September’s Sacramentals

gray pile of stones near trees
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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?

 

From Kristen:

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.

white and red flower during day time
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From Mary:

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.

white piano keyboard
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I Accept the Challenge for September

bright burn burnt candle
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Sacramentals intrigue me. I never thought of my habit of filling my pockets with stones, or my muttered prayers while doing repetitive gardening chores, or anything outside of church as a sacramental. I totally see it, now, though.

So, yes! I accept your challenge.

I will pay attention to my personal habits that perhaps are more like rituals. I will seek to identify the ordinary objects that could actually be sacramentals in my day-to-day life. While I am at it, I will see if I can find spaces in my day that NEED a ritual, or maybe could benefit from some sacramental object. I feel like I have got something  missing. Maybe sacramentals are it.

Once upon a time, I was a girl who saw the magic and the mystery in the spiritual realm, and honored it through ritual and symbols. Somewhere along the line, though, I purged all of that out of my life. It was impractical and unnecessary and foolish. Or something like that. I don’t even know anymore.

I don’t know if a few weeks of intention will answer my questions, but I have to start somewhere, right? I’m going to go light a candle and get started.

 

A Challenge for September: Infuse Your Day with Sacramentals

 

beige candle on beige saucer plate beside polished pebbles near window
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One thing Kristen and I have shared from the beginning of our writing journey has been a deep faith in God, independent of formal religion. I’ve been particularly grateful for that as the latest wave of sex abuse scandals have rocked my church yet again, and it’s increasingly difficult to know how to proceed as an individual and as a family (I discussed that here).

Kristen’s recent piece on blueberries and granite got me thinking more about sacramentals. Sacramentals within the Roman Catholic Church have a pretty strict definition and intent. There are lots of rules (for example, a sacramental is an object or action blessed by a priest, believed to be backed by the prayers of all the faithful, intended to bring the user closer to God, for starters).

That is not what I’m talking about here.

I’d like to challenge you—and myself—to take a look this month at the objects, prayers, and rituals we use in our own lives to bring ourselves closer to God, particularly in light of the fact that some of us are more suspicious than ever of a traditional patriarchal structure. My husband pointed out recently that faith is in God, while trust is in human beings. So if we’ve lost some of that trust, what can we do on our own to uphold our faith?

The words said during Catholic baptisms come to mind here: “Just as Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life.” So how are we living as priests, prophets, and kings (or maybe queens) in our own lives?

I love Kristen’s practice of finding stones to finger in her pocket as she walks, or paying prayerful attention to the plunk of blueberries in a bucket.

I still enjoy saying a good old-fashioned rosary myself. The beads and rhythm are comforting, and I like using one that belonged to my mom or dad. There is connection there. But I also like to hold a stone that a dear friend brought back from Jerusalem, imagining Christ walking by it, kicking up dust. I like lighting a candle before I pen letters to loved ones, focusing on the light, praying for the recipient. I like walking under the moon, knowing that countless saints and sinners alike, in every corner of the globe, through every age, have looked on the exact same glowing face. Talk about being one family.

I offer no rules, and only one suggestion: try to focus on things that draw your attention to the Almighty, rather than drawing your attention to the object or process itself. (It’s easy for ritual to become an end in itself.)

Does this sound a little heretical? I sincerely hope not. That’s not my intent. It’s just a result of a soul still wanting to reach for God while standing in the muck.

Today happens to be my youngest daughter’s Baptism Day anniversary, and she asked if I’d bake her favorite cookies. The smell is wafting to heaven, chocolate incense carrying prayers of gratitude for her own status as priest, prophet, and princess.