I have always been drawn to sacramentals. I keep on hand holy water, medals, and many Lents’ worth of palm branches, not to mention a drawer full of miscellaneous holy cards and third-class relics (some of which are blessed, though I’ve mostly forgotten which ones).
I often think to myself that it might help me to use them a bit more. But sometimes I worry about abusing them, falling into the error of treating them like good luck charms. I guess that despite my attraction to the idea of sacramentals, I have always been foggy on exactly what they are, and how they work.
So I poked around a bit and found out three things that took away my fears and cleared things up for me.
Sacramentals are more than just blessed objects
Religious (and sometimes ordinary) objects that have been blessed by a priest are sacramentals. But other things are too. A sacramental can be an action, time, place, or event — anything used by the Church to open us up to God’s grace. So, for example, fasting, genuflecting, or making the sign of the cross is a sacramental, as is a sacred place like the site of an approved Marian apparition. There are also blessings of the home or vehicles, or special blessings and objects associated with saints, such as the blessing of throats on St. Blase’s day, or St. Joseph’s table. Even Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt’s flying Miraculous Medal is a sacramental. Sacramentals are all around us.
More to read: 4 Quick facts about the veneration of relics
Sacramentals get their power partly from your disposition
The seven sacraments don’t rely on your disposition to work. I can be a real jerk but still contract a true marriage. A priest’s ordination can be valid whether or not he is a holy man. A baptism can be performed on a small child unaware of what is happening. But with sacramentals, your disposition opens you up to the grace God wants to give. In this sense, using a sacramental is like praying. Just saying the words or going through the motions isn’t enough. Blessing yourself with holy water or genuflecting might not be a way to open yourself to grace, if you’re doing those acts unthinkingly, or with wrong intentions, just as saying the words of the Our Father doesn’t mean much if your heart isn’t lifted to God, however imperfectly.
Sacramentals also get their power from the prayers of the Church
But your disposition isn’t the only thing that counts. Using a sacramental unites your prayer—as flawed and weak and poor as it most certainly is—with the intercessory prayers of the universal Church, the Bride of Christ. Imagine how you would feel if a great saint were your next-door neighbor, and you could ask him to pray with you for an intention of yours. Hearing your neighbor’s words united to your own would be a boon to your faith in the power of prayer.
We can have this same hope when we pray with a sacramental, since the prayer is no longer ours alone, but in a special way becomes the prayer of the Church. When I bless myself with holy water, and pray for grace, it’s me asking Christ for that, with the whole Universal Church asking Him too. What a tremendous gift this is.
Sacramentals aren’t essential in the way sacraments are. They’re just extra boosts. God wants to give us everything He possibly can to help our faith. Sacramentals aren’t magic charms, or a way to coerce God into doing our will. They’re just little channels of grace to help unite us with God.