The Candle Meditation according to Dr. Elisabeth Lukas can be found in the chapter “Wachs wird zu Leuchten” [Wax will Glow] of her book “Alles fugt Sich und Erfullt Sich: Die Sinnfrage im Alter” [Everything is linked and gets fulfilled: The question of meaning in old age] (Lukas, E. 1994: 81-83).
This meditation is very timely. A challenging year is coming to its end and a new year is about to begin. This year was not an average year as we struggled with the global impact of the Corona virus. Our strength, resolve, and courage were tested in unforeseen ways. It is a wonderful gesture to invite all of us to light a candle and to hold it up witnessing our hope as one humanity.
I would like to preface the meditation with my familiarity with it. This will take us back to the history of how I got to know about the Candle Meditation and its significance in my life. I hope you will trace the steps of this journey with me.
No year passes that I do not remember my first encounter with Dr. Lukas in her office at the South German Institute of Logotherapy. I have seen her and interacted with her on several occasions before while I attended her lectures, presentations, and seminars, both in the United Sates and in Germany. This time, it was different. She has set the location of my final exam to take place in Furstenfeldbruck, Germany, where the South German Institute of Logotherapy with her leadership was operating since 1986. The year was 2000. It was a cold winter day in December.
Christmas was near, and I was looking for a suitable present to bring her. Something that would express my appreciation and my admiration of her work that I was familiar with from her lectures and workshops and attempted to memorise word by word. But what can you buy as gift for a person who means so much to you? Dr. Lukas was a former student of Dr. Frankl, internationally recognised and accomplished. I was a budding psychologist. I had just recently finished my PhD degree and eager to work using the principles laid out in her books.
On my way, I bought a package of festive candles. The candles were neatly wrapped, and I added some ribbons and a card, wishing her and her husband Merry Christmas and happy New Year. It seemed surreal to think that after traveling from so far, soon I will meet her and have a chance to give her this humble token of appreciation.
What a surprise awaited me when, entering her office, I saw her sitting at a round table that had a candle lit on it! She explained to me that we will leave the candle burning until we talk. This will remind us that we do not only have the two of us present in the room, but our dialogue is meaning-oriented. Looking at the light made me feel much more at ease while Dr. Lukas graciously accepted my simple present and placed it on an adjacent desk.
The oral exam consisted of one question. It was about the properties of the human spirit in Frankl’s theory. We talked about how the spirit is the essence of a person, how it can never become ill, and how it is a seat of our healthy resources. At the end, Dr. Lukas asked me to wait a few minutes while her husband filled out the certificate. In the meanwhile, she asked me which books I had in German that she had written. Anything that I did not have, she gave me a copy. When Mr. Lukas was ready, we went over to their apartment and she had a piece of cake and refreshments ready! I do not know if anyone ever in the history of psychotherapy had such a pleasant encounter with their mentor, I only know that I felt myself in heaven and left with a strong sense of mission to read her books and to help others learn about them, too.
Exactly, twenty years have passed since. When I was contacted about the project of translating Dr. Lukas’s Candle Meditation, the memories came flooding back. The “Candle Meditation” is a chapter in one of her books entitled “Alles fugt sich und erfullt sich” (Everything is linked and gets fulfilled). It was one of the few books that she gave me in Furstenfeldbruck. This book has travelled with me over countries and continents. I was thrilled to get to work at once….
I translated the chapter “Wachs wirm zu Leuchnen—Ene Kerzenmeditation” as “Wax will Glow—A Candle Meditation.” This title is symbolic of the transformation that occurs as soon as we light a candle, and the substance of its wax is transformed into light and warmth. Let us follow the steps carefully, with guidance by Dr. Lukas. I will summarize the main points below:
Most of us have a candle at home. Maybe it remained from another celebration. It was carefully saved somewhere for a special occasion or time of need. Whether on a joyous occasion, or on a sad occasion that we thought we may need this candle again, now we can use it on this occasion to reflect on life that spans between birth and a death and learn valuable lessons from a small demonstration that we will do together.
Dr. Lukas invites us to observe our candle. It stands there new, and intact. Upon a closer look, we can see that it is made of two components, two substances, wax, and wick. The wick runs inside the wax and is almost invisible. Still the wick is essential for the candle being what it is, a candle. It belongs to the nature of the candle being what it is, a candle, and not just a piece of wax.
We could make a comparison between the nature of a human being and this understanding of the wick being all but covered by wax. Observing a human being, we see the body, the organism, “animated” by facial expressions, gestures, speech. The appearance of a person makes us infer the presence of the “soul” behind the “mask” of the body and mind. It is that part that is invisible, yet, the essence of a human being which was “breathed into the dust of the earth.” “The soul elevates the human person from the animal body of evolution and makes him or her a unique and singular wonder of creation” (Lukas, 1994:82).
Returning to our candle, we are now going to light it, and pay special attention to what happens to the wax. We observe that as soon as the flame reaches the wax, it becomes liquid and evaporates. We may experience a bit of sadness at the sight that the wax is melting in front of our eyes and there will be less and less of it as time goes by. Drop by drop, our candle will lose its height and its remaining “material” will be less and less.
Comparing this process with human life, we may observe that as soon as the “flame of the spirit” is lit, our vital functions are getting used and over time, they become less able to regenerate, more fragile and brittle. As the organism that ages, it loses its vitality, cell by cell.
Yet, we know from the laws of physics and chemistry that in the universe nothing gets “lost.” Material can change its shape or state, energy cam be found in different form. As we pay attention to the wax, we observe that it is changing into warmth and light. In other words, substance changes into function. Furthermore, there is a proportional relation between the length of burning and the amount of light and warmth given: the longer the candle was lit, the more light it gave. Similarly, the more substance it has lost, the more it has fulfilled its function. By giving more light, the candle has increasingly filled and full-filled its function. Thus, we realise that we need not “mourn” the loos of the wax that melted as it is proportional to the extent to which the candle “achieved” to fulfill its purpose. It has given light and warmth instead of remaining forever unlit and unused–a “dead” candle that “held back” all its wax. This candle, our candle that has been “awakened” by the flame –it glows.
Dr. Lukas always links her work with that of Professor Frankl. She remarks Dr. Frankl once wrote about human beings: “At the start, life is full substance that is unused; in the course of life, one keeps losing substance that has changed into function so that at the end a human life is brought forth into reality with all that one accomplished, what one experienced and what one suffered” (Frankl, 1982: 84). To “bring forth” something means to actualise it in time. “Whatever exists in the history of time flows and merges in time where all time merges: eternal truth” (Lukas, 1994:84).
Dr. Lukas explains that before we lit the candle, the reality of the light of this candle did not yet enter time. It has not yet taken place, did not become visible. The substance of the candle was there but the function was not yet fulfilled. We could also say: the candle has not yet fulfilled its meaning. Or we could say, the candle has not yet entered time, it was not yet been “brought forth”. In the moment when we lit the wick, the function of our candle was set into motion.
The reality of our candle is that it can burn for seven to eight hours and after that, not much will be left of it. However, even if the candle’s flame goes out, the fact that it was glowing can not be undone. What was brought forth and actualized has become eternal. Paradoxically, exactly when the candle has visibly disappeared, while there is still a trace of the burned wax or a trace of the wick, is when its meaning is once and was fulfilled once and for all.
Dr. Lukas again makes reference to Dr. Frankl’s work who reminded us that all that remains in human life after death is what we have “brought forth: what we accomplished, what we experienced, and what we suffered. He stated that whatever we accomplished and experienced or suffered during the course our lives enters truth where it is safely and securely stored against any distortion or destruction. “Only when our bodies have changed and become feeble does that what we caused and accomplished with its help become forever “young,” since the truth into which all time merges is itself timeless, without beginning and without end” (Lukas, 1994:86).
Next, Dr. Lukas instructs us to extinguish the light and let the wax of our candle cool down. We want to do a small experiment in which we have to break the candle. We want to philosophically think about these broken parts that represent human brokenness. We do not need to understand the philosophers in detail to relate to the fact that every human life has its challenges, its twists, failures, losses, unfulfilled meaning potentials. What was accomplished, experienced, suffered and brought into reality in the course of time is often not without pain. Coupled to this are the physical and psychological injuries to of the organism whose substance could still be changed into function. These injuries can be caused by ourselves or others. We are going to symbolise this brokenness by breaking off the top third of the candle. If this task is a bit difficult to do by hand, we can use a knife to help us as we merely want to make cut on the candle so that the wick is not severed. The candle should still stay in unity and wholeness just as injured and ill people still are.
As the candle lies in front of us on the table, Dr. Lukas invites us to lift it up by one end. We observe that the piece where we made cut is hanging down with some tiny crumbles of the wax around. The “wounded piece” hangs on the invisible wick that runs in the middle of the candle. The candle in its entire entity is not broken, only the wax: the wick is still intact. Thus, we observe that to call the candle “broken” is not really accurate. Well and unwell parts are mixed; wax is “unwell” only at a certain location where it shows a cut, and it does not hold together. It may be scratched or dirty in other parts as well, but these shrink in significance to where the brokenness can be observed.
Here lies a valuable lesson about injured and ill people: It would be wrong to call them “broken” people because in each person there is something that is in principle healthy and indestructible such as his or her spiritual origin and reason. The “Divine Breath,” as it is called in theology, is the basis of the unlimited dignity of the human person in Frankl’s anthropology. “Whatever is of spiritual nature is not born, it does not die, it does not stay healthy or become ill since it stems from an entirely different dimension” (Lukas, 1994:89).
We have likened the human spirit with that of the wick in the candle—inseparable from the organism through which the flame of life burns through earthly time into eternal reality. We have also learned something else: “The spiritual person can be disturbed but not destroyed” (Frankl, 1990: 173)—it can be broken but not annihilated. Through this example we can see that people with severe physical or mental challenges, “…people with severe handicaps or limitations can still fulfill meaning in the world through the exemplary way in which they carry their heavy burden” (Lukas, 1994:89).
With a bit of effort, it is possible to prop up our “wounded” candle and light it again. We may have to hold it so it stays up right, just for a while, with help, with care, with attention, and light it again to observe that even this candle, whose substance was damaged, can still fulfill its function and its reason. The same applies for a wounded person.
Yet, Dr. Lukas explains that mystery of meaning fulfillment goes even deeper. It will reveal itself if we are patient and keep waiting a bit longer. “The fulfillment of meaning is the absolute antidote of brokenness, which in the context of our meditation means: not only will the wax glow but the glow will redeem the broken parts. In other words: a life that glows, glows through its breaking points…” (Lukas, 1994:90).
As we remain relaxed and concentrate on our candle, we observe that it is growing ever smaller and smaller and the tiny droplets of wax flow over the point of the damage as if to smoothly cover and glue it together again. As the flame keeps glowing and nearing this breaking point, the edges will soften and soon the fracture melts into light and fulfills a function, despite everything. Observing this mystery opens a new perspective. Does the sight of this once broken candle that has overcome its brokenness not warm our hearts even more than the sight of the intact candle? Perhaps now it is easier for us to see that a person who with some help manages to “straighten up” and “radiate” something positive into the world can heal him or herself. We may choose to remain with our candle for a few more minutes and ponder this thought.
Reaching the end of our meditation, Dr. Lukas proposes that we can reflect on the process: We lit our candle, extinguished it, burned it, and observed how its light can be “restored.” We have seen that the longer it fulfilled its meaning, the smaller it became, and this shrinking held intrinsic value.
At this point, we will add a few final considerations: Friends and relatives, who were not in our house, have not seen any of what happened. They know nothing about the light of our candle. If they come to visit one day, there will be nothing left from our candle, nothing left from the light that they can experience. Will this alter the fact that our candle gave light? –The answer empathetically is: “Certainly, not!”
We know about the light shine of our candle. What would happen if we decided to turn our backs to the candle, left for the other room and closed our eyes? Would the lack of perception of the light or our lack of attention to it make it not real? -Again, the answer is: “Certainly not!”
Thus, we may conclude that “…the truth is truth and remains the truth even if not perceived” (Lukas, 1994:93). The truth is not dependent on our perception. The truth is not dependent on awareness or knowledge. The role of the candle does not in the least depend on the fact if anyone can see it, perceive it, or appreciate it. The most important fact is that the candle is in fact glowing and the light and warmth are true. Since this truth entered reality, it is eternally true, regardless if someone knows about its truth or not. In a dimension greater than our limited human perception, or different than our finite knowledge, everything dwells safely in the truth.
Before we blow out the light, Dr. Lukas instructs us to briefly recall the all the bright and meaningful events that we have accomplished in our lives and hold on to the thought that it does not make any difference if anyone else knows about these events, recognises them, or grateful to us for them. And when no one can see it: “Light remains light and meaning remains meaning” (Lukas, 1994:93). Or, in Frankl’s words: “The act of looking at something does not create that thing; neither does the act of looking away annihilate it” (Frankl, 2019: 110). –Could it be that, even if the whole world ignores our good deeds, they can not be destroyed?
These words may summarize our conclusions: “In the past, nothing is irretrievably lost, but rather, on the contrary, everything is irrevocably stored” and treasured. To be sure, people tend to see only the “stubble fields of transitoriness” but overlook and forget the “full granaries of the past into which they have brought the harvest of their lives:” the deeds done, the loves loved, and last, but not least, the suffering they have gone though with courage and dignity. “Nothing can be undone, and nothing can be done away with. I should say having been is the surest kind of being (Frankl, 2014: 113).
As the person who had the honor of presenting this text entirely in gratitude and crediting Dr. Lukas and Dr. Frankl, I would like to add the affirmation of a personal belief that every life is a gift and an opportunity for something. Every life offers the possibility of bringing into reality truth, beauty and goodness that merges into eternity.
May the Light of this World, illuminate our paths as “Light from Light” bears light, and quenches the thirst for meaning.
To use our resources to soar above the ground,
To seemingly defy gravity,
To fly, sometimes, despite the odds,
To accomplish what we were meant to do,
To leave a gentle presence over the peaks,
And to land where our home awaits,
While we glow and share the light that is entrusted to us.
My husband, Prof. Dr. Edward Marshall, joins me in wishing you a joyful New Year!
Maria Marshall, PhD, RP
Ottawa Institute of Logotherapy
December 31, 2020
Frankl, V. E. (1990). Der Leidende Mensch. Munchen: Piper Verlag.
Frankl, V. E. (2014). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Frankl, V. E. (2019). The Doctor and the Soul. New York: Vintage Books.
Lukas, E. (1994). Alles fugt Sich und Erfullt Sich: Die Sinnfrage im Alter. Stuttgart: Quell Verlag.