Wednesday, July 31, 2013

catahoula communion

These 22 black-and-white photographs taken in the 40s, 50s and 60s in Catahoula, Louisiana depict the tradition of giving children a tall white candle on the day of their first communion. They were taken from the photograph collections of several families in Catahoula.

What struck me about these images: none of the candles are illuminated. They're pristine, uncharred.  During the actual ceremony surely a candle, or several candles, would have been lit to symbolize the spiritual birth of the child, but here the fireless candles seem inert, cold. I'd guess that the children took their candles home and stored them in a box and never actually used them.

I've been reading about the Bon religion in Tibet. Some consider it a tradition in the Buddhist family of religions. Others think of it as a more primitive forerunner to Buddhism. The five elements -- earth, air, water, fire, space -- are central to the Bon faith, not only as symbols, but also in a very concrete, direct way. Being in tune with the elements is the heart of the spiritual journey.

So when I compiled this slideshow of images, what struck me is how cold these candles are. The life-giving fire which centuries ago was so central to the enactment of this sacrament is now absent. The fire has not been extinguished. For these children and their candles, the fire has never really been started. Here the candles stand as cold symbols of an earlier warmth. One can see the end of the tradition itself beginning to happen. In fact, I haven't come across any photographs of children with communion candles since the late 1960s.

This is an instructive metaphor. When spiritual traditions become detached from the elements, from nature, from the rhythms of the day and the seasons of the year, they lose all meaning. They become empty abstractions. To begin a spiritual journey we have to light our candles, literally. A clean tall white candle is a pretty symbol, but if you don't use it, what does it really stand for? At that point it's only a matter of time before even the candle is dispensed with.