When I moved to Texas several decades ago as a naive, hopelessly midwestern college student, adjustments had to be made. I had to get used to the way people here talked (there is no difference in the way many Texans pronounce “pin” and “pen” for example, which drove me nuts), the way they drove (in giant, jacked-up trucks) and voted (no explanation necessary, right?). I found the climate stupefying as well. Summer extended well into October, then winter showed herself in strange four-day stretches, which were usually preceded and followed by summer-esque heat and humidity. It gets cold enough that living here does require a coat, rain boots, umbrella, gloves and hat, but those items may only be used for a couple of days at a time. I learned that it isn’t that unusual to have to turn on the heat and the air conditioning during the same day during the stretch of months from November to March.
But as if to apologize for her gas-guzzling, vowel-diphthonging, ultra conservative-voting citizens, Texas offered me gifts upon my arrival. First, she gave me avocados. And really, that would have been enough. They were a revelation of creamy green goodness. But Texas also gave me her specialty, Tex-Mex food, a spicy, flexible hybrid of a cuisine: chips, salsa, pico, rice, beans, chile rellenos, enchiladas, migas, bolillo rolls, queso, Topo Chico, agua fresca, breakfast tacos … and I’m only listing the vegetarian stuff I have enjoyed. Meat eaters could sing other verses of praises, I’m sure.
Texas also gave me great music – not just bands (my favorite, Spoon!), but genres, like rockabilly (Rev. Horton Heat), alt country (the Orbans, Lyle Lovett), bluesy roots rock (Doyle Bramhall II, the Arc Angels), dirty southern rap (Geto Boys) and stuff that doesn’t even fit into a category (David Garza, Explosions in the Sky, Beyonce), plus festivals like SXSW (yes!). Texas also encouraged me come visit the city/state of mind that is Austin in all of its rusting, corrugated tin glory. No doubt about it, this place is “a whole ‘nother country.”
And then Texas gave me the gift of veladoras, or Mexican saint candles, for sale at my local grocery store in the ethnic food aisle. These charming candles are cheap. A few dollars each. And they seem to come in two sizes, short and tall. Sometimes they are white, sometimes red, green or yellow, sometimes perfumed, sometimes fragrance free, always with sticker labels bearing the names and images of saints in action. Depending on the saint or candle style, those images can be quite gothic, even disturbing – well, at least compared to some Mormon art, which can be its own kind of disturbing. There are also candles with Jesus’ picture on them. In fact, my favorite candle is the short white Sacred Heart of Jesus candle (seen above in the photograph from my kitchen). I try to keep one of those always on hand. I also love the Virgen de Guadalupe candle and its beatific, smiling Mary, wrapped in a multi-colored, stylish cloak.
I keep the candles in my kitchen and in my bedroom, sometimes on windowsills. I may go weeks without lighting one, but I find the act of lighting these candles and watching those flames flicker behind the colored panels to be deeply moving. I recognize as I light the candles and then watch them that I am borrowing someone else’s religious practice. This is not something my tribe does. We are fairly anti-candle, are we not? The whole practice of lighting candles and praying over them in some dark, dim church knave is something Catholics do. This lighting and kneeling is in some ways unfamiliar, and to some Mormons, the practice might even seem a bit vulgar, a bit low.
To that, I say, bring it on! I’ve always loved a Mount Olympus-style Heaven. In my own musings on what an afterlife looks like, I picture busy, bustling, varied souls who jockey for audience with God and pursue their pet spiritual projects beyond the veil. I like the idea of St. Jude helping with lost causes and St. Joseph helping to sell houses. Moroni is up there too with his trump, and the work is bigger, brighter, crazier and messier than we imagine.
Lately, I’ve taken to calling myself an ecumenical Mormon, at least when I am talking to myself, because I love the idea of sharing my spiritual practices with the larger Christian family and the larger human family. To me, ecumenical means cooperative, flexible, open-minded, open-hearted, seeking and accepting. It is a one-word encapsulation of the 13th Article of Faith, and in my spiritual practices, my ecumenical leanings remind me to study and borrow the best and shiniest and sweetest of all the religious traditions our human family has managed to create.
So when I light one of my candles, I do picture kindly grandmothers fingering rosaries, and then I imagine myself kneeling beside them, basking in the glow of their prayers and their flames. This is not what I was raised to do, but these candles are a gift, not just from Texas, but from the fellowship of all who seek.