Recently I’ve been going back to adoration. I had been trying to go weekly before the pandemic hit, but our local church’s adoration chapel is very tiny and I didn’t feel comfortable in there with other people during the peak of the pandemic. Now that the case number in Houston is dropping, I feel comfortable going in as long as everyone wears a mask.
It is so good to be in the physical presence of God again. To smile at him and see His love shining back at me. This chapel of ours is a wonderfully reverent place. It has the monstrance with Jesus inside in the form of the Eucharist. A large crucifix hangs behind that. There is a beautiful statue of the pieta on one side. You can feel Mary’s pain as you look at this work of art.
Recently, though, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what this chapel has up in the front on either side of the monstrance, candles. They have hundreds of little votive candles, many lit and sharing their warm glow on the golden monstrance. It’s beautiful.
As I sit there in silence, my science brain starts to think about how only 300 years ago, people didn’t understand the concept of conservation of matter. They thought that the candle getting smaller meant that its mass was just disappearing into nothingness. Crazy.
Technically, the idea of conservation has been around for much longer. Ancient Greeks had the philosophy, “Nothing comes from nothing” all the way back in at least the 4th century B.C. For the next 2000 years, though, they couldn’t prove it. Then in the 18th century, the principle was used in studying individual chemical reactions. They realized that the chemicals that went into the reaction (left side) are the same as the chemicals that come out of the reaction (right side). The only difference is how they are arranged.
The reason this simple concept was so difficult to grasp back then was because there was no technology available to measure the weight of gas. It would be observed that a piece of wood weighs less after burning. This led them to believe that some of that mass had disappeared. They were unable to capture the smoke and gases released from the burn. If they had, they would’ve seen the TOTAL mass was the same. This problem was finally remedied when some experiments were performed where rusting was allowed to take place in a sealed glass container. Rusting is another chemical process that takes away from the original object’s mass, but with the sealed container, they could trap all the other products that come from that chemical process and they found that the weight of the entire container had not changed.
Luckily while I sat in adoration, my brain didn’t stay thinking about conservation of mass the whole time. At some point I started thinking of the religious reasoning for lighting these votive candles.
There’s very little official doctrine on candles, but there is a lot to say about them. The first aspect of lighting a candle is the intense light that comes from the flame. When we pray to God through lighting a candle, we are reaching out to God in heaven. The brightness of the flame is a beautiful symbol of looking at the bright white intensity of God in heaven.
Think about the apostles who were at the transfiguration. (Mark 9:2-8) In these verses it says that “His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light”. When we light a candle, this tiny flame in front of us is a small reminder of God’s brilliance, of the “light of the world” to whom we speak.
The next part of prayer through lighting a votive candle is the smoke that rises once it is lit. This is symbolic of our prayers rising to heaven. As the smoke rises higher and higher, so too our prayers, going up to the ear of Jesus, being heard and answered.
The final part is how long the candles burn. Most likely, the candle will be burning long after you leave the chapel. If there is something very important that we want prayed, we want to send up LOTS of prayers. We might pray multiple times throughout the day for this cause. When you pray for this cause by lighting a candle, it is said that your prayer will continue to be prayed over and over as long as the candle is burning. This additional tool for our prayer allows us to pray more than we physically could on our own. What a wonderful gift that is.
Often times I personally have shied away from lighting candles at church. Most of the time my reasoning was because I don’t carry cash. I would want to donate some amount so that the church could continue to provide this beautiful symbol of our prayers to the faithful of the church. There are many prayers on my heart that I feel strongly about, and it would probably be good to light a candle or two for those causes.
I’m sure there are things that you have been praying a lot for lately. I encourage you to light a candle for that need. I will be doing this more often. Almost every church has these candles somewhere in their sanctuary or chapel. Know that your prayers are not just disappearing like people used to think candles did. Your prayers are being given to God and he hears them. Your prayers are rising like the smoke to our Lord. The next time you go to the church, light a candle for what you most wish God to hear.
Reminder: Don’t forget to leave a dollar or so. These candles are a gift, but cost money too. If we all donate when we light candles, we help there to be candles for all who need them.