The Quest for Votive Candles

Too many essays are being written nowadays on all the things wrong with the modern world. It may or may not be the case that there is no new thing under the sun, but it is certainly the case that none of the horde of essay-writers frantically pounding their keyboards are typing anything new under the sun. Let us then leave that dying genre behind. Here I proclaim my freedom from it. I will recount what is wrong with the modern world, but I will do it with the first and best of all human inventions: the story. And I will do it with the first and best of all human stories: the quest narrative.

Once upon a time, a friend of mine gave me some advice on my prayer life. He, a devotee of Our Lady, said to me: “Stevie, to develop some real hardcore Marian piety, you should set up a shrine in your room and say your morning and evening prayers before it.” He then informed me that, in order to set up a half-decent shrine, I would need votive candles, which, he said, could be found on the bottom shelf of the Mexican aisle in any supermarket in this country.

I was skeptical. I worked in a supermarket as a cashier, but no one had ever come through my register with votive candles in their cart. The sociological factors were also aligned against me. I am from Maine, which is, if I recall correctly, the whitest state in the nation. It is also, if I recall correctly, the most irreligious state in the nation. The state in which Father Sebastian Rale, saint and martyr, was struck down for teaching the Abenaki the Gospel and protecting them from the ravages of the English is now considered “mission territory.”

In the current sad, but touching, state of affairs the Church in Maine finds itself in, we now rely on the Church in Africa to send us priests so that we can keep our parishes running. Reverse-colonialism has never been so good or so holy. And the Catholics that do call Maine home are mostly of Irish, French-Canadian, or Italian stock, with some recent African immigrants having joined their number. I was not sure any of these groups were the sort to buy up votive candles in such numbers as to ensure that they could be found in any supermarket.

I pondered all these things as I drove to a supermarket. By the time I arrived in the parking lot, I was fully conscious that the forces of godless secularism which rule the great state of Maine frowned upon my quest. Disregarding the dangers and the difficulties, I boldly strode through the sliding doors, which parted as the Red Sea before Moses. After entering the wilderness of the produce section, I began to wander around, since I had not been in that supermarket for some time. My desultory path took me past many displays. I passed the fruits and vegetables, the bread and other baked goods, the deli, an alcohol section—an extremely large alcohol section—and the seafood counter before I had in my sights the promised land: the Mexican section. Once there, I looked around to take it all in. Then I began searching for the votive candles. I looked up and saw tortillas. I looked to my right and saw taco seasoning packets. I looked to my left and saw those disgraceful abominations known as “hard-shell tacos.” And then I looked down, where I found nothing but more tortillas. Dejected, I prayed for the imminent success of the Reconquista and left the store without a word.

As I drove home with my eyes watering up a bit, it came to me that the whole thing had something of the quality of a rather didactic short story which you’d expect Flannery O’Connor to write, albeit with less violence than she’d put in it. All the necessary elements were there: the young man seeking something, the allure and the shabbiness of a world devoid of the things of God, a traumatic face-to-face encounter with nothingness, with evil—and who would deny that hard-shell tacos are evil in material form?—and a vague sense that, by the end of the story, our hero had learned something about all these things.

Steve Larkin is a freshman living in Stanford Hall. He has been known at various times as a “superstitious papist” and “that guy from Maine.” He can be reached at

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