Catalysts

Vincent ChangApril 10, 2024Crisis & ChangeAwesome Moments

Artwork by Arturo De Arrascaeta Penayo, age 13

My school decided to organize a vigil during one Friday night in October.

To gather and pray for peace around the world, said the email invitation, and to collect donations for those affected by the recent conflicts.

I clambered into an aisle seat at the very end of the nave and took a moment to observe in detail what kind of event I had sacrificed my sleep for. First came the overwhelming darkness. There was no electric light at all, save for a large candelabrum at the organist's station and the innumerable little glimmers high up in the vault of the building. Candles were lined up against every window or pillar that could support them, flickering and dim. The organ was a soft murmur, and intermingled between notes were whispers in the aisles, barely audible. Most of my light-headed thoughts vanished entirely. We were gathered here to hold a vigil for those who died in war, and for peace.

As much as I found these rituals enriching, I was never able to completely ignore their dramatic element. And with performance there comes skepticism and a sense of irony. I wondered if there was, really, anything we could truly do. Here we were, gathered in the dark of night, praying under candlelight, while under the same darkness, in a world almost unimaginable, there were so many people fighting so that they might see the day again. And if the crisis is something as large as an international war, how can we even fathom the beginnings of peace, much less our own contributions to it? I felt a tap on my shoulder and something cold and heavy was placed into my hand. I then found myself leading the lighting ceremony.

The little ball of candlelight was dazzling. My eyes were teary from the overwhelming flush of warmth. Now there was only one thought in my mind — to carry this candle safely to the altar some 30 steps away. I heard the shuffle of footsteps behind me and felt the warmth of another light on my back. This was a blazing train of solidarity — a kind which I didn't think I would believe in. I passed the candelabrum at the organ, mounted the steps, and slotted the candle into place. Then I turned to resume my seat.

In that moment, facing the rows and rows of people that stretched into the dark, the sheer immensity of the flickering lights struck right into the depths of my mind. Little flames everywhere, beaming all at once, reflecting off innumerable eyes and panes of stained glass to form a fractal radiance. The Reverend's voice rumbled as he asked the congregation to imagine every little speck as a soul that was claimed by violent struggle. Only then could I glimpse one half of the answer to my doubts. Lives are not statistics. Every digit on the death toll represents an individual in their entirety. The brightness of these flames revealed human loss at a scale rarely envisioned, and in images like this, we can find the drive toward peacemaking.

I then remembered one of the first lessons in practical science my uncle ever taught me: to start a fire, you need a catalyst. What, or who, was the catalyst here? Was it the solemn and shadowed face of the Reverend, as we held the minute of silence? Was it the collection of candles, each speck of light a brightly burning soul? Or did I carry inside me a catalyst all along?

For me, it was such a small transformation. In that dark, I realized that we were no longer strangers, but a community that was connected by responsibility and compassion toward our fellow species. And the call for peace begins with a single spark; if it contains enough energy, it will break through the activation energy that resists the flame. It will melt down the bondage of stigmas, and it will cascade into an irreversible reaction that emits blinding light.

The rest of the vigil passed without commotion. Twelve knells before midnight, the service concluded with as little noise as it began. I slipped a few gold coins from my pocket and heard the clink of metal against the donation bowl. All donations went toward supporting those affected. Had I been more skeptical, I would have doubted the significance of a single congregation. But taking a glance back at the pitifully empty donation bowl, I needed to believe in the potential of every single coin. Was I too idealistic? A torrential rain rattled the branches and drowned out most of our footsteps. And more than ever I felt the precarious weakness of a single person, an unaffected individual no less. I was weary.

But there was another sound that cut through the storm. Ringing. Metallic. Coins clinking against coins. Persistent. Sharp. Undeniable. It rang in my ears as I made my way to the tram stop. It was peculiar and unforgettable — as if it were speaking to me; asking me to reflect upon this service, and marvel at how small, individual actions can cascade into a blaze.