Why do people light candles?

Why do people light candles?

The Shrine of St Alban is a site of national Pilgrimage and is one of the highlights of a visit to St Albans Cathedral and Abbey Church. People have been coming there for over 1700 years. It is used as a place of prayer and stillness by visitors every day.

St Alban is Britain’s first Saint and the focus of the Cathedral’s First Saint Project which is a £7 million project designed to provide additional parish and visitor activities, a compelling new presentation of the story of Alban, new opportunities for volunteers and a wealth of interpretive materials in the Cathedral and its grounds to support guided tours. The overall objective is to bring the story of Alban to a wider audience.

In advance of this project, the cathedral undertook a survey (2014) to gain some understanding
of the inspiration that shrines provide and specifically why people chose to light candles. Across one week, volunteers working in pairs, sat by the shrine and approached people after they had lit a candle.

They asked the following questions:

  1. Why do you light a candle at the shrine here? How often do you do so? Aim – to see to what extent people are ‘regular’ or ‘occasional’ in this devotion.
  2. What is your own religious background? (CofE, RC etc.) Aim – to see if those who light candles at different shrines are different in this respect.
  3. What do you think of when you light a candle at the shrine? The sick, the departed, the world,       the needy, saints, God etc? Aim – to gain some insight as to any link between the needs of            pilgrims and the ‘subject’ of the shrine.
  4. Did you know anything about the saint associated with this shrine before you lit your candle today? Aim – to gain some insight into pilgrim’s knowledge of a particular shrine.
  5. Have you learned anything more about St Alban by visiting the Shrine/cathedral today? Offer a copy of the “Alban Story/Are you a Christian?” if appropriate.
  6. Do you ever attend services in this cathedral – if so, which ones/how often?

Some of the findings were fascinating. Of the 149 who participated, all age groups were represented including teenagers and the third highest group were in their 30s. 6% came from other faiths, while 17% said they had no religious identity.  Most interesting were the reasons people gave for lighting a candle which ranged from:

“Visiting and learning about St Alban and the history of this place made me want to light a candle. I thought about others who have been here before me”

“Mum can look down on us in any church in the world when we do this”

People often said it was for someone who was ill, but acknowledged that they themselves were not a believer – “I have no faith myself but this is for my  grandmother who believes

Many talked about their own spiritual needs – one young woman simply expressing that her candle was “for my heart”

So if your church is considering introducing a votive candle stand or is looking for ways to support those who come and light a candle, then do have a read of this st-albans-shrine-survey-presentation-22-october-2016 where you can find out more about the methodology and the findings.

And there is also for further reading Michael Tavinor’s Shrines of the Saints (2016) and now out in paperback. A shrine enthusiast, Michael Tavinor explores the history and the present day significance of the shrines to the saints. He traces the importance of shrines in the UK’s spiritual life from medieval times and considers how people and church buildings were influenced by shrines in their midst. As visitor numbers to cathedrals and pilgrimage centres continue to grow in strength in the twenty first century, this guide includes information on current ‘working shrines’ and a reflection on the power of shrines now, from cathedrals to the ‘roadside shrines’ prevalent today.

And here is the The Alban Prayer which is placed in front of the shrine for people to use if they so wish.

Among the roses of the martyrs
Brightly shines St Alban

Almighty God,
we thank you for this place,

built to your glory
and in memory of Alban our first martyr.

Following his example in the fellowship of the saints
may we worship and adore the true and living God
and be faithful witnesses to the Christ
who is alive and reigns now and forever.

Amen.