On of my new favorite places is the prayer candle station at St. Margaret’s. I was first introduced to prayer candles at my field education parish in Alexandria, VA. I always marveled at the beauty of the candles burning, but never understood the practice fully. Then, a year and a half ago, I went on pilgrimage with my parish in Delaware. A colleague shared with me her practice of lighting candles and praying for people throughout the pilgrimage, and I became an immediate convert. I started carrying coins and small bills just so that I had something to put in the donation box at each church as I lit candles along the way.
So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that St. Margaret’s had a prayer candle station. I love those candles for so many reasons. Sometimes my prayers or my silence in prayer just is not tangible enough. Lighting a candle makes me feel like I am doing something. But once the candle is lit, it does so much more. Watching the flickering of the candle calms the “doer” in me. The flame’s flicker makes my prayer feel active – as if the prayer is alive outside of my heart. Sometimes just staring at the flame allows me to quite myself enough to listen to God. The active flame allows my energy to be somewhere outside of me so that I can be thoroughly silent. There is also great comfort in the way that the flame burns for hours after I leave. Even though am not bodily present, my prayer lingers on without me.
But what I especially love about our prayer candles is that they are not just for me. Parishioners use them all the time – remembering those who have died, worrying about the health of a loved one, or lifting up their own struggles to God. Having just blessed several pets, I imagine there has been a candle or two for a beloved pet. I see our young children lighting candles. I do not know if they fully understand the practice, but I sense that they understand that something holy is happening when they light those candles. We often have family members of those buried in our cemetery on Sundays, and they often light a candle. My favorite, though, happens when I walk into the nave at night, when all the lights are out, as I am rushing to another meeting. I catch in the corner of my eye that one or more candles are burning. At those moments, in the darkness, I pray to God for whoever has lit the candle, knowing that I am witness to the sacred conversation between someone and God.
Last week we celebrated St. Francis, and as I prepared to preach about him, I discovered that he asked that Psalm 141 be read to him as he was dying. Verse two of that psalm has been replaying in my head all week, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” Sometimes, I think we assume our prayers are only a mental exercise – words we craft for God. But our prayers involve all our senses – our hands that light candles, touching the flame to the wick; our eyes that watch the life of our prayers in the flame; our noses that smell the fragrance of incense lifted to God. How is God inviting you into prayer this week? What sensory practices feed your journey with Christ?