Starting Point
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Issue Date:  September 8, 2006

Starting Point


Once upon a time to light a vigil candle in church seemed more like a superstition to me than a sacred gesture of prayer. The cynic in me thought it was another way for the church to earn some extra cash. The clink and clang the coins would make as they slipped through the slot of those old-fashioned vigil light stands seemed harsh and out of sync with the stillness of the sacred space.

Since the vigil light stand was often placed in front of a statue of the Blessed Mother, the devotion seemed to play on a theme of Lady Luck rather than Lady Grace. As in that old Frank Sinatra song with the line, “Luck, be a lady tonight,” I felt more like a gambler at a casino than a pilgrim of prayer. Putting a few coins in the vigil light stand was like pulling a lever on a slot machine as I prayed for the best. But even as I pulled God’s arm to bend it to my will, the church was pulling my leg. With a wink and a nod, the church cleaned up whether or not my prayer was answered. After all, the house had to make ends meet in this gambler’s paradise called prayer.

Because of fire concerns, some churches switched to electric vigil lights. Prayer became less of a gamble and more like paying the light bill. When the light went out, the prayer was over even if the intention was still there.

My view of vigil light prayer changed when I lived in a certain community house many years ago. When I was on the road giving a retreat, a friend would light a candle as a sign of solidarity and pray that I would get out of the way so the light of Christ would not be blocked.

So now I light candles in my house, on my prayer table, on my kitchen table, and hope that someone might be safe and warm in a dark time. Lighting candles doesn’t seem like such a gamble any more. It feels more like a grace.

Fr. Joseph Nassal is a Missionary of the Precious Blood involved in retreat, renewal and reconciliation ministry.

National Catholic Reporter, September 8, 2006

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