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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Playing with Fire

Seven-year-old kids lighting fires in church. Under the watchful gaze of parents, but sometimes all on their own. 

No, this isn't arson. It's piety.

I'm talking, of course, about votive candles. I especially love to watch children light the candles, although I do believe I see the kid inside of the adults come out when they light candles, too. Imagine it: What would get kids into big trouble at home, they are encouraged to do at church, so it's a moment of great joy for them.

They grab the wooden stick and hold it into the flame of one of the lit candles. They hold it there not just long enough to get the stick lit, but good and long, to get it good and lit. Their eyes light up almost as much as the stick. 

Then they pick a candle to light and make sure it's good and lit too. Then they pull away the stick and watch the flame slowly crawl up its length. Not real long, but long enough to stoke their fascination with fire, and as long as they can get away with before they get scolded for fooling around.

Now comes the part with style: The extinguishing of the stick.

Some blow it out, risking of course putting out some of the candles in the process. The risk is all the greater for those who intentionally blow gingerly, to make the fire dance a bit before it goes out.

Others simply put the stick into the tray of sand and ashes. These are typically adults, inhibited as we are from externalizing what goes on inside our heads.

But the boys, they externalize. And what exactly goes on inside their heads? Some thrust the flaming stick into the sand like they were skewering an Orc. Others torture the flame (or the Orc for all I know), using several smaller thrusts until it goes out.

And then they turn, kneel at the rail, and offer a prayer. Perhaps part of their mind is saying a Hail Mary. And the other part is planning the next Orc-skewering.

I don't like my kids to handle fire, but this is one exception, and they know it. They save their quarters and dollars, and if they don't have any money, they ask me for some, just so they can play with fire at church. And if I have small bills or quarters, I give it to them. At first I would go with them to make sure they didn't fool around (too much). But now I just watch from the pew.

Playing with fire without getting hurt is part of growing up. Risking pain for piety is also a good lesson to learn.

But there is more to learn than that from a real flame. Every time I watch one of my kids or anyone else light a real candle at church, I am reminded of the cheesiness of the electric votive candles. Seriously: Playing with fire, or pushing a button to make fake fire. What lessons are learned in each case?

I hate electric votive lights, of course. They are just plain stupid. I used to think they were ok, and and that they were probably installed because of insurance issues involving open fires inside a public building. Now I am convinced they were installed to diminish piety. To all you pastors out there with electric votive candles: I am NEVER going to pay MONEY to you for the privilege of turning on a cheesy LED light. Sorry. Our God and our Saints don't need the light, and I can pray without using excess electricity. For FREE. Those who don't light candles don't care. And those who do are discouraged by the artificiality and cheesiness of it. It makes the devotion itself cheesy, and makes us not want to do it. I truly believe that this is the intended effect of replacing real votive candles with electric ones, so that they can get rid of them altogether. ("We modernized with electric candles. And practically no one lit any. Since no one is interested in votive candles anymore, we put the rack into the basement." Get it? People are interested in votive candles. Switch to electric. People lose interest because they're cheesy. Claim the lack of interest is in votive candles.)

But a real candle, now that's worth a buck. Even a little tea light will burn for a couple of hours anyway, and the flame is real. The flame first of all symbolizes many things, such as the Holy Spirit, and the light of Christ. It reminds us of the (hopefully real) candles on the altar, the Easter candle, and the candles used at the vigil Masses of Christmas and Easter. And the latter Mass includes the blessing of fire. Most people at home light candles only on special occasions, such as birthdays and festive, formal dinners. Whoever heard of electric birthday candles? An electric light, by virtue of its light and not what it is, may symbolize the light of Christ, but we are so inundated with electric lights that the associations are more toward commerce and garishness than they are toward piety.

A real flame also interacts with the air around it, the natural flow of air caused by Divine providence in the organization of the world, and the gusts caused by passersby. Human and divine activity cause the flickering of the flame of other people's prayers. We're all involved. Electric lights flicker artificially and technologically on their own without any reference or reaction to the world around them. It is fake flickering, an initiation of involvement and interaction.

A real flame generates both light and heat. Along with a little smoke. As with incense, the heat and smoke of the candle rise up, symbolizing our prayers. LED lights especially generate little heat, and so nothing symbolizes our prayers except the artificial light.

We light our votive candles from those already lit. Our individual prayers pick up where the prayers of others leave off, and others light their candles from ours.  Our prayers are united in a single shared flame. Electric lights are wholly individual in this regard, too. "My" button turns on "my" light.

Candles consume real matter--they are burnt offerings. Moreover, ideally, they are made of minimally artificial components, namely, natural wax and cotton wick, elements that God provides through HIs providence. Electric lights consume electricity. Perhaps somewhere, miles and miles away at the power plant, some bit of uranium or coal (also provided by God) is being consumed to generate the electricity that electric lights use. But it is not "my" uranium. When a person puts money in the slot to buy a candle, that candle is his. The wax and the wick belong to him. He could, in theory, take it home. But instead he burns it up, serving no practical purpose of light or heat, but as an offering to God, a sacrifice. I suppose one could say there is a kind of sacrifice to light an electric light, but the light itself is not a sacrificial offering, it is merely light. It costs a buck, a person might as well put an extra dollar into the collection. Or not.

Finally, there is no fun in electric lights. We constantly flip switches to turn lights on and off. There is no danger and no room for imagination. There is no responsibility to be careful, no possibility of error. Perhaps electric lights limit the possibility of mischief, too, since kids if left unattended could wreak havoc at a rack full of votive candles. But the problem in that case is not the candles, its the discipline that those kids need. While I would scold any kids misusing votive candles, I would not for the world deprive them of the opportunity to get into trouble because doing so deprives us of the reality of a votive flame lifting our prayer to God.

Does any of this have anything to do with bioethics? I suppose there are lessons to be learned, but I don't want to stretch things too far. Suffice it to say that we are easily seduced by technology. We often do things because we can, and not because they are the best or most right things to do. Technology simply is not always the answer when it comes to the most important things in life. We seem to enjoy substituting reality with artificiality, the natural with the man-made.

And when we try to do things our way, we also play with fire. I'm not talking about little candles though. Think brimstone.

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