For September, I challenged Kristen (and myself) to identify current or establish new habits in our daily lives that connect us to God—what we labeled as Sacramentals.
After that we pretty much went silent for the month.
September hit us both a bit like a cement truck, and our carefully laid-out schedule for posts was an early casualty. But the seed for sacramentals was already planted—so how’d we do?
I have not filled my days with magic and mystery or anything. Still, I was surprised to recognize some ordinary everyday sacramentals I already have in my life.
I start my day, every day, pouring a cup of coffee while the dogs are out doing their morning business. Like most of the people I know, I have a ridiculous number of coffee mugs that I have collected over the years. I only use three of them, though. My number one choice is the mug my kid brother gave me for Christmas my freshman year in college over thirty years ago. It’s ringed with Boynton’s quirky animals at school desks. It says, “The little joys of teaching are without number.” It makes me smile every single time. Sometimes, though, it is missing (read that as “it’s in one of my sons’ bedrooms becoming some sort of frightening lab experiment.”) Then I grab the St. Damien of Molokai mug I got at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Retreat Center. The retreat center is a beautiful place that never fails to bring me peace and some sort of enlightenment. And I always had a thing for Father-now-Saint Damien, the priest who risked—and ultimately lost—his own life to care for the lepers on the island of Molokai. What kind of love must that be? I want it. The mug is always a good reminder.
The third mug is the one that made me realize that my three coffee mugs are sacramental objects.
The third mug came from the gift shop at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. About twenty years ago, one of my husband’s coworkers-become-closest-friends-who-then-became-part-of-our-family came back from a visit to his folks’ with the mug, along with a cedar cribbage board and a balsam filled pillow from Sequoia National Forest. It just tickled him to give us such goofy tchotchkes from tourist spots. His laughter was booming and infectious. It was one of the best things about him. When he died tragically a year later, the mug became my way of remembering him. This past week, I discovered that one of my sons accidentally broke the mug, leaving the pieces on the kitchen counter for me. He (whichever he it was) knew that the mug was too important to just throw out. At that moment, I realized that I treated it—and the other two mugs—as sacramentals.
The other sacramentals in my life are more transient. On my meditative walks, I have a habit of picking up some small natural objects—stones, shells, acorns, feathers… I will put them on my desk or in the small dish on my nightstand for a time, eventually swapping them out for new collections of objects. Last Sunday, while making my first visit to the series of meditation gardens and labyrinth at a local Episcopal parish, I was especially touched by one small space that is nestled under a huge oak tree. A square of pea stone marks off the area. There are two benches across from each other to sit at while praying. In the center of the square was a stone that had been worn away on top, so that it loosely resembled a bowl. In each corner of the square were planter pots filled with small stones. A sign at the entrance to the space encouraged people to take a small stone and hold it while they prayed, imagining their intention being put into the stone. When the prayer was complete, the stone could be added to the stones in the center stone bowl. It was a lovely way to think about our collective intentions and prayers. And it has given me new insight into my practice of collecting as I walk.
Just today I realized that I have another garden-related sacramental. Spring bulbs. For the past thirteen years, since we moved to this house, I have planted tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs. Looking back over the years, I realize that this has become a ritual for me. Planting bulbs in my yard is a radical act of faith—the soil is iffy, the weather is unpredictable, and the moles are voracious. Every fall I plant them, not knowing what will bloom come spring. It’s a tangible act of hope and faith.
I honestly thought this month’s dare would be easy for me. I like tangible reminders of faith, and it felt like a logical way for me to remain connected to God while the politics and scandals of organized religion keep buzzing around everywhere I look. I just purchased a used copy of the Liturgy of the Hours that I was excited to delve into, and I was going to carve out time to finally sift through The Catholic Box—the various religious keepsakes of my parents that my brother gave me after my mom’s death, since I was the last sibling still Catholic.
I grossly underestimated the depth of my own anger and sorrow.
When I thought of plunging into the eternal current of prayers of the communion of saints, I just felt cold, like a stranger. And when I looked in the direction of the Box—well, I cried.
Words failed me this month, and as someone who relates to the world largely through words, and who considers them the closest thing I have to an art form, that’s a scary and isolating experience.
The one thing that did comfort me this month was playing the piano. Revisiting pieces I played growing up, pieces that were my mom’s favorites, or that dad always commented on, or that I remember my piano teacher pleading, “No, with more feeeeeling” with a pointless sigh because my 15 years on the planet had been blissfully free of the depth of feeling she was looking for—playing them to an empty house allowed my heart to speak through my fingers without having to engage my brain. I do not play piano well, and I do not play for an audience. But this month I was able to pray the notes directly to God when words just could not suffice.