Channels of Grace and "Living Prayers"

 
 

Before I became a Catholic in my early twenties, I was always intrigued by the Catholic faith. I was particularly curious about the vibrant, sometimes intensely symbolically illustrated prayer candles one can find at the grocery store. I always wondered what they were for – of course I saw the prayer on the back and the associated indulgences on some, but I had no idea, really, what they were all about.


 

To grasp the purpose and meaning behind the prayer candle, it’s important to understand both the origin of novena prayers and the significance of candles in prayer in general:

Nine-days of anticipation

The novena, or nine-day prayer (from the Latin novem) originated during the period between the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and the nine-day interim (Acts of the Apostles 1:13-14) that culminated in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost upon Mary and the disciples, in the form of “tongues as of fire.” 

Novena prayers often invoke a specific saint’s intercession, or express their devotion to some aspect of the Divinity, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Blessed prayer candles belong to the various assortment of what are known as sacramentals – not to be confused with Sacraments, but instead objects that as the Catechism explains: “prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it.” (1670)

In his book Why do Catholics Do That? Kevin Orlin Johnson, PhD has solid and clear explanations for both sacramentals’ place in the life of the believer, as well as what they are not:

Sacramentals are not good-luck charms. The power to do good is in you, not the sacramental itself. And using a sacramental to say prayers in the belief that you’ll get what you want, just by saying those prayers, is more like casting a spell than it is like praying, and the Church frowns on that. So it’s a good idea to make sure that you’re dealing with an approved sacramental and performing legitimate devotions through it.
— p. 213
 

He further explains that believers properly using sacramentals in their spiritual devotion are “…not praying to the object, but using it…to help focus the heart and mind on the real object of [their] prayer.” He continues in his chapter on sacramentals:

Apart from the Bible (and millions of other books), the Church has given the world an abundance of these things – objects, images, ceremonies, or actions that she uses to dispose people to the reception of grace.
— p. 214

 
I've had a few of these candles since before I became Catholic. They are commonly sold for about a dollar in many grocery stores – the bummer is that they are made with paraffin wax, which doesn't burn cleanly and emits toxic chemicals. 

I've had a few of these candles since before I became Catholic. They are commonly sold for about a dollar in many grocery stores – the bummer is that they are made with paraffin wax, which doesn't burn cleanly and emits toxic chemicals. 

The novena of Our Lady of Guadalupe is traditionally prayed December 4 through 12, leading up to its Feast Day. The image of Our Lady is loaded with symbolism from the stars that adorn her mantle, to the snake-skinned moon she rests her feet upon. 

The novena of Our Lady of Guadalupe is traditionally prayed December 4 through 12, leading up to its Feast Day. The image of Our Lady is loaded with symbolism from the stars that adorn her mantle, to the snake-skinned moon she rests her feet upon. 


The significance of candles

A friend recently referred to prayer candles as “living prayers.” What a beautiful expression for the light and warmth a candle emits, along with the reality of the efficacy of prayer! Candles have a long history of use in the church, going back to the days of the Temple in Judaism.

For Christians, they symbolize Christ as the Light of the World as well as the reality of prayers going up toward heaven. The aforementioned grocery store (or other retail outlet) variety of candles are often taken into churches, lit and placed near an image or statue related to the intentions of the person. Churches will have vigil lights either in larger or votive form for the faithful to light for their intentions, along with a donation offering. 

Don't be dissuaded if...

You happen to see many, many abuses of items like prayer candles (and their dark, pagan counterparts or otherwise mocking versions) out in the world. (Don't Google "prayer candle" and select the images tab, for example). Just because other people happen to abuse something that at its heart is positive and beneficial for Christian practice, doesn't invalidate it when it is properly utilized. In fact, your familiarity from personal practice can present an opportunity to inform others that may be already suspicious of devotionals. You can explain what it really signifies and how it is another means of deepening your prayer life.

Prayer candles witness to your Christian faith

Prayer candles in the home are a special way to practice devotional prayer and their presence can remind the faithful of the vast love and assistance of the saints in heaven, as well as the beautiful Truth and outpouring of grace and mercy that is God. They can be a sign to visitors in your home and spark curiosity or a conversation about the faith.

When you purchase a prayer candle, have it blessed by your priest and let God into your heart to show you the richness of His grace by this beautiful, long-standing mode of prayer. 

Whether you're already well-versed in novena prayers using candles, frequently light vigil lights or just curious enough to read this post, please share your insights and comments below.

May God bless you and yours! +++