of God’s menorah. Each of us who does this work has a place of light in us that enables us to care for those who are sick and pass light along to them. Sometimes we get tired or we see too many people die whom we have grown to love, and we are saddened by that loss. But we need to remember what Rachel’s grandfather says about darkness…that our colleagues(or fellow survivors, friends, etc) our families, and God are there with us in the sadness and that we always have that place in us that carries the light.
We also come to remember that our patients (or fellow survivors, friends, etc) give light to us. They show us courage and determination, hope and good humor, love, and peace even in the midst of their suffering. Today we come to remember those individuals whose lives have touched our own and to give thanks for what they teach us about life.
Terry Moore-Painter: Adaptation from My Grandfathers Blessings by Rachel Naomi Remen