How to Use Prayer Candles
“You are the light of the world. A city set upon a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set upon a lampstand, where it gives light to all the house. Just so your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven,” (Matthew 5:14-16).
What They Are
A prayer candle serves as a powerful reminder of our light to the world. Catholics employ two types of prayer candles to assist in a visual representation of prayer: vigil candles and votive candles. Each candle has different meanings within Church history and is used accordingly.
Vigil is from the Latin word vigilae meaning “watch” or “wakefulness”. Frequently they are used to honor a deceased person, so they carry the flame of Christ in their hearts on their journey to heaven. In early Christianity tombs and catacombs of saints and martyrs had candles and oil lamps burning within. Saint Jerome defended the use of these candles in the 400s; “Christ did not need the ointment, nor do martyrs need the light of tapers; yet that woman poured the ointment in honor of Christ and her heart’s devotion was accepted. All those who light these tapers have their reward according to their faith, as the Apostle says: “Let every one abound in his own meaning,” (Against Vigilantius, V). Vigil candles are long, slim, and tapered.
Votive is from the Latin word votum meaning “a vow” or “a promise.” A votive candle is lit for the intention of securing favor and is usually placed before an image or statue. As far back as Leviticus, we learn of burnt offerings. Animals and the first grains of harvest mixed with oil were burnt at the Temple seeking favor with God. This practice morphed into a candle as payment for favor with Jesus, the Most Blessed Virgin, or a saint. Because this is an offering a Catholic will often leave a monetary donation at the church. A votive candle is squat, shorter, and rounder than a vigil candle. Oftentimes the votive candle has an image of the Immaculate Heart of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, or a saint.
How They Are Made
The ingredients used for candles has an important meaning. All candles used within Catholic churches are made of beeswax. This includes the eternal flame, the Paschal candle, baptismal candles, and candles used during funerals. While it is not imperative Catholics use candles of pure beeswax in their home the significance is convincing.
In early Christianity, most candles were crafted of rendered animal fat called tallow. This produced both a weak light and a horrid smell. The flame of a tallow candle sputtered and produced a dark smoke. If one used a tallow candle the wick burned faster creating light for only a few hours at a time.
Churches in Europe began using beeswax in the Middle Ages. The flame was brighter and the smell pleasanter while it smoked less than a tallow candle. Christ’s purity is represented in the pure beeswax used. The wick is illustrative of the soul of Jesus. The flame denotes the flame of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2:3-4, “Then appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim.”
Apart from Advent candles, the candles used in Catholic churches remain either the yellowish tint of beeswax or white. However, the color of the prayer candle in the Catholic home is subjective. Some might use a vigil candle of the favorite color of the person it’s intended for. One could use a votive candle in a deep red for Jesus and the martyrs or a brilliant blue for the Virgin Mary. Someone could choose a candle in crimson representing the patch Saint Maximilian Kolbe wore in Auschwitz. This would serve as a visual reminder of his sacrifice as they pray for his intercession in overcoming addiction. More might use the white colors in preferential to the candles of the Church.
The scent of the candle is also left to the preference of the person using it. Someone who is sensitive to smell should use one without fragrances. One might also use the beeswax as an homage to the candles used in churches. Another person might select a smell in a vigil candle reminding them of the person who passed away. In the use of votive candles within the home, one might pick a perfume associated with Jesus, Mary, or a saint.
For instance, a Catholic might use frankincense or myrrh as a votive candle for Jesus. These warm, earthy aromas remind us of the magi who gave the infant Son of God gifts, (Matthew 2:11). If asking the intercession of Blessed Mary, the individual could choose a candle smelling of intoxicating roses. Someone asking the intercession of Saint Joseph can use cedar in reference to his carpentry skills as a tekton. For Saint John the Baptist, a sweet scent may be benefitted as he ate locusts and honey. A person praying for the intercession of Saint Clare of Assisi might prefer the clean smell of linen whereas for Padre Pio they could decide upon a fresh floral fragrance. The possibilities are endless!
Safety is of the utmost importance. The glass surrounding the candle must be tempered to allow the flame to grow in the heat. Vigil candles should be placed in sturdy candlesticks to prevent them from toppling over. Votive candles need to be on heavy bases. Cheaply made candles in inexpensive holder’s trigger shattering, causing fires. Everyone must practice caution when using candles of any kind.
A light thrown out into the world overcomes the evil that lurks in the dark (Psalm 36:4). The flame of a prayer candle prompts us to remain brilliant in the Lord. We burn our offerings as we pray for guidance and closeness to Him. “So, submit yourselves to God. Resist the Devil and he will flee from you,” John 4:7.
Choosing a Candle
After choosing the right candle many Catholics seek out a bishop, priest, or deacon to bless it. One can explain the purpose of using the prayer candle. If someone is using it as a vigil candle, a short description of the person being prayed for is warranted. If using it as a votive candle, the purpose of the intercession is useful.
After having the candle blessed, it ought to be placed in a place of prominence in the home. When using a vigil candle, it is nice to stand it beside a picture or trinket of the person being prayed for. For a votive candle, one might position it beside a statue or image of the one asked for guidance and prayers.
When to Use Prayer Candles
The moment the flame is struck to light the candle is when the prayers should start. After the wick is ignited intentions are shared. For a vigil candle, a Rosary might be said as to our Blessed Mother to intercede on behalf of the deceased. For a votive candle, the candle might remain lit as the person prays intercessory prayers for guidance.
When leaving a candle at a church the significance shows we must do our work out in the world, but our hearts are constantly ignited in Christ. At home, the candle can be carefully placed in a safe location that it might remain burning as we offer our work as a prayer. However, it is dangerous to leave a candle unattended and it should be blown out whenever someone leaves the house or goes to sleep.
Oftentimes Catholics will light the prayer candles during canonical hours. Vespers is known as “the lighting of the lamp” at around sundown. Our Jewish brothers and sisters practice zmanim which is the Hebrew word for “times.” In Psalms 119: 164, Symeon writes, “Seven times a day I praise you because your judgments are righteous.” The act of zmanim is repeated in Acts 3:1, “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer.”
Moreover, it might be as simple as a Catholic sitting at a table with the prayer candle reading the Bible. Using the light of the prayer candle to light the Word of God is an evocative way to create the perfect setting for gathering wisdom. As in Psalm 119:105, “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.”
Another significant time to use the prayer candle is during a storm. A Catholic family uses the blessed candle as a reminder to remain faithful to God and praise Him even during bad times and in bad weather. As always with Catholic intuition, it served as a practical practice as when the power to the house went out the candle was already lit. When the storm is over a prayer of thanksgiving is said and the candle is extinguished.
When the Candle is Finished
When the blessed candle has finished, the disposal of it needs to be done in a respectful way. The blessed items need to be burned or buried to show proper deference. If the Catholic is unable to do so, they should schedule a time to drop them off at their local Catholic church to be dealt with accordingly.
Catholics use their prayer candles for a variety of reasons. We pray for guidance, strength, for our families and friends, for the sick, the poor and marginalized, and many other reasons. Understanding how to use a Catholic prayer candle will strengthen our faith and serve as a tangible reminder God is always near. As we light the candle, we remember the words in John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”