Sunday, 4 September 2011

"What's the point? It's just a superstition." On blessings and sacramentals.

As you may or may not know, I'm a keen baker. It's not good for my waist line, but it means that people like me more than they normally would, so I think it's a fair trade. Thanks to a former housemate, I'm also into raiding the 'wild larder', which is fully stocked at this time of year with apples, blackberries, plums, and elderberries. I've spent many a happy weekend picking the fruit one day, and making something with it the next. This in itself is something of a spiritual experience, and I'm planning a more reflective, contemplative post on this topic for another time.

This year, I decided to make my annual jam-making session into a truly spiritual effort. Having discovered the Rituale Romanum last year, the one-stop-shop for the rituals of the Latin rite, I thought it would be a good thing to get the plums blessed before preserving them. Take a look at Chapter XI "Blessings and other sacramentals" - there's a blessing for pretty much anything! As an aside, you'll see Chapter XIII is about Exorcism (is it a coincidence that this is chapter 13?) - click on any of those links and see what happens.

Anyway, our parish priest was happy to oblige. He has on a number of occasions lamented the downturn in demand from the laity for things like blessings and other acts of popular devotion, and was delighted with the blessing, adapted from the blessing for grapes. He even took the prayer home to bless his crop of damsons (which he'd somehow managed to keep secret from me!).

Now, having mentioned this to a couple of friends, both young converts and, just as important, recipients of gifts of jam in previous years, they were both puzzled, if not positively scandalised, by this act of blessing plums. One said that this was one of those things which still made her think that "Catholics are weird", and that she was pretty convinced that only people could blessed, not things. Neither of them could see the point, and both indicated a suspicion of superstition in the whole thing.

Admittedly, when pressed for an explanation, I was at a loss. I don't know much about the specific theology or spirituality behind blessing objects, whether sacred or secular, and so decided to investigate; What is a sacramental? How do they work? Is it not beneath God's dignity to have plums blessed in His Name and with the sign of His Cross? I've turned to the Catechism and to the introduction to that chapter in the Rituale, and of course, to the Bible. Let's take a look at what they have to say.

The Catechism makes a number of references to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council's constitution on divine worship. SC explains sacramentals very simply. They are "sacred signs which bear a resemblance to the sacraments...By them men are disposed to receive the chief effect of the sacraments, and various occasions in life are rendered holy." They 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 co-operate with it." [CCC 1670] In fact, in the Church's view, by drawing on the power of Christ's Passion and Resurrection, "There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God." [SC 61].

So what are some examples of sacramentals, these sacred signs which dispose us to receive grace? First and foremost, blessings are sacramentals in themselves, and by them other sacramentals may be made. Take a look at any section of that chapter in the Rituale, and you'll see plenty of examples, but the most familiar will be things like the blessing at the dismissal of Mass, icons and statues, Rosary beads, scapulars, Stations of the Cross, even the altar in church is counted as a sacramental. Through all these signs, and the prayer of the Church which goes hand-in-hand with them, we are called to fix our minds "on things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth." [Col 3:2]

But, surely, these sacramentals, these pictures and objects and garments are earthly things? How can they help us towards our heavenly destination? St. Paul explains to St. Timothy that every creature of God is good, and "is sanctified [i.e. made holy] by the word of God and prayer." [1 Tm 4:5]. Further, in his letter to the Romans, the Apostle tells the Church that "the entire creation...still retains the hope of being freed, like us, from its slavery to decadence, to enjoy the same freedom and glory of the children of God [emphasis mine]." [Rm 8:19-21]

Why does the rest of creation need to be freed? As the Rituale explains, "The fall of man caused lower creatures to be separated from God, for they were bound to God through mankind." Just as God made us and saw that we were good, and that goodness has been compromised by the Fall, so too for the rest of creation. When Our Lord sanctified human nature by taking it to Himself in His Incarnation, so too He made holy all those everyday things He came into contact with.

The Church has always understood this 'making holy' accomplished by Jesus. St. John records that He cured a blind man by making a paste out of His own spit and the mud on the ground, applying it to the man's eyes, then sending him to wash it off in the pool of Siloam, which was full of ritual significance for the Jews [cf. Jn 9:1-8]. The Synoptics tell us that the woman with the hemorrhage was cured by touching His cloak [e.g. Mk 5:25-34]. The liturgy of the Church teaches us, in the Eucharistic preface of St. John the Baptist, that "[St. John] baptized Christ, the giver of baptism, in waters made holy by the one who was baptized."

 In fact, given that we're talking about sacramentals, let's look at an example of the 'real thing', a sacrament. Take the Eucharist. The new translation of Mass is much clearer than the old one, that when Jesus took the bread, "He blessed it, broke it, gave it to his disciples..." What is clear is that it is the bread which is blessed, not His Apostles.

Now, let's be clear about this...all of this is entirely unnecessary on God's part. He doesn't need to make a paste to cure blindness, or have a cloak to cure bleeding, or even water to pour out His Holy Spirit or bread to share His divine life with us. Let us reflect on that fact, and then realize that He, who only does what is wisest and most loving, has chosen to work this way anyway! He has no problem using created things to help us - consider that He uses us, mere creatures, to carry on His saving work, which He certainly doesn't need to do. He sees fit to pour out His Spirit on us through the waters of baptism, He feeds us with His body through the sign of bread.

Surely, no Catholic would say of the Sacraments, "Oh, that's superstition!". That the sacramentals are not an end in themselves, and are ordered for our good and sanctification just like the Sacraments, is made clear in every one of the blessings in the Rituale. For example, in the blessing for beer, the Church prays: "Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord." Likewise, the Eucharistic bread is not transubstantiated for its own good (an absurd idea) but for the eternal good of mankind.

The Rituale is well aware of the problems faced by sacramentals, acknowledging that "some are apt to be disedified rather than edified when they are made aware that the Church has a mind to speak a blessing on a horse, silkworm, bonfire, beer, bridal chamber, medicine or lard." Pride and sophistication are to blame for this antipathy, according to the introduction to the chapter. Recognising the important place that God has allocated to created things in His plan for our salvation, and genuinely desiring to make our whole lives holy, let's be confident in asking our priests to bless our houses, cars, and yes, plums.

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