The picture book “In the Candle’s Glow” by Elizabeth Crispina Johnson captured my attention from the moment I saw it. The cover illustration radiates peace as the main character stands prayerfully, gently illumined by a row of candle flames dancing like fireflies as she prays. That juxtaposition of peace and joyful motion made me curious, anticipating what I would read within its pages.
When I slipped the book open, I was not disappointed. It starts with flowers and bees, all blowing and growing in the wind. The life of a candle actually begins in that place: in nature, beauty, wholeness, just as God created the world and meant it to be. Bees partake of that sweet beauty and do their own work of using it to create honey and wax to share with their hive. A pleasant-faced nun sings her way into the book, ready to collect both honey and beeswax, and next thing we know there are slender beeswax candles lying patiently in a church’s narthex awaiting their next job. At last the reader meets the young pray-er from the cover, who dances into the book with much enthusiasm. Once she arrives at the church doors, Felicia stills herself, signs herself with the cross, then prayerfully enters. She notices the color and aroma of the beeswax candles, recalling their history for a moment before selecting one and igniting it, initiating it to its next task: carrying prayers. Felicia quietly prays, and as she does, she sees her prayers hovering, illumined by the candle. She watches as a gentle breeze wafts through the window, carrying the smoke from her candle into the heavens. Her prayers ride along to meet the icon of Christ, which watches over Felicia and reminds her that Christ Himself receives her prayers!
Amandine Wanert’s playful illustrations bring to life the swaying flowers, buzzing bees, singing nun, and dancing Felicia in this story. They also illuminate the gentle glow of candles casting light and hope around the interior of an Orthodox church. Readers will relish the peace that they feel as they read their way from the gleeful buzz of sunny fields to the serenity of prayer in church.
Here are some ideas of ways to study ideas from the book with your Sunday Church School students:
Help your Sunday Church School students learn about bees with these interesting hands-on activities: https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/articles/teaching-content/explore-world-honeybees/
This short video can introduce your students to bees and some of the amazing facts about them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta154f5Rp5Y
In “In the Candle’s Glow,” Sister Irene treasured the bees’ work and used some of their beeswax to make candles. Bees work together with monks in this American monastery, too, providing the monks with honey and a little income (the monks take the bees to places that need extra bees for pollination at certain times of the year) in exchange for a hive and plenty of flowers from which they can drink. Read more here: http://dowoca.org/news_140326_1.html. After reading, talk with your Sunday Church School students about the idea: how do the bees help the monks? How do the monks help the bees? In what ways are bees and monks the same? How do we benefit from both?
After reading “In the Candle’s Glow,” talk with your students about beeswax. Show them a piece of honeycomb (and let them taste it, if they want to!) and talk about how the wax is made for storing the honey and the baby bees. Then talk about the process of turning honeycomb into beeswax candles. Help them to dip their own tiny beeswax candles, just like Sister Irene did in “In the Candle’s Glow.” To do so, have a small (perhaps a potpourri-simmering-size) pot of melted beeswax already heated when they come into class. Also before class, cover the table and floor with newspaper layers taped together to catch any wax drips and cut one or two 12” lengths of candlewick for each student. Fold each length of candlewick in half over a pencil and tape it in place. When you’re ready to begin the candle making process, show your students how to slowly dip their candlewick in the small pot of wax, then pull it out, allow it to cool for a while, then straighten it with their fingers. Allow each student to dip theirs, cool it a bit, and straighten it, then repeat the process. Depending on the temperature of the room, it will take anywhere from 10 to 15 dips to make a slender taper candle. While you take turns with the dipping process is a good time to talk about how peaceful and meditative this work is. Sometimes monks and nuns make candles like this, praying as they work. Perhaps the class can pray the Jesus Prayer together or sing a favorite troparion as you slowly take turns with the dipping process. Once the candles have reached your preferred width, the students can pull the tape off of their pencil and free their pair(s) of taper candles. Show the students how to cut the wick so that the two candles are separated. (You may also want to trim the bottom of each candle flat with a sharp knife on a thick piece of cardboard “cutting board” so that the students can more easily stand their candles upright in a candle stand or a candle holder.) Talk about how deep the wax needs to be, to make a long candle like the ones we light when we go into church. That would take a lot of melted wax! Talk about how long it takes someone to make the pile of candles waiting at church to be burned. In gratitude for that person’s hard work, encourage your students to consider saying a prayer for the person who made their candle, every time they light a candle at church. Gather your candles together and pray the prayer of blessing of the candles, found near the end of “In the Candle’s Glow.” Then allow the students to take their candles along home to use at their family prayer table, or encourage them to light them at church the next time they attend a service.
A heat-free beeswax candle-making option (better for younger students) would be to roll your own beeswax candles. Here’s a tutorial: http://playfullearning.net/2013/03/diy-hand-rolled-beeswax-candles/
Why do we light candles when we pray? If you have older students, engage them in that question for a bit, then compare their answers to those of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki and St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, as recorded here (under the same question, near the bottom of the page): http://www.stjohnsmayfield.org/what-is-orthodoxy-2/. Encourage them to talk about the answers of those two saints, comparing them to each other and to their own previous answers. Then, encourage your students and yourself to remember, as the page says, “For all these reasons cited by our Holy Fathers, let us often light our candles and make sure as much as possible that they be pure candles. We should abstain from all corruption and uncleanness, so that all of the above symbolism is made real in our Christian lives.”
Allow your students to respond to the book “In the Candle’s Glow” with an art project. On dark paper, have them draw a candle (here’s one way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGOFC6ahnVw) with chalk, oil pastels, gel pens, white or metallic pencils: any medium that shows up nicely on the black paper. Then have your students smudge the candle’s “glow” around its flame. Inside that glow, encourage them to write a prayer; the names of people for whom they want to pray; or a drawing of the people’s faces for whom they are praying.