My husband and I recently watched the mini-series Broken on the streaming service BritBox. The show stars Sean Bean, an incredible actor you may recognize from his more popular titles like Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Frankenstein Chronicles, or Snowpiercer. Even if you only remember Sean Bean as the actor who dies really well on screen—you’re gonna want to figure out how to watch it. He doesn’t die, but it’s easily one of his most powerful roles.
In this series, Sean Bean portrays a Catholic priest, Father Michael Kerrigan. He is charged with helping members of his community work out their faith in remarkably familiar real-life scenarios. There are gut-wrenching scenes, yet nothing seems out of place in our current reality. The show captures the lived experience of Christians in the twenty-first century with the pinpoint accuracy of a NASA shuttle launch team. It’s messy—but it’s real.
In every episode, Father Michael Kerrigan lights a candle to remind himself and those with him of the presence of Christ in their midst. I always loved those scenes—a sacred moment emerging out of the fog and ambiguity of an ordinary, and sometimes tragic, circumstance, conversation, confession, or mediation. Seeing the flickering flame instantaneously diffused the pain and tension in a room as if by magic. Spoiler alert—it’s not magic.
One of the more intriguing effects of lighting the candle is the unspoken invitation to be completely transparent. Though regularly haunted by his past, Father Michael Kerrigan demonstrates a deep sense of empathy toward those who come to him for guidance. He understands how they feel. He spent decades approaching God with similar feelings and finds himself effectively guiding others toward God with all of their doubts, fears, insecurities, and emotional baggage.
Their transparency is not too much for God, but it is frequently more than Father Michael Kerrigan can handle alone. He often seeks counsel from a fellow priest yet usually finds himself confused about how to proceed. In those moments, he looks to the Holy Spirit for guidance. More than once, we witness the power of the Holy Spirit at work in Father Michael Kerrigan’s personal and professional decisions.
Even still, things don’t often go how we hope as we watch from the other side of the pixelated screen. People make terrible decisions and are frequently unable to trust that God loves them despite their current circumstances. We see the actions of desperate people and the consequences that devastate those around them. We want every episode to end looking like a Christmas gift for a loved one: beautiful paper, crisp edges, and a velvet bow. They don’t. That’s not how life is. It’s messy—but it’s real.
I didn’t set out to write a review on Broken. I intended to write about what I do when I don’t know what to do. I wanted to write about how I invite the Holy Spirit to guide and grow me through challenging moments. As I started tapping the keys on my laptop, I couldn’t get the image of Father Michael Kerrigan lighting a candle out of my mind. So, instead of forcing it, I invited the Holy Spirit to guide me. Go figure, right?
I set out to do something specific, but then I was interrupted by something out of my control. I sat down to write one thing, but I couldn’t stop thinking about something else entirely. This isn’t the first time something like that has happened. There have been innumerable moments when I have found myself at a crossroads in need of guidance, wisdom, encouragement, support, or a swift kick in the ass. That’s when I meander over to visit with my own Father Michael Kerrigan (aka my friend, my pastor, or my mom).
We don’t meet in a confessional booth, although that would be something. We talk on the phone, converse while collecting endorphins along the American River, or chat while pounding the pavement of our local suburbia—iced Thai tea in hand. They’re empathetic, encouraging, and sometimes they gently kick my ass. They also remind me that when I feel confused, conflicted, or challenged, I have the Holy Spirit with me—I’m not alone. Neither are you.
Their words have the same effect as Father Michael Kerrigan lighting a candle. They remind me of the presence of God through the Holy Spirit. In John 14:25-26, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” When I feel lost, disconnected, confused, or find myself at a crossroads, the Holy Spirit reminds me of what Jesus has already told me: I am with you.
It’s interesting to recall that when the Holy Spirit originally came upon the people of God, “And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit…”(Acts 2:3-4a). Perhaps that’s why for centuries, candles have been used as a symbol or reminder of the presence of God. I have certainly incorporated candles as part of my spiritual practice, but I don’t often carry a candle with me. Do you? Please say no so we can relate.
Candles are not magic portals through which God comes and goes. God’s presence is constant. Candles are simply sticks of wax with a wick intended to sustain a small flame. The flame produces light. A candle can be extinguished or burn out. They’re symbolic. We don’t need a candle to find light—it exists in nature in abundance.
Every day the sun rises—its light dances across the uneven surface of the water, its beams shine through budding tree branches, and its rays warm the skin on our uniquely shaped bodies. God intended for light to do those things. The apostle John reminds us, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all,” (1 John 1:5). God also intended for the light to remind us of his presence among us. You don’t need a candle—you need light. See? No need to carry candles in your pockets.
There’s a specific spot on my church campus where the light hits one of the dogwood trees perfectly. It is almost as though someone swiped left and added an Instagram filter to that part of the campus. It’s truly stunning—my picture doesn’t do it justice at all. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of the presence of the Holy Spirit in that place, but also in me. When I don’t or can’t go outside, I light a candle as a way to intentionally focus on the Holy Spirit with me. It doesn’t have to be either-or. It can be both-and.
When I find myself at a crossroads—when my intentions are thwarted by external or even internal forces, I look for the light, which reminds me that the Holy Spirit is with me. Sometimes, I light a candle. Other times, I go outside. When I remember the Holy Spirit with me, I remember that I always have access to the one who guides, provides wisdom, encourages, and occasionally offers me a swift kick in the ass. When you find yourself at a crossroads, what or who do you look to?