Friday, February 18, 2011


It seems that people crave ritual – even non-Catholics. Witness in recent years the explosion (it seems to me anyway) of people setting up what Catholics would call “way side shrines” of sorts by the side of the road where an accident and death has occurred. There is usually a cross, maybe a sign, flowers, and stuffed animals. (If I die on the highway please don’t leave stuffed animals – maybe a statue of Mary of St. Sebastian – or maybe St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers – but not a teddy bear.) Did you ever ask yourself why people do this?

I believe that most people have an innate urge to do something to help them deal with whatever difficulty it is that they are facing. They might assemble the various pieces of a “shrine,” take it out to the road, maybe invite others along, put it up, maybe say a prayer, and then leave it as witness to their distress, a prayer for the deceased, and as a symbol to all who pass to be safe and that something happened here that was significant to someone. (Sounds very Old Testamenty doesn’t it?)

Catholics have been doing such things for centuries. One of these practices is the lighting of vigil candles. It feels so right to do but have you ever asked yourself why you do it? Something is pressing heavily on your heart, you show up at your local Catholic Church and approach a bank of candles if you are lucky enough to have them. They are most likely before a statue of a saint, Jesus, or even before the Blessed Sacrament. You slip a little money into a box, light a candle, kneel down and pray.

For Catholics worships involves more than prayers of the mind or vocal chords. We pray with our whole beings. In prayer we engage smell, taste, hearing, speaking, thinking, gestures, postures, sight, the whole nine yards. In lighting candles we engage the body in prayer. Besides the mental aspect, there is the kneeling, the action of lighting a candle, the sight of the burning flame, and the smell of the candles.

Then there is the name “vigil.” If we were to “stand vigil” with someone, we would be with them and alert for an extended period of time. When we leave a particular shrine, our candle stands vigil in our place. We leave the candle burning as a sign of our continuing prayer even when we are not able to keep praying, it is a symbol to the community that someone has something about which they are taking this extra means and that they could use your prayers; that something significant in someone’s life is occurring, it is a link of solidarity with the community who will see the candle and an act of faith that entrusting this prayer this saint that God will grant it (in some way) if it be for His glory and our true benefit.

So if you should pass a vigil candle stand and see a candle lit, say even the quickest of prayers for the intention for which it is burning. Someone in your community is in need.


Robert M Kraus Sr said...

there was in my childhood home an elegant plaster statue of the Sacred Heart . . . in the upstairs hall on a small table with a kneeler in front of the table. Every single night of the year a vigil light candle was lit . . and the Litany of the Sacred Heart recited by my parents together . . I joined in


Anonymous said...

I saw a report on Fox News this morning. In Georgia they want to offer signs on the roadside with the deceased person's name on it and get rid of the roadside memorials because they are a distraction to driver's. The sign would cost $100.

They interviewed a lady who keeps a memorial at the roadside for her husband. And she said she wants to keep the memorial so she has someplace to remember her husband.

I find these memorials very sad to remember someone at the location they died vs remembering them at church at or at home or even to have a memorial made at home like the memory quilts or a scrapbook, etc.

I understand the need for rituals, but to put stuff out on the side of the road doesn't say "respect" to someone's memory in my opinion.

At a memorial like the Veteran's memorials I understand leaving wreaths/mementos because it's a memorial--not a roadside that ends up looking like litter on the side of the road.

I went to a make shift memorial at a high school when our city had a young man killed in Iraq it was respectful and at the school's entrance/flag pole. It stayed until shortly after his funeral. It was respectful tasteful.

Mary Bruno

Anonymous said...

I loved the comments about the candle "standing vigil" for us and our prayers continuing. It's one of those ideas that's in the back of your mind, but you don't really think about it. Also, I loved the idea of seeing a candle lit and adding a prayer.