I walk through the entry and into the white marble courtyard of Parikia’s Panagia Ekatontapiliani—the church of 100 doors, which it does not have, though I suppose that depends on how literally you take your definitions. I pass a pedestaled fount that bubbles cool water. A woman with silver hair and dark sunglasses reaches with cupped hands and splashes her face with glistening holy.
I cross to the main chapel and stop in the portico outside, where women light thin golden candles by the handful. I gaze at the flames and I am transfixed. I slip silver coins into the donation box and take two slender rods of painted wax. I light them from the flame of a flickering candle and place them side-by-side in the sand. Then I set on the marble stoop and watch as they burn.
I didn’t grow up lighting candles as a symbol of personal petition. Candelabras flanked the altar of my childhood church, but never the cluster of tea lights that you find in the chapels of more orthodox faiths, or the concept of lighting a candle for a person. The closest I came was making a wish and blowing out the candles on my birthday cakes.
I formed a habit of lighting candles the season I was living in France and mourning the loss of a love that I hoped would return. Town after town and church after church, I lit candle after candle for the man who had left. Somehow the candles gave life to my longing. As if igniting them pulled the petition out of my body and set it on fire.
I have since lit candles for myself or for others, sometimes with a question in mind or in pursuit of a particular outcome, but never two at a time, for myself and another.
I watch as they flicker and burn bright together. Two rods of wax on a journey toward death. The breeze tugs one, then the other, and they shudder then steady, independent companions in simultaneous sway.
I watch other pilgrims grab fresh candles and pull flames from my pair, but they do not grow dim. They give and they grow.
There is a man who keeps guard in the corner outside. Every few minutes he approaches the stands and grabs wax by the handful, he blows out the flames to make room for new light. There are just too many prayers to let them all burn or to wait as they smolder from ask into answer.
My candles continue to dwindle at a slow even pace. Each on their own and yet never alone. They witness one another as fellow pilgrims themselves. And I hope in the end they snuff out side-by-side.