Written by E. J. Montini, a columnist at The Arizona Republic (Arizona, U.S.A.), on March 23, 2009 (source article link).
In the Albertson's grocery store near my home, the shelves on Aisle 18-B are neatly stocked with jars of salsa, bags of corn chips, spices, cans of beans, bags of flour, rows of spices, snack cakes, soda and hope.
The last item sells for $1.79.
In better times, a hearty meal would offer more sustenance than hope. But these days, with so many men and women losing their jobs, their health insurance and their homes, shoppers who are starved for mental and spiritual comfort find nourishment in several rows of 8-inch votive candles available in Aisle 18-B.
In just about every Catholic Church in Phoenix, there is an alcove or side altar where there is a bank of candles in glass containers. Often they are displayed in a series of small steps before a statue or icon.
In the church my family attended when I was a kid, these "vigil lights," as my mother called them, were in front of a statue of Mary the mother of Jesus. It was the one place in our church where I felt comfortable.
The enormous crucifix above the altar, with its bleeding, suffering Jesus, frightened me. As did the stained-glass images of saints that lined the upper reaches of the church. Their glass eyes seemed to focus on a young sinner no matter which pew he settled into.
One of the small comforts of my youthful churchgoing experience was the opportunity to light a candle. But it was not done casually. My mother would say that lighting a candle was a way of asking God for a little extra attention. It might be for ourselves or for someone we knew, someone sick, someone in need, someone in trouble. The candle represented a promise to put more prayerful devotion into this particular request. As long as the candle burned, the invocation was being repeated.
For all of the time I've shopped at the Albertsons, the most popular votive candle featured a likeness of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this part of the country, the primary market for such items is our large Latino population.
But lately other saints also have become popular. St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, for instance. And St. Simon, who may have been St. Jude's partner but whose prayer, printed on his candle, makes him seem more like an enforcer than a saint.
It reads, in Spanish and in English:
"Oh powerful St. Simon, I humbly come to you. Let your spirit help me in all actions and in any dangerous circumstances. If it is love, you will hold the person I like. If it is a business, you will not allow it to fail because evil can not have more power than your spirit. If it is an enemy, you will defeat him. Oh, powerful St. Simon, I offer you your cigar, your tortilla, your drink and your candles if you help me with any dangerous circumstance I may encounter. For any debts that I cannot currently pay, let the judge be defeated and on my side upon invoking your name. I ask of you, in the name of the One you sold for thirty coins that were given to the needy to let everything be forgotten; and in this manner I want you to perform the miracles I request."
I asked John Tillotson, of the St. Jude Candle Co. in Houston which made the St. Simon candle, how his business is doing.
He told me, "With the economy the way it is, we're feeling the pinch as well as everyone else. But we can see in sales that people gravitate to those saints who speak to their situation. A lot of people are hurting and are seeking help."
Do the candles work? I asked.
He paused, then said, "I can tell you that they're a comfort to a lot of folks."
More than that. When lit, the candles prove that longing is tangible. That aspiration is real. That there is such a thing as a flicker of hope.