February 24, 1998

Votive Motive

I am lighting candles again and I am surprised. Candle lighting periods appear in my life at infrequent intervals and always out of nowhere. This time it was probably the flu. Shall I blame it on the flu or shall I thank the flu?

Candles were important in my Roman Catholic youth. As an altar boy I would light the two candles on the altar for a regular mass and all six for a high mass. Funerals and weddings would often include a high mass so they would receive the full treatment too. But all of these were just plain white candles. The real action was in the back of the church.

When I was young, all Catholic churches had votive candles. Tiers of red glass containers held candles stationed in front of a statue of a favorite saint. A candle was lit, a prayer of intercession recited and a price paid. Most of the time the donation was monetary. A dime was the going rate.

I am not sure how much time a dime bought you. You did not get the whole candle and my guess is that you probably got to the end of the day. My hope is that the candles were not left burning over night, but they might have. After all, you are talking about linkage to the real higher ups here, so perhaps the feeling was that calamity would not be a threat.

The custom of votive candles waned in the churches, most likely hastened by insurance companies, but it did not die out completely. You can light a candle at the mall. Yes, I said the mall - at the North Shore Mall in Peabody, Massachusetts. For more than thirty years, a Carmelite chapel has been a part of the mall. It is now located in the basement and most mall worshipers do not know that it exists. But the faithful know. And the lovers of votive candles know.

The chapel at the mall has several arrangements of candles to choose from, all honoring different saints. Time has brought a few changes to the custom. Red glass has been replaced by red plastic. And it is no longer a real flame. An electric imitation of a flame suffices. And inflation has arrived in this sector too. It costs a dollar to push the button to light the candle. But there is a bargain on the other side of the chapel. For a smaller light, a quarter can be inserted for a coin activated flame. I love that one. The merger of the commercial and the sacred is complete.

When I was living in Arizona, I was a frequent visitor to the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona. The chapel, a cruciform of stunningly simple design perched on the red rocks, has many visitors from all over the world. It contains racks of the old red glass votive candles, but with no saints hovering nearby. A beatific head of Jesus Christ is gently lit above the altar, but most of the rest of the chapel is bare. As I sit there, and as I think about it now, the sounds, the aromas and the feelings of my youth flood back.

I held a faith in the sacred, a faith that was somehow lost along the way. Back then the faith was tied to a set of complex beliefs about what was sacred and as those beliefs untied, my faith also unraveled.

As my definition of what is sacred has changed, and my faith has returned. My faith is much different now and cornering my idea of faith is difficult, but the sacred takes me to the place of faith. And the sacred is all of the everyday and ordinary things, people and events of life.

Daily life itself is the sacred and my small votive candle reminds me. It sits on my desk as I read or write. It sometimes moves around the room with me. It reminds me of where I have been, where I am going and, most of all, where I am now. And it reminds me that I am not alone.

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