Wednesday, June 2, 2010

More Prayer Candles, Please!

You may have missed it (I know I did) but last year a store in San Francisco started selling its own line of Saint Obama Prayer Candles.

The candle is actually a knock off of an "official" Saint. Juan Martin de Porres was born in 1579 in Lima, Peru, and died in 1639. His father was a Spanish lord, and his mother was a former slave, to whom the nobleman was not married.

St. Martin was a vegetarian and included among the miracles attributed to him are bilocation, levitation, miraculous healing, and communication with animals. He was beatified in 1962 and his feast day is November 3rd. Some consider him the patron saint of interracial couples and of racial harmony.

In addition to the original, (one of a handful of major players in the Prayer Candle industry, which is estimated to be worth between $100M and $2B annually) now sells their own Obama Hope Prayer Candle, which bears no resemblance to St. Martin de Porres or any other actual saint.

Prayer candles are usually associated with Catholicism, Spiritism, various Latin American folk-beliefs, and Afro-Carribean religions (especially Santeria). But some enterprising visionaries have started to branch out with candles inspired by Eastern religions, Astrology, etc. The Wandering Gypsy Soul Candle Company has a beautiful line of Muses of the Zodiac candles as well as "Chakra Novena" and "Laughing Buddha" candles.

But it would be hard to beat the offbeat selection of Prayer Candles at the Vintage Religion website, whose self-description is "unique gifts inspired by the religions and cultures of the world." Alongside their nice selection of traditional and folk-Catholic candles (and also some very pretty rosaries and other standard items -- but they also carry "Jesus Hates It When You Smoke" ashtrays!), Vintage Religion also has an assortment of Hindu-themed Prayer Candles honoring Ganesh, Shiva, Lakshmi, Kali, Durga, Krishna and also a Radha/Krishna candle.

In addition to their Hindu themed candles, Vintage Religion also sells three Buddhist themed candles (including Kuan Yin), four different Frida Kahlo candles, and a Chinese Dragon candle. They also have a Saint Martin de Porres candle that looks like it was the model for the Saint Obama candle mentioned earlier.

One artist who has productively explored what can be done with the Prayer Candle as a visual medium is Vicky Berndt, who, in addition to the Judy Garland candle pictured to the right, also has produced candles honoring Loretta Lynn, Karen Carpenter, Little Richard, Salvador Dali and more.

Berndt appears to approach the whole Prayer Candle thang strictly from a popular culture angle, with no real interest in any any spiritual significance. That's kind of a shame, but her candles are so beautiful and ingenious just as they are that it is unfair to criticize for them for what they are not.

I also should mention that Robert Place, designer of the Alchemical Tarot, now sells a beautiful Prayer Candle sporting the High Priestess image from that deck (pictured to the left).

My purpose here, though, transcends mere pimpage for a few online artists and merchants whose Prayer Candles meet and exceed my expectations. More importantly, these examples help to highlight two features of the Prayer Candle phenomenon that might be overlooked (although they are already present even there) in the more ordinary candles found on the shelves at your local grocery store or Walmart.

First of all, the mass produced, low-cost nature of the Prayer Candle makes it an inviting template for experimentation. To the right kind of mind, every Prayer Candle has "your crazy idea HERE" emblazoned across it. And the Prayer Candle's "industrial" characteristics also lend themselves to a market-driven selection process to determine which ideas not only tickle the artist's fancy, but resonate with a wider audience. There are severe limits to this second point, however, unless you have friends at one of the major candle manufacturers or the distributors.

When the above two considerations (low-cost mass production + market-driven positive feedback) are solidly grounded in mass pop-culture, as opposed to the self-conscious boutique pop-culture-as-kitsch POV of someone like Vicky Berndt, though, they take on a new life. In real pop-culture the innovativeness of the individual artist takes a back seat (and then some) to what sells. But the results can be just as startling and fascinating as Berndt's latest brainchild: her Michael Jackson as Krishna candles.

Because of its mass appeal and mass-production the Prayer Candle becomes an unphotoshopped snap-shot of real-world spirituality in all its glorious messiness: inclusive of love-magic, money-magic, legal-magic, healing, devotion and spiritual enlightenment. When it comes to Prayer Candles it seems that nothing is censored simply because it is too strange or crude or even profane, nor is there any hesitation or embarrassment about expressing the loftiest and most selfless religious aspirations. Indeed Saint Augustine of Hippo must take his place beside Jesus Malverde (considered to be the Patron Saint of Drug Dealers).

One can almost imagine Huston Smith gazing at the shelves of his local Botanica when he wrote these words:
What a strange fellowship this is, the God-seekers in every land, lifting up their voices in the most disparate ways imaginable to the God of all life. How does it sound from above? Like bedlam, or do these strains blend in strange, ethereal harmony? Does one faith carry the lead, or do the parts share in counterpoint and antiphony where not in full-throated chorus?

We cannot know. All we can do is try to listen carefully and with full attention to each voice in turn as it addresses the divine.

[The World's Religions, p. 2]

[This is a follow-up post to Lady GaGa Prayer Candles.]