September 27, 2009

The Sacred Flame

From Christ Legends by Selma Lagerlöf, Translated by Velma Swanston Howard
Adapted by Doug Kraft and Lyn Cox

I don’t know if the story happened exactly this way, but I believe it’s true.

A long time ago, at the turn of the twelfth century in Florence, Italy, there was a knight named Raniero di Raniero.  He was known as a strong and brave soldier.  Unfortunately, he never missed an opportunity to prove his strength and bravery.  As soon as he heard any noise in the street, he would rush outside, in hopes that a fight had arisen in which he might participate.  He vowed that, wherever he went in battle, he would bring the best and rarest things back to the cathedral in Florence.  He didn’t do this because he was religious, but to display his valor where everyone could see.

Sitting in church, Raniero heard a sermon about the crusade in Jerusalem.  Finally!  A worthy challenge to prove his might.  These days, many people look back on the Crusades and think they weren’t such a good idea, but Raniero was excited. His wife, Francesca, knew that Jerusalem was a long way away, so Raniero and his boastful ways would be gone a long time.  Although she was kind, she realized she would not miss him   

The crusaders went to the Middle East and fought the people who lived there.  Their biggest battle was in Jerusalem, which is a holy city for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  The Christian crusaders won that day.  That night, there was a ceremony in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, near the tomb where Jesus was placed after he died.  Each knight was allowed to approach the tomb and to light a single candle with the flame that always burned there.

Raniero realized that the most precious treasure he could bring back to the cathedral in Florence was not gold or jewels or sacred relics, but the living flame.  What could be more valuable to the church than a candle lit by the flame at Jesus’ tomb?  Raniero decided to do this all by himself, with no help from anyone, so that he could show his bravery and prove that the whole thing was his idea.  His compatriots laughed at him, which only made Raniero more determined.

Early the next morning, with shining armor and enough tapers to keep the flame alive for months, he galloped proudly from the camp.  The first thing he learned was that he could not gallop with a lighted candle.  Speed nearly blew it out.  Yet the light that could be extinguished in the wind burned bright and strong in the stillness. 

The journey would require patience.  Raniero, who had never concerned himself with anyone’s needs but his own, had to attend carefully to the flame.  He had to choose everything he did based on the candle.  Thus he traveled – slowly – week after week through the wilderness.     

One day he came upon five poor bandits preparing to ambush him. He drew his sword to teach them a lesson. Then he realized that, although the five would be no match for him in a fight, the flame would probably not survive the scuffle. He would then have to travel all the way back to Jerusalem and the mocking of his fellow knights or return to Florence without the treasure be had vowed to bring. He sheathed his sword and walked into their midst. “Take from me what you must,” he said to them, “but do not disturb the candle.”

Amazed and amused, they stripped him of all he possessed.   They took his money, his armor, and his fine horse.  True to the agreement, they left the flame and the extra tapers alone.  As they were about to ride off, the leader of the band took pity on him and gave him an old robe and an equally worn-out horse. Stripped of all outward vanity, he traveled on.  For months, he kept the flame alive in snow and rain and wind.

Raniero finally arrived in Italy.  One day he rode through lonely roads up among the mountains.  A woman came running after him and begged him to give her a light from his candle. “The fire in my hut is out.  My children are hungry.  Give me a light that I may heat my oven and bake bread for them!”

Raniero held back the candle at first.  He did not wish that anything should be lit by the flame except candles for the church.

Then the woman said to him, “Pilgrim, give me a light, for the life of my children is the flame which I am in duty bound to keep burning”

With this he could not argue. He allowed her to use the flame.

Several hours later, he rode into a town.  Just by accident, someone there extinguished the candle.

Raniero felt the pangs of failure. What could he do?
Then he remembered the woman who had borrowed the light.  Her fire was the same fire he had brought from Jerusalem! He ran back to her door. Yes, her fire was still burning. His quest was not lost. For the first time, genuine gratitude entered his heart. Because he had given the flame away, he had saved it!

The journey had many other trials and lessons. By the time he reached the countryside around Florence, he didn’t care anymore about knighthood or glory.  All he cared about was completing his mission, to bring the living flame to the cathedral. 

As he entered the city, a crowd began to form around him.  With his humble robe, patient expression, and slow horse, nobody recognized Raniero.  They made fun of him, calling him “Pazzo, Pazzo,” which means “madman.”  They called out “Put out his light!  Put out his light!”  People climbed over each other to reach for the candle.  Raniero held the candle up high.  A woman leaned from a balcony and snatched the candle from him.  Brokenhearted, Raniero fell to the street unconscious.  The crowd moved on.

When Raniero opened his eyes, he saw his wife Francesca standing over him.  She of all the people had recognized him.  “Here is your candle.  I snatched it from you, as I saw how anxious you were to keep it burning.  I knew of no other way to help you.”  Once again love saved the flame. 

Together they took the candle to the church.  When the service was over, a priest recounted Raniero’s journey.  Some people did not believe Raniero capable of such a gentle task.  What proof was there of his story?  His old enemies did not want to let him light the candles on the altar, they were so sure he was lying.  The congregation argued.

Just when Raniero thought that his whole journey was for nothing, a bird flew into the church, picked up the flame, and lit the candles on the altar.  All the people in the church, both Raniero’s friends and his enemies, abandoned their doubts.

Raniero’s story became a legend in Florence.  The people there called him Pazzo degli Ranieri.  It is said that there was a custom in Florence to celebrate Easter Eve by letting an artificial bird fly with fire through the church. 

I don’t know if the story happened exactly that way.  What I believe is true is that the gentleness and love of humanity that Raniero learned in the story were the lasting virtues that helped people in Florence to live in happiness.

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