Years ago, in seminary, one of my brother-seminarians from North Dakota gave me an image of prayer. It occurs to me to tell this winter story in the midst of the heat wave that has most of the U.S. in its grip.
Imagine yourself in those years, some 25 years ago or before. Cell phones were not yet common.
Now imagine the deep winter months in rural North Dakota. The temperature can dip to 30 below and blizzards and snow-squalls can set in quickly. What if you are driving from one town to another and you car breaks down? Sometimes it is forty miles to the next town. If it’s 30 below with wind or blowing snow, walking even a short distance can kill you.
All you can do is wait for help to drive by. Remember there are no cell phones, this is rural North Dakota, and, especially in bad weather, help might not come for a long time. With a broken down car, no heat, and the temperature so cold, death could come soon.
How will you survive?
My North Dakota friend told me that his mother often asked him in winter as he would leave in the car, “Do you have candles with you?!”
People in that region, in those years, and I suppose some today as well, used to carry a box of votive candles with them in the car, and some matches too. On frigid day, if the car broke down, or got stuck in the snow, lighting even one candle and cracking the window just slightly (for ventilation), could mean the difference between life and death.
Just one candle, maybe two, could warm the car enough to stave off death. And Catholic votive candles were the perfect choice.
What are votive candles if not a symbol of our prayer, our hope in God. They also are a burnt offering, and an memorare of our prayer burning before God.
And if one candle can save a life, how about one prayer?
In most cases the full power of prayer is hid from us here. But I suspect one of the joys of heaven will be that we will see what a remarkable difference our prayer really made, even our distracted and poorly executed prayers. Perhaps someone in heaven will come to us and say, “I am here because you prayed.” Perhaps we will see how our prayers helped avert war, turn back violence, save children from abortion, and convert hearts. We will know that our prayers helped open doors, brought blessings, and contained damage.
Just one prayer. Just one candle.
Do you have candles with you? Have you prayed? You never know, you might save a life in this cold world.
Here is a sermon I preached at the White House about five years ago on the power of prayer.