Some people look at a dark cloud and then try to find the silver lining.
Others see the lining first and pretty much put the cloud out of their minds. I know it may be more responsible to adopt the first attitude, but often enough I find myself taking the second.
Nowadays, as everyone else bemoans the energy crisis, I see it as something that may rid me of a long-term annoyance.
Newspapers have been filled with political cater-wauling about the energy shortage, which may or may not be a real shortage, depending on which commentator one follows.
Two decades ago, during another energy shortage, the U.S. Catholic Conference issued a document called Reflections on the Energy Crisis. It predicted doom and gloom—regular oil wars, oil priced at $100 per barrel and the virtual disappearance by 2000 of domestically produced oil and gas. “The days of cheap and plentiful power are over,” said the report.
It has turned out that, aside from the Persian Gulf, there have been no massive oil wars. Oil prices are around $30 per barrel and falling, with the Energy Department predicting $20 per barrel within two years. Worldwide proven oil reserves have more than doubled; ditto for reserves of natural gas.
Oil prices collapsed twice, once in the 1980s and once in the late 1990s. The inflation-adjusted price of gasoline dropped from $2.14 to $1.24 over 16 years. The price is higher now but won't be for long. Where I live, Southern California, fuel prices have held steady for weeks and now have begun to decline, even as the summer driving season ramps up.
Not only were the prognostications of the U.S. Catholic Conference proved wrong, but even recent worrywarts have been off the mark. We haven't had rolling blackouts around California for some time, and the ones we have had have been short and isolated. Of course, things are in flux, and blackouts may return as the overall energy situation seeks to stabilize over the summer and as 30 million Californians set air conditioners on full blast. But it will be a hit-and-miss thing—mainly miss, I suspect.
The lights will go out now and then, but not for long, and soon enough we'll be incandescently happy again.
Before the blackouts disappear down the memory hole, I want to take advantage of them while I can. In a small way they could spell liberation for Catholics.
Contrary to what many think, an energy crunch is not always, or at least is not in all ways, a bad thing. Higher prices result in more conservation and a return to motor vehicles that have engines measured in miles per gallon instead of yards per gallon. Pressure on utility companies now mean more power plants, perhaps even more efficient ones at that, in the future. And so on. Yet such considerations are for politicians, economists and talk show hosts.
Rolling blackouts might be good for the religious ambiance of our churches. Here's my plan.
My interest focuses less on what captures headlines than on what might happen at my parish. If timed judiciously, rolling blackouts might be good for the religious ambiance.
Here's my plan. While Californians are applying to the government for exemptions from electricity shutoffs (“If my power goes out, how will I keep up with my favorite soaps?”), I'd like to suggest that parishes volunteer to put themselves at the top of the list to be blacked out. It would be a sign of generosity to the community. It would be a way of taking on and reducing the suffering of others. It would be a true witness to our materialistic culture.
Best of all, it would snuff out those blasted electric votive lights.
Let others worry about oil wars, depletion of resources and soaring utility bills.
The real problem is in the nave of our churches, where pulsing filaments have been squeezing out beeswax candles. If we can solve this problem, we can solve any problem.
Yes, I know the rationale for electric candles. Although a stand for electric candles costs more than one for wax candles, in the long run light bulbs are cheaper than live flames. They're also safer.
No matter how high electricity prices are, it takes a fraction of a cent to illuminate a low-wattage bulb for a few minutes. What's more, no one in the rectory has to worry about cleaning out the remains of old wax candles and making sure there are enough lighter sticks or matches. Electric votive candles are clean, simple and antiseptic.
The problem with them is that they aren't real candles and can't convey the right symbolism. The essence of a wax candle is that it is consumed. Just as a prayer that accompanies the lighting of a candle takes something out of us—it is a holy work that exacts a cost—so the wax candle gets used up. Electric candles just recycle. It's not the same.
Maybe it's time to welcome the darkness and curse the electric candle.
Karl Keating is founding director of Catholic Answers in El Cajon, California.