One of the most beautiful signs of the power of prayer is the lighting of devotional (votive) candles, and I’m grateful when churches provide safe means in elegant, prayer-conducive surroundings, for Christians to engage in this practice. (The Sacred Heart Shrine in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin, Times Square, is one of my favorite places to pray and light a candle; the “Replica” Lourdes’ Grotto here at Notre Dame is another.) Long after vocal or mental prayer is said, the candle continues burning, its wax consumed in a figure reminiscent of the Paschal Candle, our “honey-sweet offering of fire and wax, a sacrifice of praise from the hands of [God's] ministers, the labor of [his] servants, the bees….” The votum of the intention is signified by the candle, before God and other people, for so long as the candle burns.

But is this sign weakened or destroyed when the candle is virtual? I was saddened to discover that another Manhattan gem, the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, has replaced real votive candles with electric ones. I know of many churches that have done this, largely for safety concerns (with which I am not unsympathetic).

When the candle is electric, no wax is consumed — just a few watts; there’s light, but little heat. No messy candle cups to dispose or clean, no soot to darken ceilings, no risk of any sort, whatsoever. . . all with the press of a button or the flick of a switch. Timers can be set for anywhere from fifteen minutes to seven-days, and then the light goes out, right on the pre-determined dot. Sure, the bulb needs to be replaced every so often, but with LED technology coming to the fore, even such regular maintenance will be less-and-less necessary. The candle isn’t really yours to offer, like a votive; it’s an appliance to be shared. Perhaps there’s some environmental merit in that. . . .

Surely, in all of this, it’s the thought that counts — right?

This musing was provoked by an ad that appeared in my Facebook feed this evening:

The URL to which this ad was linked has been removed in order to protect the well-intentioned.

The URL to which this ad was linked has been removed in order to protect the well-intentioned.

No need to go to church, no need to make a donation (or buy a candle from a kiosk or the rectory): just sit back and click your mouse on the candle of your choice to light it. A lambent flame will offer before God and his people your prayer and petition, byte by byte, on some server.

. . . lambent flames. . . byte by byte. . .

. . . lambent flames. . . byte by byte. . .

If such as this really moves people to prayer, then fine. If it moves people to prayer for others — if, perhaps, after “lighting” your “candle” you pause to commend to God the intentions behind the other thousand-some digi-wax candles “burning” alongside your own — then even better. I want to be clear: honest prayer to God almighty is always “right, a good and joyful thing.” It’s the practice involved in this case, or rather the lack of practice, that has me raising an eyebrow. Can it really be that, with the same maneuver that I use to feed (and, I’m ashamed to admit, taunt) Fr. Z’s digital hamster, I (or anyone else) can effect the same sign-value as going to church, making a donation, setting fire to splint and then to wick and wax? If, in fact, “it’s the thought that counts,” then perhaps so.

. . . bite by bite. . . byte by byte. . .

. . . bite by bite. . . byte by byte. . .

We call votive candles and other such aids to devotion sacramentals — outward signs that signify an inward grace; close kin to the dominical and ecclesial sacraments in their operation, but lacking in the universal import and salvific force of their official, liturgical cousins. Sacramentality of any sort presupposes engagement with the world — with the real and not just virtual world. Not just light, then, but fire; not just a bulb (or bytes), but wick and wax. Not just prayer, not just intention, but materiality and embodiment and mess and risk.

And community — mustn’t forget community. To stand in a church alone; to offer a silent prayer, is still to be in community — even when one doesn’t hear the echoes of others’ prayers, alone and together, uttered down the ages in the temple of God and the house of the saints. Locus iste a Deo factus est, inaestimabile sacramentum; irreprehensibilis est. By God was this place made, an inestimable sacrament; beyond reproach.

Community can be virtual, of course — that’s sort of the point with a blog such as this — but prayer isn’t. Behind all that clicking (whether of switches or mouses computer) is very real prayer indeed; and, as I said above, that’s a good thing. But I think it’s the case that more than just the thought counts when we move to incorporate signs and symbols in our prayer. Virtual sacraments are an impossibility: I can’t hear a confession over the phone, even if I can examine my conscience with it. I can’t fulfill my obligation to participate in the Eucharist by watching a liturgy on television. Sacramentals can’t be virtual either — apart from a papal blessing transmitted by radio or television (which, by extension, would seem to include “over the internet”). Sacraments and sacramentals demand far more of us — indeed, they demand all of us: that robust, full-bodied engagement that moves us beyond the self and into relationship with one another.

Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned. I’ve been called a neo-Luddite before. After all, I did all the html coding (including the links, photo cropping and captioning) for this post the old-fashioned way, without using the one-click menu that the webhost provides for me.
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Oh, by the way: the Bruckner Locus Iste, above (which always reminds me of Ecce Homo Qui Est Faba, Howard Goodall’s theme song to the BritCom Mr. Bean), isn’t really my style. This setting by the British boychoir Libera comes slightly closer to the mark for me. (And you’ve gotta love their robes, modeled on the Cistercian choir cuculla.)