[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]
The introduction of the electric votive machine into Catholic churches during the early twentieth century organized a new devotional environment within the space of the side altar. The steady glow of the electric bulb chased away the chiaroscuro play of shadow upon the forms of the saints. The sound of falling coinage as it actuated the electronic switch mechanism of this new technology of illumination marked the disappearance of wax and soot accretions—the residual traces of prayer—from the votive space.
On a basic sensory level, the performance of prayer was no longer accompanied by the feeling of warmth radiating from the votive stand, or the thick smell of smoke, sulfur matches, and melting wax. The act of striking a match or of igniting an elongated wooden stick to illuminate the votive candle collapsed into the single action of dropping a coin or pressing a switch; votive prayer became a moment of electric shock and mechanized coincidence. The very form of automaticity itself shifted from the irregular holocausts of an ensemble of cotton filament and beeswax to the precise temporal mechanisms of the time switch.
Through the introduction of the electric votive, a crucial sensation of divine presence retreated into the inner machinations of the apparatus. The flicker and intensity of the naked flame no longer registered the presence of the sacred or the efficacy of the prayer for the devotee. Some votive machines were not automatically actuated by a coin in the slot, but by the pressing of switch-buttons surrounding the donation box: the apparatus believes in you.