A burning candle, offered on the altar of our devotion, symbolizes the luminous presence of God’s love, the descent of His light into our little human lives. As celebrants during the Festival of Light, as we gaze reverently at the candle’s flame, we pray to know God, to choose Him with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength — God alone.
It is also a burning candle that lies at the heart of the story of a man of Florence, a man who enlisted to fight in the crusade to win Jerusalem, and especially the Holy Tomb of Christ, back from the Saracens. His name was Raniero. He was far from a good man: a giant in stature, enormously strong and adept at the arts of war, but always using his strength and martial prowess to dominate and humiliate others, to prove his superiority and, as he thought, thereby to win the adoring admiration of his long-suffering, noble, and deeply devout wife, Francesca. Cruel bully that he was, Raniero yet had one admirable quality — a single-minded inner commitment to keep any vow he took, even unto death.
So it was that when, before departing for the Holy Land with the Florentine corps of crusaders, Raniero took a vow to place before the cathedral’s image of the Madonna the finest spoils won in each battle, he opened a door through which the Divine Mother could use the time ahead to draw her erring child closer and closer. Though his vow was an expression more of vanity than of devotion, yet the fierceness of his attachment to keeping his vow was to be the thread that led him, like Theseus out of the labyrinth of the Minotaur, down a road of purification, out of his delusion, and, finally, into the waiting arms of Divine Mother Herself — and of Her earthly expression, the saintly wife whose prayers followed him to the end.
Fearlessly Raniero stormed the walls of Jerusalem, the first one over after his corps commander. For his bravery, Raniero was honored before the assembled victorious crusaders: He was allowed to be the first to light his candle from the sacred flame always burning before the tomb of Christ.
His burning candle was to Raniero a badge of honor, proof of his valor and of the respect he had earned. Jealously he guarded its flame. When the time of token obeisance to the holy purpose of the crusade gave way to a night of drunken carousing and profane revelry, Raniero cupped his hands around his candle to protect it from any draft. His tiny light dwarfed by the flaming torches illuminating great goblets of wine and coarse and mocking faces, Raniero was ridiculed by his fellows. “How,” they taunted, “will you place this spoil of war before the Madonna of Florence?” In a rage of affronted pride, Raniero took up the challenge: “I alone,” he declared, “shall carry the flame, never letting it die, to lay before the Holy Mother of God.”
Thus began the unintended pilgrimage of this savage warrior. Wearing a coarse pilgrim’s cloak over full armor, heavily armed, mounted on a fine battle horse, the lighted candle in one hand, bundles of replacement candles tied to the saddle, Raniero rode out toward Joppa (modern-day Jaffa). And as he rode, Divine Mother tested his commitment, his endurance, his willingness to make the sacrifices necessary to complete his mission. Early-morning mist weakened the flame. Insects flew at it. Gusts of wind threatened to blow it out. To create a wind-free shelter, Raniero reversed his seat on the horse, faced the rear, and wrapped his pilgrim’s cloak around the little flame.
Then came a band of robbers. Raniero knew he could defeat them, wretched and poorly armed as they were, but only at great risk to the sacred flame. Instead of a fight, he offered them all that he had, save only the one burning candle and the bundles of replacements. The robbers left him what he asked, plus his pilgrim’s cloak and a sad old nag to ride — a touch of generosity out of respect for the holy purpose they saw in his journey.
And so the days passed. The mighty knight became to the world’s eyes a crazy beggar, riding facing backwards a pitiful old horse, obsessively sheltering the flame of a candle. Divine Mother’s influence now became more tender, more protective. Those he encountered began to see him as a holy wanderer, someone to be cared for and helped on his way. Falling asleep in the courtyard of an inn, Raniero awoke to find the candle gone. Devastated, looking around frantically, he saw dimly glimmering, slowly approaching, the light of a candle, carried by the innkeeper, who to help the holy pilgrim had stood watch himself through the night over the sacred flame. And on another night, Raniero awoke to falling rain, terrified that the flame be quenched. There above the flame, shielding it from the falling drops, fluttered two tiny birds, their wings outspread. Heart overflowing with tender gratitude, he reached out to stroke his little rescuers — and the birds, unafraid, allowed his gentle caresses.
Raniero had become a true pilgrim: Destitute himself, dependent on the kindness of strangers, heart and soul fixed ever on his sacred vow, he travelled overland along the Syrian coast, west along the peninsula of Asia Minor, then north to Constantinople, and on to Florence. On the long, long journey, as outer attachments fell away, deep memories rose to the surface — especially of his good wife, who he now saw had worked so hard to protect the delicate flame, the sacred flame, of her love for him, and that it had been his cruelties that had so often threatened the flame that she guarded.
Just before Easter, Raniero rode into Florence — not as a triumphant returning crusader but as a bedraggled, emaciated pilgrim, seated backwards on a broken-down old horse, his whole attention on the candle carefully held between cupped hands. Surrounded by a shrieking, catcalling mob, ridiculing the madman—“pazzo! pazzo!”—Raniero stood tall in the saddle, holding the candle aloft above the grasping hands reaching to seize the crazy man’s candle and hurl it to the ground. Just as it seemed the mob would prevail, a woman’s hand reached out from the balcony above, took the candle, still burning, and brought it to Raniero, knocked from his horse and lying barely conscious in the street. One look at Raniero’s transfigured face told Francesca — for it was she — that her long prayer vigil had brought divine blessings on her love and on her marriage. Her heart full to overflowing, Francesca helped Raniero up onto his horse, then led the horse and rider to the cathedral, to the waiting altar, to the sacred image of the Madonna. And so the journey reached its end: honor to the Divine Mother and joy to a divine child awakened at last to his life’s true purpose — to carry the light until he became the Light.
“Always have I loved thee. Ever shall I love thee.“
In divine friendship,
For Ananda’s “Thank You, God” Tithing