Candle in the Window


When people have spiritual needs, how do they know you’re available?

In Russia during the early nineteenth century, those wishing to receive callers set lighted candles in a window on the street, and any acquaintances seeing the signal knew they would be welcome to stop in. A couple bored at home would send out a servant to see if there were any tapers in neighboring windows. Thus, those craving fellowship and conversation were brought together by this simple signal,

I find this custom charming. Today television, telephones, and automobiles have made us self-sufficient but have also isolated us and helped to eliminate the informal visit. Yet I know that I need fellowship, love, and understanding or I will feel lonely, alienated, and frustrated. We are all hungry for deep relationships, and few of us has had too many of them.

I feel that we can put a lighted candle in the window of our inner lives as a signal that we are available for communion—not just conversation. Likewise, it is possible to be sensitive enough to observe a light in another’s window, even when it is flickering only faintly. I call such accessibility and sensitivity “spiritual availability.”

How does it function in the gospel? Let’s look at its opposite. The spiritually unavailable person is encumbered with himself—with advancing his career or pursuing his interests. His preoccupation with his own affairs renders him unavailable to others. He judges others only by the way they fit into his preconceived desires and plans. He sees life as a limited bank account which must be maintained judiciously if it is to last as long as needed. Since he has, he thinks, only a limited amount of emotional, spiritual, and physical capital, he must calculate how it is to be spent. To squander love, to sacrifice, is an unwise policy which may lead to bankruptcy. The unavailable man hoards life.

On the other hand, the available person is not encumbered with his own possessions or self-image. He has the capacity to listen to others and respond to their appeals, even though such responses are a conquest which he makes again and again over his own selfishness, laziness, materialism, or other factors which urge self-sufficient isolation. There’s a certain prodigality and abandon about the way the available man gives of himself. He is not irresponsible, but confident that spiritual energy is inexhaustible. It is inevitably the person with strong faith who is most available. Availability and faith go hand in hand.

The Savior is the finest example of spiritual availability. His availability is abundantly revealed in accounts of his ministrations to the physically, emotionally, and spiritually afflicted. We know from the instance of the woman with the chronic issue of blood that these ministrations cost him spiritual energy, for he remarked, “I perceive that virtue is gone out of me” (Luke 8:46); nevertheless, his total concern was always for others rather than for himself. He willingly associated with outcasts from Jewish society and people such as Nicodemus, the Canaanite mother, the centurion; and children willingly sought him out. The invitation to “come unto me” radiated from the Savior, causing fishermen to drop their nets and follow him, and multitudes to cluster about him without regard for food or comfort.

The sharp contrast between availability and unavailability is revealed metaphorically by two New Testament basins. One is the basin put before Pilate when he washed his hands, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it” (Matt. 27:24). Rome required her governors to keep the tribute flowing and to maintain order. To appease the Jewish priests, Pilate found it easier to let them have their way. Thus, encumbered by self-interest, he was unavailable to act with justice and compassion.

The other basin is the one Christ used when he rose from the Last Supper and washed his disciples’ feet (see John 13:4–5). What a remarkable example of availability! The very act of laying aside his garments before he began symbolically reinforced the impression of humble openness. Imagine the impact of this event upon the disciples, who clearly understood that it was a model for them—an example of unsolicited self-sacrifice.

The ancient disciples took up that example, and we see Peter healing the beggar at the temple gate. So have the disciples of our age, and we see our General Authorities changing lives significantly through a brief interview. They have a special kind of availability. Much can be accomplished in a short time when the level of communication is deep enough to bring spirit in contact with spirit. These leaders have devoted their lives to God’s work, striving constantly to free themselves from worldly interests so they can concentrate on ultimate concerns. And because of their faith and experience, they have no fear of expending too much of their spiritual resources; they are convinced of an infinite reserve. Such qualities are tapers in the windows of their souls, inviting profoundest communion.

There has never been a time when spiritual availability was more important. All about us are forces of depersonalization and estrangement. Our Church’s emphasis on the family is an inspired response to this condition. Family home evenings, for example, are intended to foster the dignity of the individual and promote rich and edifying interpersonal relationships. Neal A. Maxwell remarks in “… A More Excellent Way” that “in our kind of society, compartmentalization is increasing; there is greater anxiety and insecurity and a greater sense of alienation. To withdraw into our private sanctuaries not only deprives others of our love, our talents, and our service, but it also deprives us of chances to serve, to love, and to be loved” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1967, p. 89). Successful family home evenings develop availability, and once established in the home, this quality is carried over into the community.

Our society is mobile; employment and schooling cause many families to move frequently. Many wards in the Church have a thirty percent turnover in membership each year; in university communities it is often much higher. This means that a neighbor or home teacher or visiting teacher who waits too long to break the ice with a new family may find the family gone before a meaningful relationship has been established, and thus an opportunity for service—for the gospel to really work—has been lost.

How can we light that candle in our own window or perceive the signal light in another’s? How does one pick up Christ’s basin of self-effacing love and service?

The first requisite of availability is that it can be genuine; any insincerity is eventually communicated by a silent language. The spirit often speaks and hears more than words. Brigham Young did not need the benefit of modern psychology in order to understand this principle. He once remarked: “Is it not also your experience that, when you meet persons in the streets, in your houses, in your offices, or in your workshops, more or less of an influence attends them which conveys more than words can? … This knowledge is obtained through that invisible influence which attends intelligent beings, and betrays the atmosphere in which they delight to live.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1954, p. 34.)

I once knew a man who had learned the principle of asking others questions about topics which most interested them. This, of course, is a primary skill in the art of conversation. He would ask me just the right questions; but as I warmed towards him and the subject, I would gradually realize that he was not really listening. He did not really care. Of course I felt betrayed, and determined to be more cautious next time about unlocking my real thoughts to him.

The first challenge of cultivating availability, then, is learning to be truly interested in other people. Genuine interest alone will go a long way toward eliminating fear or embarrassment or dislike—feelings that obstruct deep relationships. Also, sincere interest in others enlarges ourselves. G. K. Chesterton calls attention to “how much larger your life would be if your self could become smaller in it; if you could really look at other men with common curiosity and pleasure. … You would begin to be interested in them. … You would break out of this tiny and tawdry theatre in which your own little plot is always being played, and you would find yourself under a freer sky, in a street full of splendid strangers.” (Orthodoxy, New York: Image Books, 1959, pp. 20–21.)

When we really care about others and wish to make ourselves accessible to them, the next step is to find an appropriate way. Sometimes words are perfectly adequate. An offer of help or an invitation to share a confidence, spoken in the spirit of love and sincerity, will often break down barriers. But verbal expressions of availability are easily spoken and therefore frequently abused. Too often they are merely a convention, unsupported by true intent and commitment. People learn to discount them accordingly. Thus, they are not always the best tapers for your window.

Sometimes it takes an overt action or gesture. An unsolicted act of kindness or a thoughtful gesture can have an enormous impact on the quality of our relationship with another person. They often provide that necessary signal which makes all the difference. The Sunday School teacher who makes a personal visit during the week to the girl whose attendance is slipping; the Primary teacher who writes a complimentary letter to the boy who has delivered a successful talk; the home teacher who shows up unexpectedly in his work clothes when there is a job to be done; the father who hugs his son for no particular reason; the neighbor who, unrequested, weeds your garden while you are on vacation; the bishop who visits a couple at the first signs of discord while they are still mustering the courage to ask for an appointment—all these are acts which can open the channels of communication.

Man was created to experience joy and satisfaction in his association with others. The gospel plan has always depended upon fellowship and a sense of community in the profoundest sense of these terms. Probably the greatest satisfaction in church service derives from those poignant, unforgettable moments when soul meets soul in spiritual communion. Those moments, though regrettably too rare for many of us, make the effort and disappointments worth it. As we make ourselves more spiritually available—set a candle in our windows—we increase the likelihood and joy of such communion.

[photos] Photography by Marilyn L. Erd

Stephen L. Tanner, professor of English at Brigham Young University, is a Sunday School teacher in his Orem, Utah, ward.