Last weekend, we had a wonderful time at a local Greek festival, hosted by the Greek Orthodox church. Icons! Live bouzouki music! Beeswax candles! Roasting lamb’s legs! Pastries soaked in honey! It was amazing. They also had dancers, who performed pieces from various regions of Greece. The music and style of dance ranged from decorous to intense, reminding me that Greece is European, but it’s also very Middle Eastern. Strange, for both to exist together in a relatively small country.
As we licked the last sticky bits of loukoumades off our fingers, we browsed through the vendors’ hall, where we found more of this odd confluence of cultures dwelling together. Some items for sale (crosses, icons) were familiar to us as Roman Catholics, but some were strange: bracelets and amulets meant to ward off evil eyes, and censers with charcoal and an array of different kinds of incense, meant to cleanse the home of evil spirits.
Our Greek friend hastened to explain that these particular goods are not intended to be used superstitiously, but as aids in invoking God’s blessing and grace. The censers made more sense to me than the eyeball bracelets, but heck, my husband just went to visit Padre Pio’s heart in a glass box, so I’ll zip my lips about weird cultural practices by religious folk.
On the way home, I had a good conversation with my teenage son, who bought himself a blue and white enamel cross to wear around his neck. We talked about sacramentals, and how they are different from magic, and also how they are different from sacraments.
Sacramentals can be things like relics, rosaries, crucifixes, holy water, or blessed salt or oil, used along with prayer; or blessings or prayers can be sacramentals in themselves. Sacramentals may be used by lay people or by religious, depending on what they are and how they are being used.
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)
We do not wear blessed medals and expect them to protect us from falling in a hole. We don’t sprinkle holy water on a garden as a guarantee our pumpkins will win blue ribbons at the county fair. We don’t use sacramentals as good luck charms, amulets, or protective magic spells. We don’t bless a church and assume that only holy things can now happen inside it.
Instead, I think of using sacramentals like planting a flag: “I claim this van, or this child, or this day, or this hospital wing, in the name of Christ.” And after that? It’s His choice to decide what to do with His new territory, with our cooperation.
He can move right in and start building a city that everyone can see. An exorcism is a kind of sacramental that sometimes has dramatic, visible effects like this; or you might hear stories of someone putting a green scapular under someone’s mattress, and the very next day, the sleeper rises and decides to return to the Church.
Or, if you plant a flag, He can bide His time and see what grows up naturally. He can offer His grace and we can take it or leave it, build on it or ignore it. Most often, this is how sacramentals seem to work, and we’ll never know in this world exactly where our efforts ended and God’s grace began.
If you plant a sacramental flag and claim something for Christ, He can turn over immediate control to someone else, for reasons of His own. Goodness knows an endeavor that’s blessed does not always turn out well. Sometimes they go down in flames, just like their unblessed counterparts. It doesn’t mean that God is absent or that the sacramental didn’t “work”; it just means that God is God, and does things His way, not ours.
Failure and disaster come to all things and all people at one time or another. But I’d a thousand times rather fail under the protection of the Lord than do it alone. We know that sooner or later, the Master will come home and make things right on His property. In the meantime, we’ll fly His flag.