By Kathy Berken
The Catholic Messenger
In my February column, I wrote about the dangers of falling prey to seeing God as a divine gumball machine where all we have to do is insert our prayer request and God will dispense what we want. That, I said, was moving into the uncharted territory of magical thinking.
This month I want to continue along the same thought, but focus on sacramentals, “sacred signs instituted by the Church to prepare us to receive the fruit of the sacraments and to sanctify different circumstances of our lives” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1677). These include sacred objects, gestures or blessings.
I know, it’s easier to say that holy water, medals, statues, genuflecting or making the sign of the cross hold no magical powers, but I believe that it’s much harder to actually live that. I’m as guilty as the next person in that regard.
Let me tell you a story to make my point. Back in the mid-1950s, my 6-year-old brother Don broke his leg, leaving him in constant pain, even though the doctor said his leg was healing. One day when my dad was out on a sales call, he mentioned my brother’s accident to a client, who gave him a medal of Padre Pio and told him to pin it on Don’s cast. When Dad got home that evening, my mother reported that Don’s leg finally stopped hurting. When did that happen? About the time my dad received the medal. Naturally, the family story has been about the miracle of healing, due to the power of the medal, or at least that Padre Pio (who was still alive) interceded through the transfer of that medal. That experience has given me a lifelong devotion to Padre Pio.
But I walk a fine line with this. My faith says that there are mysteries that only God knows, so who am I to question an event that may be of God, regardless? But my faith also says that I am not to rely on superstitions or attach magical (or even miraculous) powers directly to objects, even if they are blessed and sacred. Why not? Because that kind of thinking leads us away from the real power of those objects and gestures of devotion.
I consider myself a progressive, open-minded, practicing Catholic with a good understanding of my lifelong faith who has grown into a broader understanding of traditions such as sacramentals. Yes, I have plenty of traditional Catholic things nearby: a bottle of holy water from Lourdes, crucifixes, angel images, rosaries, holy cards and pictures, statues, prayer books, a picture of Padre Pio with a vial of oil he once blessed, etc. When I was young, each spring I turned my dresser into a May altar with everything related to the Blessed Mother. I had a statue of St. Christopher on my dashboard for years. It was comforting to believe that all of these things could protect me, but honestly, did Christopher keep me from harm, or was the statue a reminder that I should drive more carefully?
Now, I find a deeper meaning in these things. My medals, holy water, crosses, statues and pictures not only remind me of the rich history of my faith, but also of the strong connections I have with the community of saints who are with us to help us through this life. God does send us angels in our darkest hours. Bernadette was a young woman of great faith and integrity. Mary’s life of love, strength and leadership is a good example of how to be a woman of faith in today’s world. Padre Pio was a holy man who lived a difficult but blessed life for others.
The objects that surround me and the gestures I make have no power in and of themselves. All sacramentals are fierce reminders of the presence of God, tangible evidence of the connection between the secular and the sacred.
(Kathy Berken has a master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minn. She lived and worked at The Arche, L’Arche in Clinton 1999-2009 and is author of “Walking on a Rolling Deck: Life on the Ark (stories from The Arch).”)