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Time to Snuff Out Electric Votive Candles

Some people look at the darkening cloud and try to find the silver lining. Others see the lining first and pretty much put the cloud out of their minds. I know it may be more responsible to adopt the first attitude, but often enough I find myself taking the second.

We already have entered into a long, hot summer. Temperatures have been in the triple digits here (Fahrenheit, not Celsius, thankfully), and the warmest months are still to come. I wouldn’t be surprised if Southern California ended up with one of its periodic energy shortages, particularly since the sole nuclear power plant in the region was taken off the grid a few years ago and the additional wind turbines haven’t made up the shortfall.

Crude oil prices may be low at the moment—a boon for drivers here but a bust for oil-producing areas of the country—but gasoline isn’t electricity. You can have a lot of the one and not enough of the other. You might have all the oil you need to power the power plants, but that won’t do much good if you don’t have enough power plants.

Blackouts and brownouts

Local media have been talking about the possibility of brownouts, if this summer ends up a scorcher, which it probably will. (But prognosticators could be wrong, as they were wrong spectacularly about El Niño, which was supposed to have drenched us but which, in a snub to meteorologists, bypassed Southern California almost completely.)

I can remember when we occasionally had not brownouts but blackouts. There wasn’t enough juice to go around, and parts of the grid overloaded and broke down. Substations caught on fire or melted, and it took days rather than minutes for power to be restored. That wouldn’t be a good thing on days like the ones we’ve had this week: someone actually managed to fry an egg on a manhole cover. It was that hot.

Of course, we’re told that such problems are behind us now, but I wonder. I suspect that brownouts and blackouts may return as the overall energy situation seeks to stabilize over the summer and as millions of Californians set air conditioners on full blast. (Let me give a nod here to Willis Carrier, the inventor of modern air conditioning, whose cause for canonization should be introduced by somebody.)

It will be a hit-and-miss thing—mainly miss, I suspect. The lights will go out now and then, but not for long, and soon enough we’ll be incandescently happy again. Someday, maybe, such things will be but a distant memory. Before these fluctuations in the electricity supply disappear down the memory hole, I want to take advantage of them, or at least of the memory of them, while I can. In a small way, energy problems could spell liberation for Catholics.

A boon for church ambiance

Contrary to what many think, an energy crunch is not always, or at least is not in all ways, a bad thing. Higher prices result in more conservation and a turn to motor vehicles that have engines measured in miles per gallon instead of yards per gallon. Larger earnings by utility companies now could mean more power plants in the future—and perhaps more efficient ones—assuming that our overlords permit the necessary permitting. And so on. Yet such considerations are for politicians, economists, and talk show hosts. I’m thinking of something grander.

My interest focuses less on what captures headlines than on what might happen at my parish. If timed judiciously, brownouts and blackouts might be good for the religious ambiance.

Here’s my plan. While Californians think about applying to the government for exemptions from electricity shut-offs (“If my power goes out, how will I keep up with my favorite soaps?”), I’d like to suggest that parishes volunteer to put themselves at the top of the list to be blacked out. It would be a sign of generosity to the community. It would be a way of taking on and reducing the suffering of others. It would be a true witness to our materialistic culture.

Best of all, it would snuff out those blasted electric votive lights.

Let others worry about oil wars, depletion of resources, and soaring utility bills. The real problem is in the nave of our churches, where pulsing filaments have been squeezing out beeswax candles. If we can solve this problem, we can solve any problem.

The symbolism is all wrong

Yes, I know the rationale for electric candles. Although a metal stand for electric candles costs more than one for wax candles, in the long run light bulbs are cheaper than live flames. No matter how high electricity prices are, it takes a fraction of a cent to illuminate a low-wattage bulb for a brief period. (Such lights are designed to turn off automatically after a few minutes or as soon as the devotee walks away, whichever occurs first.)

What’s more, no one in the rectory has to worry about cleaning out the remains of old wax candles and making sure there are enough lighter sticks or matches. Electric votive candles are clean, simple, and antiseptic. That’s why they’re bad.

The chief problem with them is that they aren’t real candles and can’t convey the right symbolism. The essence of a wax candle is that it is consumed. Just as a prayer that accompanies the lighting of a candle takes something out of us—it is a holy work that exacts a cost, however small—so the wax candle gets used up. It “dies” through doing its work. Electric candles don’t “die.” They just recycle. It’s not the same.

I say, let’s welcome the darkness and curse the electric candle.


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