It’s the thought that counts — right?

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.


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.)


  1. I am all for tech, my research field would not exist but for the computer, and I love the ability to dig through libraries (virtually) that I could never travel to use. But I am with you. Real candles, please (or none at all). Candles are risky, unpredictable things, but then so is prayer.

  2. Yes, all good and all true, and yet …

    the figurative candle that burns in my figurative heart is the one that demands the most engagement from me.

    Hmmm. Could fingers plying keys can be as much a sacramental prayer as fingers plying beads?

  3. Doesn’t the liturgy demand authenticity?

    Plastic flowers,
    virtual candles,
    piped music,
    synthetic wood,
    false gold,
    artificial fire,
    hollow ritual,
    phoney English

    – however well-intended – all help belittle the simple profundity that should be our encounter with God in the liturgy,

    because the whisper behind them all is
    “this is not real”.

    1. Graham!

      Saint Jerome allegedly once said something about how in the early ages of the Church the priests were of gold and the chalices of wood, but that now the chalices were of gold and the priests of wood.

      Though I’m sure he wasn’t talking about any of the reverend clergy who post (even incessantly) on here!

      1. now the chalices were of gold and the priests of wood.

        I get Jerome’s point, but in another sense, priests — along with the rest of the faithful — have always been a species of wood. Isn’t that the point? It’s not for nothing that Joseph’s trade was that of carpenter.

  4. I think of the benefit I’ve received from places like the Irish Jesuits’ Sacred Space, the online Spiritual Exercises retreat I made at Crieghton University’s site, and yes, the virtual prayer candles I’ve lit at MadPriest’s blog 🙂

    Perhaps because I wasn’t raised a Catholic, I don’t completely understand the devotion to symbols – sometimes it seems Catholics worship the signs more than what the signs point to. Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that the real prayer takes place in your heart, not in the lighting of a wick in wax.

    1. “Maybe I’m wrong but it seems to me that the real prayer takes place in your heart, not in the lighting of a wick in
      Perhaps, but don’t forget,”let your light shine before men”.
      (Matthew 5)

  5. Fire transforms all things it touches into its own nature.
    The wood does not change the fire into itself; but the fire changes the wood into itself.
    In the same way, we are transformed into God,
    so that we may know Him as he is. (Eckhart)
    When the flame is virtual it does speak quite the same way of our sacrificing ourself to be transformed totally by God. I see virtual candles as simply a statement that I was here – a spiritual graffiti of the ego – rather than the symbol of our desire to be consumed by God and become prayer ourselves.
    The electronic medium is more suited to the mantra, which creates what it sounds. The well known Tibetan Om mane padme hum – is great on the prayer wheel of the hard drive, since the symbolic world behind it has endowed the mantra with its own power.
    Maybe perpetual rosaries or the sinner’s prayer would be more suited to the electronic medium. Sink away in the mantra rather then make a faux flame.

  6. Most artificial candles are simply tacky, but we could create ones that are not.

    Virtual participation may be quite another issue.

    At an Orthodox service, a priest said that some things which we now regard as miraculous, specifically the ability of saints to “see” at a far distance, were regarded by some of the Church fathers as recovery of our human nature before the fall. Sorry he did not quote anyone in particular and I might be remembering his general thought more than his specific terminology. Perhaps there are some patristic scholars out there who can be more precise.

    Anyway, I am not sure that participation in the Royal Wedding whether by pixels on screens and loud speakers around the Abbey or even across the oceans on TV screens and computers is not “real” participation. Perhaps it was “virtual” for those of us who set our recorders and “saw” it after we got up. But many people got up early in the morning or stayed up late at night on the West Coast to “see” and experience it in “real” time.

    Personally, a patristic-Teilhardian position that could interpret some aspects of modern technology as enabling us to experience some of our fallen human nature’s original glory is more attractive than the Luddite position as seeing modern technology as inferior.

    1. Which leads to the wonderful question: if one can “get” an apostolic blessing by watching the Pope impart it on TV (or listening on the radio) why can’t one go to confession and be absolved over the phone?

      1. Because it’s probably silly to permit the sacramental (the blessing) to be imparted remotely….

  7. There seems to be a dividing line involving the intention of the person carrying out the action which is more important than the physical nature of what happens.

    If, as Martin mentioned, the result is just a marker that the doers has been there, then the medium matters not.

    If the result is just a marker that the person has “done something” and “doing something” makes the person feel better, then it is a fairly insubstantial prayer, and the medium matters not.

    These leave a few questions unanswered.

    What is the original connection of the candle lighting and burning to the prayer of the person lighting the candle?

    I can see, but do not necessarily hold, a cynical notion that the candles are a remnant of idolatrous tendencies such as offering a pinch of incense to the emperor.

    I can see, but do not necessarily hold, that the candles are a meaningless and rather cynical fundraising ploy by the institutional church.

    Can someone propose a less cynical view of the role of the lighted candle in the prayer of the one who lights it?

    1. There seems to be a dividing line involving the intention of the person carrying out the action which is more important than the physical nature of what happens.

      One of my underlying premises in this post is that such is not, in fact, the case, that the action, the engagement with materiality, is as important as the intention — such being the logic of sacramentality.

    2. Materially is involved whether there is a wax candle, an electric candle, or pixels on the screen in front of me.

      First, the materially of the various configurations of atoms involved, although they may different among the three situations.

      Second, the materially of the activity of my nervous system that processes the information about the three situations.

      Now, if I imagine the lighting of a candle there is no longer the external materially, or sign that I am lighting a candle, although there would still be internal material changes in my nervous system which might be detected and displayed externally by a neurophysiologist with sufficient equipment.

      What I might have to do externally to create a sign might be very minimal as we find in death of St Macrina:

      “evening had come and a light was brought in. At once she opened the orb of her eyes and looked towards the light, clearly wanting to repeat the thanksgiving sung at the lighting of the lamps.”

      Macrina does a little more than just look at the light, but that I think that was sufficient.

      1. I saw a stand of electric candles in church once short circuit giving off an explosion of sparks. These electric candles were necessary because there was a city ordinance against leaving lit candles in a public building unattended.

        The children and the lady lighting their candles could have been electrocuted. I’m no Luddite ,but I’m not so sure a box of sand with tapers in it wouldn’t have been a whole lot safer.

  8. The parishioners pay for the buildings and their upkeep. Have any parishioners anywhere been asked to choose between real candles (fire risk and all) and fake candles, or is this something imposed from above?

  9. Robert B. Ramirez :
    now the chalices were of gold and the priests of wood.
    I get Jerome’s point, but in another sense, priests — along with the rest of the faithful — have always been a species of wood. Isn’t that the point? It’s not for nothing that Joseph’s trade was that of carpenter.


    1. Dómine sancte, Pater omnípotens,
      ætérne Deus: Qui salútem
      humáni géneris in ligno Crucis
      constituísti: ut, unde mors oriebátur,
      inde vita resúrgeret: et,
      qui in ligno vincébat, in ligno
      quoque vincerétur.

      The wood is important, Chris. It’s a sign.

      1. The Christian tradition, drawing upon biblical typology perceives a certain “woodiness” in man and woman. Humans are compared to various species of trees. Trees are anthropomorphized. Jesus, who is God-made-man, is quite literally conformed to the wood of the Cross. And Joseph (and therefore Someone Else, hint, hint) was a carpenter. What’s a carpenter do, Chris? C’mon, can’t you connect some of these dots?

  10. It is strange the persistance of candles — since the common use of electricity to to give light there is really no ‘need’ for candles for this purpose.
    They however are a ‘sign of presence’. Even the ‘sanctuary lamp’
    was done originally in monastic choirs, and ordinary churches, as
    the ‘source of light’ (a place of fire for lighting more candles to
    give light for the ceremonies). Now we have light switches, and
    sometimes batteries to produce the same effect. In fact
    modern liturgical celebration does not need candles for light,
    This is true even in Saint Peter’s at the Vatican. In the face
    of electric lights — candles do not hold up for providing
    any serious light. They do become ‘only symbolic’ — but of what?

    1. They do become ‘only symbolic’ — but of what?

      Well, the candle frequently contains beeswax. Plenty of symbolism there. On a deeper level, look closely at a candle’s flame. Look at the inside, close to the wick. You’re looking at the heart of the flame, yet there’s less light there. Orthodox iconography frequently depicts the Lord within a mandorla that’s brightest at the edges and darkest at its core. It’s not a bad way to represent the fathomless mystery of God. Electric filaments are unsubtle this way: they provide the light, but not the inner darkness.

  11. I understand that symbolism can be important. I recently read a novel about the gold Menorah taken to Rome after the sack of the Temple of Jerusalem – a lot of symbolism in the flames lighting the lamp. But it does seem like some imbue the symbol with the worth that should only belong to what it symbolizes.

    1. A true symbol, functioning liturgically, participates in the reality of what it symbolizes. It makes present what is otherwise absent.

      We live in the wake of a rationalism that talks about “just a symbol” and then opposes it to “reality.” That’s a post-enlightenment novely, and a fallacy. Symbols are synecdotic: the menorah is the temple.

      Current sacramental theology rebells against the “just a symbol” line of thought because recourse to the language of symbol gives us a way around philosophical categories that are difficult (some would say impossible) to teach and comprehend: substance and accident; matter and form. It becomes especially useful in eucharistic theology, when properly nuanced.

      1. I have read a little about Charles Sanders Peirce and semiotics but I didn’t understand it very well. When a person would rather adore a host than talk in prayer with Jesus, I wonder if they’re more comfortable with a manageable symbol of Jesus than with Jesus (though I know the wafer is in some sense Jesus). I guess I just don’t understand.

  12. Well there seems to be quite an industry providing American homes with candles and candleholders. So they are not obsolete.

    I have a collection of them in my house. Most of them are never burned. They are like vases. I also have a collection of them, too. Most of the time, they never have real or artificial flowers in them.

    Candles, candleholders and vases occupy various decorative niches around the house, including the furnished basement. Periodically they get moved around as seasons change, and I get some decorating ideas of how things would fit together. Some of my vases contain the palm branches I and my parents have collected over the years.

    So they are a way of being expressive. Usually lighting the candles or putting real flowers in the vases are not an important part of that expressiveness.

    However I do have a sixteen branch candelabra which is lighted on Candlemas and Pentecost.

  13. Over the past few decades, it seems to me that candles have become signs of time set aside from the daily world lit with electricity.

    When a person begins an event by lighting a candle, symbolizes moving into a different mental space, a space more personal and interior shared among the participants.

    This has overlapped in many ways with the decorative use of candles. When the decorative candles are lit, it indicates party or romantic time set aside from the more production oriented time of electric light only daily life.

    Candle lanterns seem to participate in this usage, but not oil lamps. Perhaps they are too similar to gas camping lamps or still associated with mining.

    I have seen individuals completely distract from the church service in progress in order to light the inadvertently cold candles. I do not understand why this seems so much more important than not interrupting.

    I think many persons involved consider candles something which just “belongs” at a church service, feeling the setting to be incomplete without them. Perhaps this comes from the legislation specifically requiring them at Mass. Of course, the GIRM does not explain why they are required, what they contribute. I think the required number of candles comes from a sumptuary-like law restricting the maximum number of candles.

    Personally, when candles are used, I think they have much potential which is unused, especially if fewer are used and moved along with the flow of the action from entrance to ambo to procession of gifts to altar to exit, without leaving other candles burning to no point. This sort of candle movement following the flow of the liturgy serves a function similar to a spot light on the action at hand.

  14. .” When a person would rather adore a host than talk in prayer with Jesus, ” Adoration is about more than talking with Jesus, usually centered on praising Him rather than asking Him for anything. It is about listening to Him. It is very intimate, very intense prayer or it can be. Adoration takes practice since we are so accustomed to “talking” to Jesus that we don’t listen. The Blessed Sacrement that we adore is not a symbol it is Jesus himself. If Jesus stood before you in the flesh, what would you do? God bless.

  15. Ann, do you mean to imply that you do not include adoration as a category of praying? Is not adoration one of the four basic ends of prayer?

    Or do you only think of prayer as petition?

    What about thanksgiving or repentance as categories of prayer?

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