The Sight of burning votive candles is common in most Catholic churches. The candles are usually placed before statues of saints or at shrines. But how did this tradition get its start?
The practice of lighting candles in order to obtain some favor probably has its origins in the custom of burning lights at the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs. The lights burned as a sign of solidarity with Christians still on earth. Because the lights continually burned as a silent vigil, they became known as vigil lights.
Vigil Lights (from the Latin vigilia, which means “waiting” or “watching”) are traditionally accompanied by prayers of attention or waiting. Another common type of candle offering is the votive light. Such an offering is indicative of seeking some favor from the Lord or the saint before which the votive is placed.
Lighting a candle is a way of extending one’s prayer and showing solidarity with the person on whose behalf the prayer is offered.
The practice of lighting a candle as a sign of prayer is a long standing practice among Catholics. But it may have become mechanical, or ill understood, or an almost superstitious gesture. The following prayer attempts to restore something of its genuine spiritual content: it came from France:
Lord, may this candle be a light to enlighten me in my difficulties and decisions. May it be a fire to burn out of me all pride, selfishness and impurity. May it be a flame for you to bring warmth into my heart towards my family, my neighbors and all those who meet me. Through the prayers of Mary, Virgin and Mother, I place in your care those I come to remember, and especially <insert name>.
I cannot stay long with you here in your church. In leaving this candle I wish to give you something of myself. Help me to continue my prayer into everything I do this day. Amen.