We can live without it, but just barely. In our high-tech culture, we easily lose daily awareness of it: the furnace goes off and on in the basement without our thinking about it. But just wait for the power to go out. It burns at the border between nature and culture, a force we harnessed before the dawn of history–except for the many times when it gets the better of us.

Light. Simple lamps are essential elements of Hindu devotion. Tiny unglazed clay bowls, or mere leaves curled around a daub of clarified butter and floated out onto the surface of the Ganges at dusk. Votive candles are the visible tokens of prayer in Christian churches; the kindling of a new flame and the announcement of the Light of Christ begins the Great Vigil of Easter. The Sabbath begins with the lighting of candles, and part of the commandment is to take pleasure in the beauty of the light.

Purification. Devotees in Hindu temples pass their hands over the cool flames of the arati--a tray of burning camphor. Central to the Hindu wedding ceremony is a sevenfold circuit around a sacred fire. To prove her loyalty to Rama, Sita passes through flame. Handel sets to music the words of the prophet Malachi: “For He is like a refiner’s fire.

Destruction. Discarded objects are burned, but so are honored objects (Bibles, flags, vestments) when they’ve reached the end of their useful life. The dead are cremated, and to scatter their ashes is to accept beyond contradiction that they’re gone. The flame we kindle (even the cute little tea light on the dining room table) always holds the possibility of burning out of control.