Sacramentals do not confer the grace of the Holy Spirit in the way that the sacraments do, but by the Church’s prayer, they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. “For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.” —1670, Catechism of the Catholic Church
I have a 5”x7’’ picture of the face of Jesus on the dresser directly across from the bed. It’s a pretty popular characterization of Christ that I suspect can be found in many Catholic homes. What makes the rendering especially moving are His eyes. They follow me. Not in the menacing way I imagined portraits and pictures did when I was younger. It’s a non-threatening, loving stare. His eyes search for me, pleading, imploring.
I keep the picture there as a concrete reminder that Jesus wants to hear from me and probably more important that I need to listen. It’s my intention that His eyes seeking mine are the first to greet me upon waking. Often what happens in any household though, spaces and shelves that are clear one day, suddenly become littered with random objects, stacked and scattered haphazardly. I’m not pointing any fingers, but a certain someone I happen to be sacramentally pledged to for the rest of my living days has a particular problem with accumulating clutter in spots that are otherwise neat and tidy. Slowly what transpires over the course of a few days, or weeks, things pile up on the dresser directly in front of my picture of Jesus. An empty coffee mug, a half-drunk water bottle, our kids’ latest and greatest artwork, books, a hairbrush, my saline spray, random receipts… Ok, some of it’s my junk too. Pretty soon Jesus is obscured in all that worldly clutter.
This morning when I woke up, I looked across the room and could make out only the top of His forehead. It’s a nice forehead as foreheads go, but it doesn’t exactly inspire the magnetism of those compelling, soulful eyes. I tried to snake my neck to gain a slightly better view. But a Ziplock bag loaded with junk made it impossible to see much more. It struck me in the moment, how this is the perfect allegory for my faith life. I often unknowingly, and unintentionally allow things of this world to get in the way of the view of my Lord, Jesus. Within the blink of an eye, He is blocked, obscured or seemingly way off in the distance. Not because of any change in His stationary, constant position, but because I’ve done a good job of blocking Him out—with stuff.
As a youngster, we had plenty of sacramentals peppered throughout our house. My parents had a huge painting of Christ above their headboard. I must admit, His eyes did seem to follow me in that creepy, “I’m watching you” kind of way. We had a prominently displayed pretty cream white Hummel of the Blessed Mother with the infant Jesus that was knocked over and glued back together numerous times. There were rosaries and scapulars hung from bedposts and a gold colored chi-rho (the P with the X through it) saved from my parents’ wedding cake that hung on our living room wall. I didn’t know it at the time, but the religious symbol signifies the first two letters of the word Christ in the Greek alphabet. Needless to say, there were concrete reminders of our faith throughout our house. I never really thought of them as such, but there they were. I was soaking in it.
My beloved Italian “Gramma Pippa” quite possibly illustrated the most enduring image of using sacramentals during the day to keep her eyes fixed on Jesus. She would go through drawers looking for other things, a photo, a recipe, her glasses and she’d inevitably come across a holy card lovingly stashed under a heap. She’d stare at the iconic image on the card, bow her head and deeply kiss it. Then, she would hand it to me and entreat me to kiss it as well. It felt so odd, but I loved my sweet Gramma and I knew it would please her. So I too kissed the picture of Jesus or the Blessed Mother and then the picture would get safely tucked back in the drawer sequestered away where it awaited the next opportunity to see the light of day.
As a middle-aged mom who honestly struggles with the concept of patience and mercy with regard to my children, I have found sacramentals to be a help in parenting. There have been moments where I am in mid-scream, rant or meltdown, when I spy a crucifix, a photo of JPII, a framed sketch of Mother Teresa cradling a baby, and I am shut down in my uncontrolled passions. And if I’m not directly in that moment arrested by an image of holiness and goodness, I am reminded almost immediately after. Ok, 10-15 minutes later. At least you can hang your hat on the fact that a sacramental has the real potential to make me rethink my words, actions, rage at some point later in the day.
The point is I need A LOT of reminders. In the midst of the worldly crap that so quickly accumulates, I have a real short-term memory problem. Simple tasks are sometimes impossible. Ask my holy other-half mentioned above who has to find my keys/ phone/ sunglasses on a DAILY basis. Not unlike that Nemo character, Dory, the lovable, but dim fish who earnestly chases something and then mid-stream completely forgets where she’s rushing, I am Dory in my Christian faith. I will sincerely pray and ask for great patience and then, not two seconds after making the sign of the cross, I’ve forgotten and am surrendering to anger. That’s why concrete reminders like sacramentals are such a big help. They can never take the place of the sacraments or our active discipleship as Catholics. In fact, I often ask myself if all these reminders were removed from our home, would anyone know we were Christian? Would they know we love Jesus by our actions and virtue? But sacramentals, when combined with a strong and genuine faith, are useful tools. I liken them to my GPS which can reorient all the pointless meandering and get you to where you need to go. Sacramentals direct us to convert our hearts daily, hourly and in my case, mid-tantrum. They can help put me back on the path. God already knows we’ll occasionally get off the path in our mission as His followers. He is the good shepherd. We are his sheep. Is it any wonder that sheep will pursue a hole in the hedgerow like a millennial to his SnapChat account? He knows what we need.
Even though I still can’t currently see my favorite image of Jesus from my spot on the bed, I know his eyes are still pleading with me. “Turn back. Turn back and look at me.”