When I was a 4-year-old in 1969, I would stay with Mrs. Stack, an elderly neighbor, on weekdays after pre-school. Mrs. Stack’s house was a domestic church. It had beautiful holy water fonts, statues of saints, and a prayer corner complete with a missal, Bible, and prayer cards. There were three hearts on her kitchen wall and rosaries all around. At the time, I didn’t understand what any of those things were. I knew that they were beautiful and important to her.
By the time I was 10, my family began to go to the Baptist church and I had mostly forgotten about Mrs. Stack and the comfort I felt from those beautiful objects. I would not seriously think of them again until I entered the Church in 1996.
My home is now very much as I remember Mrs. Stack’s was. I have saint statues, holy water fonts, third-class relic saint cards, rosaries everywhere, and our installation of the Sacred Heart. I have come to understand that these are sacramentals, an important element of my faith life that I believe supports our understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist in tangible ways.
As a convert, raising my children in the Catholic faith required me to do significant reading from the Catechism, the saints, and the Doctors and Fathers. According to the Catechism, sacramentals are “sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments. They signify effects, particularly of a spiritual nature, which are obtained through the intercession of the Church. By them, men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1667)
Sacramentals, therefore, are not merely there to remind me of God’s grace; they literally assist me in receiving effects from the sacraments to live a holier life. I try never to miss an opportunity to increase the effects I can receive from the sacraments, so I have systematically tried to increase the number of sacramentals that I have in my home and participate with as often as possible.
Touching these sacramentals and thinking about what they represent helps prepare us for the proper reception of the Eucharist. There should never be a week where one only thinks of God during Mass time. A relationship requires time and energy, and sacramentals give us a strong bond between ourselves and Christ. If we cooperate with that grace, we can more fully participate in the Mass because we have lived the reality of the Real Presence every day.
Even as my family has moved around over the years, we make sure to have a font at the entrance of each room of the house, especially the entrances/exits and the bedrooms. Seasonally we will have Epiphany water in them, but regular holy water proves efficacious as well if we make the sign of the cross with devotion. Blessings, such as the sign of the cross, are forms of sacramentals, as the Catechism explains, “Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father ‘with every spiritual blessing.’” (Catechism, No. 1671)
Blessed salt and oil are not only exceptionally helpful to have on hand when someone in my family is ill, but also can be used appropriately in our food. A priest friend told me that salt and oil can both be used in salads, so as not to be “cooked out,” or placed under the tongue in times of temptation or tribulation. My family has used both in these ways, and I find the food more flavorful and the consolation palpable.
Third-class relics can assist during meditation on the lives of the saints. As I have grown in my faith I have enjoyed having a holy card of the particular saint I am reading both as a bookmark and contemplative object to look upon while I consider what I’ve read.
All around the Catholic calendar are blessings for objects that can then provide us with another interface between the spiritual and temporal: wine, herbs, animals, etc.
Now that I am Mrs. Stack’s age and I have a grandchild whose faith I will help form, I think often and fondly of that beautiful domestic church and the beautiful woman who made me feel safe there. One of the many blessings of her care is that I learned and can now contemplate that we are never too old nor too young to feel awe in the presence of the sacred. That awe is a step toward loving God.