Sometimes questions of faith arise from simply walking into a church. A listener named Laura asks, “I’d like to learn about those candles that people light. Why do we have those little areas with racks of candles?” She continues that she knows they are for prayer intentions, but would like more information.
“Light is such an important metaphor throughout the Scriptures and in Christian tradition,” Father Dave explains. He gives an example of the candle given to godparents at a baptism, that we are to “keep this light burning brightly for the rest of this child’s life.”
He describes how light is a sacramental in the Catholic tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sacramentals as, “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy” (no. 1667).
Father Dave simplifies this, saying how sacramentals are “ways that through our senses we can perceive or express somewhat intangible things.” He uses an example of incense in Mass, and how it can physically represent our prayers rising to the Lord.
He also applies this to candles and why we would have rows of votives in a church. “It is the light of God that has been planted in us, but it also signifies that our prayer is being offered in faith.” It also can tangibly express the duration of that prayer.
There are often different sizes of candles available in a church, and they are classified by how long they will burn. “The idea is, that candle continues to burn, and it’s almost as if that prayer is continuously being offered up to God for the duration that candle is lit,” Father Dave says.
However, he describes times that he has seen employees or other churchgoers blow out candles shortly after they are lit. While that’s not ideal, he stresses that, “We don’t believe that denigrates the prayer at all…we don’t believe that God only hears the prayer for the duration that the candle is lit, it’s much more of a human symbolic action.”
It is one of many examples in Catholicism where a symbol connects to our human senses and deepens our faith experience. “It makes us feel better,” Father Dave says, to know that our prayers are constantly offered, even after we walk away.