Saint Charles

Honestly, I’m not sure where the idea of votive candles started. An educated guess—which will have to do in my state of limited research time—is that candles, like oil lamps, began as a practical necessity in places of worship. Temples, churches, synagogues, mosques—these tended to be large rooms and sometimes featured stained glass in their windows. Even if they didn’t, sometimes people want to pray after dark. Especially after dark. In the days before electricity, a lamp or candle was an obvious choice. Over time the practice of lighting votive candles developed. Lighting a candle for someone, living or dead, symbolized saying a prayer for them. The idea is much more common in liturgical branches of Christianity than it is in strongly reformed ones. Still, it’s a comforting idea. The few times that I’ve lit a candle for someone I’ve always felt better for having done so.


Whenever a practice becomes sacred, parody is shortly to follow. As human beings we seem to be inherently aware that we take ourselves far too seriously far too much of the time. When I go to the grocery store—usually in the aisle with the more “Catholic” ethnic foods—I glance at the large, painted votives for sale. Secretly I’m hoping I might spot one for Santa Muerte, but this far north and east of the border that’s unlikely. Our own version of Saint Death is about to take office anyway. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find a Charles Darwin votive candle in my stocking this past month. Intended, of course, as a novelty, there’s nevertheless something a bit profound here. What we’re praying for is the continuity of life. Evolution itself is under threat of post-truth science which is soon to receive official sponsorship. Time to light a candle and hope for the best.

I plan to keep my Darwin candle for emergencies. The idea isn’t that the figure on the candle is a deity. Those painted on the candle are the saints who have some influence in the divine hierarchy of this cold universe. When you light a candle you ask that saint to witness your prayer. I sense that many among my own political party have recently rediscovered how to pray. The beauty of a Darwin votive is that it’s non-denominational. We all evolve, whether we admit it or not. So if you can’t get yourself to a church, synagogue, or mosque on the traditional day of worship, Darwin can shed light at any time. And maybe even support a prayer for light in the coming darkness.

2 thoughts on “Saint Charles

  1. Hey Steve,
    In my world, it is said that when praying, the lighting of the candle is to remind us of the presence of God. A living breathing fire. The candle has a long and storied part in my life. My earliest memory was a long time ago, in the church my grandmother attended. We were alone that day, in that large church. She opened the rail to the altar, and had me walk up, she went over to the candle area, and lit 2 candles, then proceeded to have a conversation with God. About me. I am still here, I believe, because of that very, long ago, conversation she had with Him.

    Many churches in Montreal have large spread votive candle areas, especially at Saint Josephs Oratory on Mount Royal and as well as all the churches in Old Montreal, the Cathedrals. I often go there, light a candle and say my prayers. That candle is man’s direct acknowledgement of God’s presence. Not sure if that was the thought way back when this is all started, but that is what I have learned so far about the candle presence in Church.



    • Thanks, Jeremy! It’s good to hear what an insider knows about this. In the Episcopal Church we used to light candles, but nobody ever explained the origin of the practice. I’m sure with enough research I could dig it out, but the best way is to hear from people’s experience.


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