A switch flips inside of me when a dark room is lit only by candlelight. I instantly enter into a sacred stillness. There is something deeply intimate about a candlelit space, it even seems to inspire whispering. It’s as if we somehow know not to disturb the silence lest we miss something that’s enveloped within it, or worse yet, chase it away.
I also tend to be more nocturnal, so maybe that is why candlelit churches affect me so deeply. There is nothing I love more than to be alone in a dark church late at night with only the flickers of the tabernacle lamp and votive candles. It’s like I can finally exhale, lay everything down at the feet of Jesus, and just sit with Him undisturbed within His private chambers. I can almost hear His heartbeat then. And I just never want that moment to end.
My images here of Rorate Masses I’ve attended reflect some of my most favorite things about Advent. These Masses have a beautiful way of engaging so many of our senses, making the spiritual world palpably incarnational.
A Rorate Mass, something of a rarity these days, is a votive Mass in honor of Our Lady springing from the Traditional Latin Mass of the Church offered in Advent, is said before dawn, and lit only with candles. (It may also be offered as a Novus Ordo Mass, but that might be even more rare.) “Rorate” comes from the opening words of the entrance antiphon, or introit, of the Mass.
“Rorate, caeli, desuper, et nubes pluant justum, aperiatur terra, et germinet Salvatorem.”
“Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened, and bud forth a Saviour” Is 45:8
What sets this Mass apart is that it is lit with only the use of candles and is said in the predawn hours. The visuals are so striking in that at first, we see only the warm glow of the candles and then by the end of Mass, the light of day begins to bleed through the stained-glass windows into the womb-like space of a dark church creating an otherworldly realm, incarnating the sense of Heaven pouring its Light down like dew into our dark souls.
I’d like to invite you to take a little visual pilgrimage with me, letting these images soak in and hopefully stimulate some new spiritual pathways of prayer to God who is Beauty.
Let’s consider the beeswax candles. Their light conveys the single-hearted purity of the virginal female worker honeybees that pierces the darkness with the sweet hope of a brighter Light yet to come. This is why a honeybee is also a symbol for Our Lady, so it makes the profusion of beeswax candlelight at these votive Masses that much more fitting. It’s like being wrapped up in the pure warm glow of our Mother Mary as she softly models for us receptivity to her Son.
The dark and dimly lit setting facilitates the time and space for personal contemplation regardless of how packed the church might be. Each person’s candle delineates their private space to pray and even examine their conscience as part of their Advent preparations. This silhouette is so iconic that I can’t help but see the de la Tour Magdalene a hundred times over, and it is a most fitting association. Georges de la Tour painted many figures illumined with just one candle, and with many versions of the repentant Mary Magdalene as she contemplates the fleeting vanities of the world, recognizing the folly in it, and ultimately setting her sights on Christ alone.
There’s an extra sense of mystery when using incense with only candlelight. It creates more of a glowy, veiling haze, against the darkness of the church. We can almost imagine being taken up into the clouds of Heaven, disappearing from the dark earth below while we visualize the incense purifying the offerings we are preparing on the altar of our heart.
I often feel like a bride all over again as I walk down the aisle to receive Holy Communion. But when the church is adorned with candles lighting the way to the altar, the bridal imagery sinks in that much deeper. It’s as if the candles lining the aisle are like little angel-bridesmaids escorting me to my Beloved. Take a moment to imagine yourself walking down this aisle to receive Christ who eagerly awaits you!
I love turning to St. John of the Cross during my nocturnal meditations since he communicates so well the soul’s longing to fly unseen into the heart of the Beloved. To steal away into the night and wait for Him, knowing that you’ll be able to receive Him in the Eucharist, intimately like a bride in her wedding chamber, harkens to Our Lady being overshadowed by the Holy Spirit to receive the seed of Eternity.
One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
– ah, the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the One that burned in my heart.
~from the poem by St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul
How I love waiting for my Lord at the Communion rail! It’s like a little altar, all my own, that I place my heart on as a sacrifice and wait for the deluge of Grace.
Receiving Communion in a dim, candlelit church, I can’t help but sense a foretaste of what a happy death might be. There’s the darkness that death represents in this world and the emerging light of Christ descending in the Flesh to come get me one last time. Please God, that I would remain faithful in hope to have Our Lord personally descend from heaven to make His final plea for my heart, and that I have the grace to have one last chance to proclaim, “Yes, Lord! Let it be done!”
This moment, right here, sums up Advent for me and the natural condition of our life on earth: to remain faithful and receptive to Christ who came, is here, and will come again.
In this next image I love the movement of the altar boys descending down the stairs, as if carrying the graces of the Mass to the people with something like a kaleidoscope of colors behind them. It suggests the imperceptible myriad of graces we never see, and too often miss, that are being showered down upon at us every moment. Try to let yourself feel that interiorly while looking at the image, and intentionally chose to cooperate with what God is granting you in this moment. Given also that the two boys appear to be almost walking off the image, like we almost just missed them, reminds me of how if we don’t watch for and accept the graces offered to us in each moment, they will pass us by fruitlessly. Here, the great Caravaggio’s Calling of Matthew comes to mind and how Christ’s feet are positioned as though already walking away, signifying how the invitation to follow could pass us by if we don’t embrace the grace of the moment.
In our final meditation let us place ourselves before the throne of Grace. Imagine ourselves kneeling down with Our Lady, being receptive to the Light, with no obstacles as though through a stained-glass window, begging to be pierced by the Holy Spirit so profoundly that we too can uniquely bring forth Christ to the world, enfleshed. Let us try to receive Him as if we are having our own Annunciation moment.
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
Therefore the child to be born
will be called holy, the Son of God.” Lk 1:35
Did anything stir in your soul looking at these images and following the meditations? Did any joys or obstacles register in your heart? How do you feel about being alone with God in an empty church? What thoughts or feelings does it bring up, especially waiting for Him? Do you feel a sense of intimacy with Him or does God feel far way, disinterested in your particulars of life? Do you feel you can speak heart to heart with Him naturally or does it feel like something is missing or that you aren’t doing something “right”? Take some time to gauge what you’re experiencing and ask God to help you find your unique way of receiving Him in this particular moment so that His Grace embeds into your heart more deeply.
Thank you for reading and I hope it was edifying! To get notified as I post more reflections on ways to pray with art, subscribe via my Contact page and let me know interests or topics you’d like to see covered. To support more of this work, have a look at my Shop to share my artwork that helps facilitate intimacy with Christ through beauty.
Images and meditation by Renata Grzan Wieczorek. Use only with permission.