My husband works at our Archdiocesan seminary, and we try to meet him for Mass there at least once a week. The other day, I was pacing the narthex with my two year old, who had had speech therapy that morning. Her main speech goal at the moment is putting together two word phrases.
As she was exploring the narthex, she discovered the holy water fonts (of which there are four). In classic toddler fashion, she whined and begged to be lift up to dip her hand in one of them. I obliged, but no sooner had she “blessed” me and herself, that she had her eyes fixed on the next font. “More!” she begged.
Suddenly, an idea occurred
to me. “Say, ‘More holy water!’” Her face lit up, and with prompting she said, “Mo…oh-ee…wadder. Pease!” Each time she gestured at the holy water fonts, I made her repeat her request before I helped her. By the end of Mass, the middle of her shirt was soaking wet with “oh-ee wadder”, but she was very pleased.
It wasn’t the first time that it had occurred to me, but our little holy water speech therapy had me thinking about the power of sacramentals in our lives.
A sacramental is not a means of receiving grace (as a Sacrament is), but rather a means by which we become more open to receiving grace. Holy water is one of the most common sacramentals, but sacramentals also include things like rosaries, scapulars, crucifixes, etc. In paragraph 1674 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it says, “The religious sense of the Christian people has always found expression in various forms of piety surrounding the Church’s sacramental life, such as the veneration of relics, visits to sanctuaries, pilgrimages, processions, the Stations of the Cross, religious dances, the rosary, medals, etc.”
One of my favorite things about the Catholic Church is this recognition of our natural draw toward physical things. The Church does not condemn that which is bodily, but embraces it and sanctifies it. Contrary to the beliefs of some faiths, the Church affirms that the body is good, and that the created world is good. Yes, the world is fallen and there is sin. But the Church believes that it’s worthwhile to offer up this fallen world – a world created to be good – to God. The work of Christ’s redemption begins this, and he invites us to partake in the ongoing work of claiming the world for Christ.
From the beginning of the Church, heresies have existed (such as the Gnostic heresy) that have professed the body and the physical world to be bad, and only the spiritual to be good. But that simply isn’t true, and we need look no further than the incarnation – i.e. God choosing to take on human flesh – in order to see that our bodies matter. Our bodies are destined to one day be glorified with Christ’s.
Sacramentals are powerful reminders of what human nature is. We are a people who need to not only hear, but also see and touch and taste and smell. Sacramentals (and even the Sacraments themselves) acknowledge that reality. Our churches and our liturgies are filled with things to look at, things to smell, things to touch, things to hear, and even the Eucharist to taste. The Church acknowledges that we are bodily people, and that our bodies are good and can one day be glorified.
The beautiful thing about sacramentals is that they are easily accessible to all people. Anyone can wear a scapular, finger rosary beads, or even incessantly dip their fingers in holy water. With each sacramental we encounter, we are being taught something about our faith, and simultaneously opened up to grace. A scapular reminds us of Mary’s motherhood of the Church and of her constant intercession for us, the rosary calls to mind the mysteries of the life of Christ, and holy water is used to bless us and to call to mind our baptisms.
These sacramentals are profoundly good for that very reason – they make us better disposed to receive grace, and they allow the Gospel to be preached to us using all of our senses. Sacramentals and Sacraments are reminders that our bodies were created to be good, and we needn’t fear our physicality.