Weapons for battle: the use of sacramentals (holy water, blessed salt, crucifixes) in the Christian life
February 17, 2017
Maybe the thought of doing spiritual battle against demonic forces conjures up Hollywood images from The Exorcist, with an outstretched crucifix and dramatic exchanges of liquids, both holy and not. Maybe it strikes you as hokey or superstitious. Maybe the thought of it harkens uncomfortably far back in human history to a time before computers and antibiotics and space travel, to when people had to resort to magical, pagan-esque rituals to protect their hapless, unenlightened selves from the horrors of the natural world.
The truth is, though, we are still an incarnate people, made from dust and atoms and flesh both weak and redeemed by the One Whose flesh was pieced for us. When Jesus bent in the dirt at the feet of the deaf and mute man, He spat into dust and mixed mud in His palm, smearing the most base and ordinary elements into a miracle-working paste that was activated not by superstition or any kind of inherent qualities that dirt possessed, but by the nuclear reaction between His grace and the deaf man’s faith.
That, in a nutshell, is the power of sacramentals, which is a fancy theology word for the seemingly ordinary items we as Christians have access to in our lifelong battle with evil.
The faith of the Church imbues these ordinary elements (water, salt, crucifixes, icons, medals, etc.) with a blessing that is effective in it’s own right, but is only fully realized when combined with personal faith and a rightly-ordered life. Holy water is not magic, any more than the rings I wear on my left hand, blessed and sanctified in the sacramental exchange of our wedding vows, are somehow sufficient to guarantee my fidelity to my marriage. I must cooperate with that inherent grace in the daily choices I make to honor those vows and serve that man. The rings are holy, but they can only strengthen what is already there.
That analogy is imperfect, but hopefully helpful enough to communicate the point? Which is this: the grace is all God’s giving, but He chooses, as He has chosen all along, to sanctify the ordinary and the earthly to communicate the extraordinary.
So, with that understanding, we have been making increasingly frequent use of sacramentals in our home, both to help incarnate the faith for our children and to arm us in the daily battle against Satan. Win/win.
Here are some of the heavy hitters:
Crucifixes. Maybe this is obvious (though I don’t think it occurred to me until a couple years into motherhood), but having a crucifix in every bedroom (and in the main living space and hey, why not the kitchen if you live there most of the day) is a powerful reminder to everyone who lives, works, and sleeps under your roof Whose house it really is. It’s also an effective nightmare-deterrent and a sweet focal point that our kids can look to and blow kisses, calling to mind Jesus’ love for them and His constant, unwavering presence in their lives.
No, the crucifix isn’t Jesus, but it is His image, lovingly depicted and prominently featured, like my embarrassing chubby baby cellphone wallpaper, reminding me where my heart is and Whom to keep the focus on throughout the day. Also, the devil hates crucifixes, particularly Benedictine crucifixes, hence their frequent role in the Church’s Rite of Exorcism.
Holy water. Every parish should have (most do) a holy water font by each door, and a main baptismal font … somewhere (sacred architecture is a tricky business in the United States). Additionally, there is often a dispenser that, at least in my parish, resembles a stainless steel water cooler with a sign labeled “holy water.” That’s there for you to take home as much as you want, to keep in a font by your front door (we have a gorgeous one from Ireland – a closing gift from our wonderful realtor) or in those little plastic squeeze bottles also helpfully labelled. We keep holy water in our house at all times, and use it daily to bless our kids, each other, and their rooms and our house, particularly if anyone is sick or has had a bad dream, or after a big party or a ton of people have been in and out. You never know what has come into your home, and as parents, you have a particular spiritual authority to kick out anything wanting to do harm to your children.
Do I feel crazy blessing myself with water from a teeny plastic squirt bottle, tracing a cross on my daughter’s forehead at night as I tuck her into bed? Not any crazier than I feel rubbing essential oils into feverish feet or dispensing antibiotics for aching ears.
God gives us tangible relief and protection from physical ailments, lotions and ointments we can see and smell and touch, so why would He not equip us with analog spiritual remedies?
We dwell in a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the material world in this present age, but the God Who comes to us in a wafer of bread does not hesitate to confer sacramental grace through water. We’re weird about the ordinary-ness of it all. He’s not.
Blessed salt. I’m sure my mom used this when we were growing up, and I’m sure I eyerolled her haaaaard when she’d whip a ziplock bag out of her purse and bless a hotel room or a rental car. But think of it as the more portable, rugged version of holy water. Good for blessing doorways and sprinkling along property lines as a barrier between your family and the world. Again, this is not magic. It is not some kind of potion that stops demons from crossing into your space like an X-wing hitting a deflector shield. It’s an act of faith claiming this ground, this room, this space for Christ.
As the Israelites smeared the blood of the passover lamb on their doorposts and the angel of death passed over their homes, we sprinkle blessed salt and consecrate the holy ground we’re raising our children on to God. Who did not spare the Israelite’s firstborn children for any other reason but for their faith and obedience. It was not magic blood. It was an outward expression of their faith, a public witness of their other-ness.
Medals. I have worn a Miraculous Medal for years. Though, there were a few in college where I let it fall by the wayside (let’s just say it wasn’t super consistent with the lifestyle I was living at the time, either…) but then in grad school, I picked it back up again. I’ve also worn a scapular from time to time, but can never seem to keep the habit up, (I think because I’m a highly sensitive person and the texture of it bothers me.)
Whichever you choose, both the miraculous medal and the brown scapular in particular are powerful devotionals to Our Lady, and the Church teaches that, worn with faith and in concordance with a life of virtue, carry powerful promises attached to them. Namely, that Mary will intercede for you particularly at the moment of your death. Since Jesus will not deny His beloved Mother anything she asks, I super want her on my team at the bottom of the ninth. Also, it’s a lot harder to do obviously sinful things, at least for me, when I’m rocking the gold chain. Again, not because it’s magic, but because the physical presence of it reminds me of the spiritual weight behind my thoughts and words.
I could go on, but these are the primary sacramental (note: small-s sacramental = tools for living daily sanctity. Big S-Sacramental pertains to properties or qualities belonging to the Church’s Seven Sacraments) weapons in my arsenal.
And finally, it’s always helpful to wield these weapons with the assistance of the ultimate angelic BA, St. Michael. Let’s finish up with his prayer in the original Latin, which is basically a spiritual mic drop:
Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium. Ímperet ílli Déus, súpplices deprecámur: tuque, prínceps milítiæ cæléstis, Sátanam aliósque spíritus malígnos, qui ad perditiónem animárum pervagántur in múndo, divína virtúte, in inférnum detrúde. Ámen
(and in English:)
Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him we humbly pray; and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl throughout the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.