Thursday, June 19, 2008

Imprudent Lights

[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times June 19, 2008]

I have called to you, Lord; hasten to help me!
Hear my voice when I cry to you.
Let my prayer arise before you like incense…[Ps. 141:1-2]

Lit by Santa Fe’s late afternoon sun, the cathedral facade shimmered in the heat like melted gold. Walking through the warm ochre stone arches and into the cool interior, I joined a stream of tourists, hoping perhaps to see what inspired Willa Cather’s fictional archbishop.

What I was looking for wasn’t listed on the brochure that the charming docent at the door offered. Instead, I followed a trickle of locals to a small chapel tucked away to the side of the main altar, in what remained of the original adobe church. Flickering in the dimness, a veritable constellation of candles surrounded a rococo altar in which was enshrined a four-century-old Madonna.

I lit a candle, setting it amidst its tiny companions: prayers of remembrance, hope, thanksgiving and mercy rising like incense to mingle with the steady light of Christ, present on the altar. I knelt, as I have so many times before, in churches as far distant as Rome and as close as my parents’ parish, and prayed for the repose of my husband’s soul.

It’s getting harder to find a church where I can light a candle for Tom. I understand why — it’s not prudent to leave matches and flames unattended in a church. Still, I miss these liminal prayer spaces, and find electric candles that light with the drop of a coin or the flip of a switch to be unsatisfying substitutes.

Candles are sacramentals, tangible signs of God’s care for us, pointing to a reality beyond the reach of our seemingly sophisticated world. While the electric versions reproduce the most fundamental feature of the real thing — they light up — my sense of a real candle’s sacramental nature encompasses far more than the light it produces.

Candles are not safe. Prayer is an immoderate exercise, too. As Annie Dillard points out in her essay “Polar Expeditions,” if we truly grasped how encounters with God in prayer could change us, it would be “madness to wear ladies’ straw hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

A burning candle is transformed from something thoroughly solid and bounded, into something ethereal and unseen. Our lives also should be oriented to what is unseen, to what is to come. When its time is up, the electric simulacrum goes out, unchanged by the experience.

Like our prayers, real candles require a bit of effort to start, and like God’s grace, even when you blow them out, a burning ember remains, ready to spring to life with the barest breath. God’s love is always present, burning beneath the surface even when we try to smother it. There is no off switch.

Real flames flicker unpredictably, a potent reminder that God’s response to our prayers may be beyond our capacity to imagine or anticipate. In their capricious light, we can see only dimly, as in St. Paul’s mirror.

We don’t pray alone, the Church prays with us and for us, and unceasingly. The multitude of candles that burn on even as I turn to leave, reassures that my prayers will not be forgotten.

Candles are risky, unpredictable things, but then so is prayer. We never know what God’s grace might make of us if we were only willing to cast prudence aside, light a candle and say a prayer.

may the helper, the Spirit who comes from You,
fill our hearts with light
and lead us to all truth,
as Your Son promised,
for He lives and reigns with You and
the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


  1. Anonymous9:58 PM

    We do have a few candles on the altar at our church--you're welcome to visit anytime :)

  2. That would be a delight!

  3. (Hi! I followed a link and found myself here!)

    I like the way you weave together the spiritual and the scientific. I find candles calm me down, help me to collect my thoughts, and allow me to transport myself to a more peaceful place of prayer.

  4. I agree completely - I was very sad to see the candles go at my parish, and very few that I visit now have them. I assume it's an insurance thing, but very sad.

  5. One of my earliest connections--the flickering of candles (and the accompanying aroma) at the back of the church and the peace that came with the Mass.

  6. Michelle - this is beautiful writing about something very special...And we too have candles at Church in the Valley. I hope you'll visit one day...

  7. We have the little votive candles too. I'm always wondering how our insurance carrier allows that...! beautiful writing.

    come see me when you are in the Dallas area...

  8. "Candles are not safe. Prayer is an immoderate exercise, too."

    Hmmmm. Yes, it's true.

    But wonderful, nonetheless...