A Lamp In Every Corner
A story from A Lamp in Every Corner: Our Unitarian Universalist Storybook (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 2004).
Read or tell the story.
Many years ago in the land of Transylvania, in a mountain valley watered by quick rushing streams and shadowed by great forests of beech trees, there was a village of small wooden houses with dark-shingled roofs. The people in the village were of the Unitarian religion, and they wanted a church of their own. A church set on the hillside, they decided, looking down upon the village as a mother looks down upon her sleeping child.
So all the people of the village labored long and hard to build themselves a church. The stonemasons hammered sharp chisels to cut great blocks of gray stone, then set the stones into stout and sturdy walls. The glaziers made tiny glass panes and fitted them neatly into the windows with leaded lines. The foresters sawed tall beech trees into enormous beams and laid the trusses for the ceiling, then covered the roof with close-fitting wooden shingles that wouldn't leak a drop of rain. The carpenters carved wood for the pair of wide-opening doors, setting them on strong pegs so that the doors hung straight and square. A bell was brought from a faraway city, then hoisted by ropes with a heave and a ho to the top of the tower. The weavers wove fine cloths for the altar table, cloths embroidered with flowers and edged with lace. The smiths hammered black iron into tall lamp stands and hammered thin bronze into shining oil lamps.
Finally, when the building of the church was done, the painting of the church could begin. The painters mixed bright colors: royal red and shimmering gold and brilliant blue, and everyone in the village — old and young, women and men, boys and girls — came to decorate their church. They painted flowers. They painted trees. They painted designs around the windows and different designs around the doors.
And at the end of the day, when it was finished — when their church was finally done — all the people of the village stood back to admire it... and then to sing, a song of happiness and praise. Their village had a church now, a church set on the hillside, looking down upon the village as a mother looks down upon her sleeping child.
"We will eat now!" announced an elder of the village, because everyone was hungry after their long day's work. "And later tonight, we will come back to pray."
So the people of the village went down the hillside to their homes and their suppers, all except one little girl named Zora and her father, who stayed behind. They had brought their own bread and cheese. They ate their food slowly, sitting on the grass on the hillside and admiring their new church with its strong stone walls, its tall tower, and its magnificent bell.
After they had eaten, they went back inside, opening those carved wooden doors to go into the gloriously painted sanctuary inside. "Oh, look, Father!" Zora cried, running from picture to picture, with her footsteps echoing off the stone walls. "See how grand!"
"Yes, it is," said her father, looking around and nodding with pride. "Yes, it is."
"But Father," she said suddenly, "we have not finished!"
"What do you mean?"
"There are tall iron lamp stands all along the walls, but there are no lamps! The church will be dark when the people come back."
"Ah no, little one," said her father. 'The light of the church comes from its people. You shall see!" He rang the bell to call the people to worship, then took his daughter by the hand and led her back outside. They waited on the grassy hillside, next to their beautiful church of strong gray stone.
The sun had set behind the mountains, and night was coming soon. Yet in the growing darkness, tiny points of light came from many directions and moved steadily up the hill.
"Each family is entrusted with a lamp, little one," her father explained. "Each family lights its own way here."
"Where is our family's lamp?"
"Your mother is carrying it. She will be here soon."
The many lights moved closer together, gathering into one moving stream, all headed the same way, growing larger and brighter all the time. Zora's mother arrived, bearing a burning oil lamp in her hands. The father lifted Zora so she could set their family's lamp high in its tall iron stand. All around the church, other families were doing the same. Soon the church was ablaze with light in every corner, for all the people of the village had gathered to pray and to sing.
All through the worship service, Zora watched the lights flicker and glow. She watched her family's lamp most of all. When the service was over, her father lifted her high. She took the shining bronze lamp from the lamp stand. Its curved sides were warm and smooth in her hands. Her mother carried the lamp home, with the flame lighting the way.
The lamp flame lit their house when they returned home. Zora washed her face and got ready for bed by the light of that flame. "Mother," Zora began, as she climbed into bed and lay down.
"Yes, little one?" her mother asked, tucking the red wool blanket around Zora's shoulders.
"Father said the light of the church comes from its people."
"But also, the people take their light from the church!" Over on the table by the fireplace, the shiny bronze lamp was still burning. "And we have that light every day."
"Yes, indeed," said her mother. "And even when we are not in church, even when the lamp is not lit, we carry the light of truth in our minds and the flame of love in our hearts to show us the right way to be. That light — the light from truth and love — will never go out."
"Never?" asked Zora.
"Never," said her mother. "And this bronze lamp will last for many, many years. When you are grown, we will give the bronze lamp to you, and when your children are grown, you will give the lamp to them, and all of you will carry it back and forth to church every time."
"But there is only one lamp," Zora said.
"So make another, and let the light grow. And someday, tell your children to make more lamps, too. And now goodnight," her mother said and kissed Zora once on this cheek and once on that cheek and once on the forehead. Zora closed her eyes and drifted into dreams, while her mother looked down upon her sleeping child.
The years passed; Zora grew. The bronze lamp came into her care. She kept it polished and clean, and when the bell rang out across the valley to call the people to worship, she carried the lamp back and forth to the church on the hillside, the flame always lighting her way. When the time came, she made more lamps and gave them to her children, who made more lamps and gave them to their children, and so it went, on through the years, even until today.
And always, the light of truth and the flame of love from that Unitarian church on the hillside continued to grow and show them —and us—the way.