Day Twenty-six – Oil Lamps


Tending the Flame of Anor

I’m pretty granola when it comes to certain things.  This is especially the case when it comes to church.  Being crunchy and being Orthodox go together like cream in coffee.  Because the Glory of God resonates throughout creation, objective science gives use plenty of reason to prefer the old ways; it isn’t just a matter of built-in conservatism.

Epidemiologist Esther Sternberg describes some of this science in her book; Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being (read or listen to the On Being interview with her on this here).  There is a reason why our anxiety decreases when we enter the nave of of a church or stand before the icons in our prayer corner.  Yes, the main reason for this is that we sense our connection with God more strongly in “thin places” like these; but what I have in mind here is the psychology of this experience.  The smell of aged wood, incense, olive oil, and beexwax candles… they are therapeutic.  I’ve played with and tested this some myself using my emWave Variable Heart Rate (VHR) monitor (VHR is a reliable indicator of stress/calm, so it can be used to measure the dependent variable).  

When I supplement my Orthodox meditation with incense and icons, it is easier for me to maintain calm and single-mindedness.  

The converse is also true.  Harsh smells and sights can cause us stress, making it harder to pray… harder to be human.  I don’t just prefer beeswax candles to synthetic petroleum-based candles because I like supporting St. Tikhon’s Monastery or because I’m a neo-luddite; I prefer them because they smell so good and produce less caustic smoke (good beeswax candles in still conditions produce no smoke).  

The same goes for using olive oil lamps vs. petroleum-based  ones (although both are preferable to electric lights!).  

To be honest, it’s not just about the smell – it’s also about the disciplines and economy involved.  Just as the economy that goes into producing beeswax candles is healthier than the one that produces petroleum candles, so to is the work involved in creating and maintaining oil lamps  healthier than the one that uses petroleum or electric lights.  The discipline of the oil lampada is so therapeutic and pedagogical that I give one to each of my subdeacons as gifts for their prayer corners.  From the cleaning of the wick (the crusty wick does not allow the oil of gladness to interact with the flame), to the management of its height (there is a synergy of wick, oil, and flame; too high and it burns more wick than oil; too low and it won’t sustain a strong enough flame), to maintaining the oil level at a proper level and the selection of the oil itself; it all reinforces the kind of care and attention that we should have for all the things we serve and use.  The reward of this diligence is instant and lasting and so deeply theological that it moves us to our core.  

Is there anything more symbolic of God than light?   And is there any greater reminder of our calling to tend and spread this light in the world than caring for the lampadas that hang or stand before icons of Christ and His Holy Ones?!


Here’s what you need to serve the Flame:

  • A Lampada set (this one includes a brass holder, the glass lampada, the wick holder, and some wick)

Or, to save some dough get them separately:

  • Here is a nice votive glass (I actually prefer this without the brass holder for home use)
  • Here’s my favorite wick holder (there is a special beauty in simplicity)
  • Here’s my favorite wick (it’s fiberglass; all you have to do is pull off the crud every couple days and spread/splay the top)

Now all you need is olive oil and a fire!