Incarnational piety can take the form of putting faith into words and pictures through holy cards. Cards honoring saints and containing prayers, sometimes cards specifically intended for events such as wakes/funerals or ordinations, are a distinctly Catholic tradition. They call us back to a mindfulness of our call to holiness, as well as someone else’s response to that call and the Church’s nurturing of that call. Ken “wittily” compared them to trading cards from our youth. Bill remembered the gum that came in those packages. This guy on YouTube went beyond merely remembering.
Holy cards are valuable for pointing toward the spiritual reality that is beyond us. They celebrate the incarnational nature of our faith; for example, cards received at the wakes of loved ones are treasured reminders of those people who blessed us by sharing their faith and love. The cards are an invitation for us to pray for them. Holy cards honoring saints also invite us to pray to those saints for intercession.
With a funeral memorial card, the image of the saint on the card and the words of the prayer on the card tap into our memories and integrate us into the broader vision of the community of faith, the Communion of Saints. Traditional prayers make us mindful of graces from the past, complementing the practice of spontaneous prayer as a present-moment conversation we have with God.
The prayers on these cards aid the conversation that is part of our ongoing relationship with the Lord. Such words, whether they are in formal or spontaneous form, have power for building that relationship. We appreciate the value of well-chosen words that resonate in our minds and hearts.
There is something social and sociable about the “smells and bells” traditions of our Catholic faith. Incense is one of the examples of incarnational piety that yield positive visceral experiences of blessing and bonding in our liturgies—engagement on the personal and community levels. Here’s an additional commentary on the use of incense, posted by EWTN.
Frankincense represents the priesthood, the priestly act of offering up sacrifice, and honor—a sweet-smelling gift unto the Lord. Myrrh, an oil used for embalming, foreshadows the death of Christ; in the Eastern Churches, it is mixed in with oil during the consecration of the sacred Chrism. Gold is literally a gift fit for a king. Jesus Christ is indeed Priest, Prophet, and King.
Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s book, Mystery of the Magi, provides extensive research explaining the Bible’s story of the Magi who paid homage to the young Jesus as Priest, Prophet and King.
There is a photo of a silver reliquary case containing what tradition tells us are the gifts of the Magi (the gold, frankincense, and myrrh presented to the newborn Jesus). The relics were on display in 2014. A shrine containing relics of the Magi themselves has long been treasured in the Cologne Cathedral.
Gold, frankincense, and myrrh as gifts to the Lord appeal to the five senses but also engage our minds and our hearts, which are parts of our bodies, too. These expand our appreciation of incarnational piety and give us much to ponder, Bill pointed out.
The Christmas song “We Three Kings” includes a reference to King and God and Sacrifice. These tie into the trio of roles of priest, prophet, and king which Jesus Christ personified and to which we all are called as Christians.
We talk about using sacramentals to bring grace into our everyday lives, and this is achieved through habits of mindfulness we consciously form. Habits are practical acts accompanied by a disposition—the ways we approach life and pursue holiness and virtue. It’s faith in action. Sacramentals, as instruments for incarnational piety, are a wonderful aid to this approach. Here is an interesting essay about incarnational spirituality.
Ken said his graduate studies explored the formation of virtue as the development of good habits, a firm commitment to choose the good and exercise it in concrete action. Seeking a closer relationship with God, there are qualities we can develop ourselves and more fundamental qualities that God infuses in us. Think of the four cardinal virtues—prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance—as human qualities that can be pursued with or without Christian faith. There are also theological virtues—faith, hope, and love—which are the greatest gifts, infused in us by God, who is Love. (CCC 1804-1829) Human virtues are purified and elevated by God’s grace. All goods point toward the Creator.
William James wrote about the development of habits. In a famous quote, he urged people to strive diligently to develop good habits; otherwise, one can fall into bad habits which seem trivial at first but can build up to steer us toward a kind of hell on earth.
God can infuse courage and goodness and prudence as we need it, if we are receptive. The Catechism also discusses a related subject, receiving the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, as set forth in the Catechism. (CCC 1830-1832). In terms of incarnational piety, habits can be a beautiful way of receiving and cooperating with God’s grace in how we deal with everyday experiences. Some habits may tend toward mindlessness, such as the cautionary practice of checking whether the door to one’s home is locked. But we must strive to receive from the Holy Spirit habits of mindfulness that embody a sense of purpose centered on the Kingdom of God—the goal of growing closer to the Lord, participating actively in His grace and love.
An addendum to last week’s episode: Don’t hesitate to ask a priest to bless salt and holy water for use in your home and daily life. The carrying of blessed sacramentals is empowering and enlightening, an ongoing awareness-builder of our access to God’s grace for resisting evil. The priest’s act of blessing these sacramentals is itself a wonderful act of community and communion, bridging parish, home and the broader Church. This solidarity helps us appreciate the Lord’s incarnation and salvation in our lives as individuals and families.
We are a Church of decoration and remembrance, as Ken put it. Icons, crucifixes, stained glass windows, statues, and many other decorative resources from our Church feed our visual nature as human beings through their beauty. For example, the majestic impact of Michelangelo’s renowned sculpture, “The Pieta,” is a source of inspiration and catechesis. It’s a prayer in stone, said Ken. This and other Michelangelo masterpieces, such as the “Risen Christ” sculpture depicting Jesus carrying his cross.
On a more mundane and private, personal level, Bill relates the story of his wife’s childhood memory when she and her sisters would exchange clothes for the family’s Infant of Prague statue with clothes for their Barbie dolls. She explains the Infant of Prague clothes were tempting attire for children’s toys not out of disrespect but “because they were the prettiest clothes in the house.” It was an example of simple joy over a source of beauty in the domestic church and an implicit household aid for kids to develop an awareness of different garbs and colors having religious, liturgical meaning through love and honor.
Ken talked about the photographs, icons and other images that decorate his house as reminders of active participation in the Catholic faith. He and his wife have a hallway of saints evoking memories and inspiration through a variety of images, even a paint-by-numbers picture of Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.”
A book written for children, Pictures of God, is an introduction to icons. Bill noted that the introduction captures kids’ imaginations with this statement: “Icons, like all beautiful things, reveal God to us. They are quieter than most of the art we are used to, which screams ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Icons whisper, ‘Look at God! Look at God!’”
A go-to image for the Church to embody God’s self-sacrificing and salvific love for us is the crucifix. A distinctly Catholic image including the corpus of Jesus reflects the death of Christ on the cross as the necessary precursor to Resurrection. It may not be conventionally beautiful because it is bloody, an image of suffering. But it is an impactful summation of faith—incarnational, a representation of divine and human reality.
The “Mama Needs Coffee” blog reminds us that Jesus made mud to heal a deaf man. We are saved through the “scandalous” mystery of the incarnation by which God works through things of this world to bring supernatural gifts.
Art is used in churches to lift up the mind and heart to God. We should take better note of what is decorating our churches and our homes. The images can help our faith to grow and can be vehicles for God’s blessing through our attentive appreciation.
Sacramentals have value for our daily, incarnational faith, appealing to more than simply sight among our five senses and sometimes immersing us, at least figuratively, in God’s blessings if we believe and receive them as pointers toward sacramental grace.
Blessed salt was part of our discussion. We are called to be salt for the earth, evoking the sense of taste and our ability to bring flavor (as well as preservation) to our neighbors’ lives. A blog, “Mama Needs Coffee,” from the Catholic News Agency, has a post talking about our use of blessed salt. The author talks about the power of sprinkling blessed salt around a new home, in the same protective sense that the Israelites’ sprinkling of blood on their doorposts prompted the angel of death to pass over, to sustain their lives of obedience and faith and public witness.
A priest can exorcise salt before blessing it, using the prayer found here. It is then blessed so it can be used to help drive away satanic forces. Salt is part of God’s creation—like us human creatures, it can be blessed so as to be used as a blessing to others.
A use of salt by Elijah for holy purposes is seen in 2 Kings 2:20-21. Sacramentals, not magical tools or exquisite possessions of the rich and powerful, are simple reminders, regular items of earthly material that can be used to point us to Christ—if we are faithfully receptive to God’s loving use of all creation to bless us and others
Holy water uses a substance that is truly everywhere. Paul said we baptized into Jesus’ death so that we may be saved through his resurrection (Galatians 3:27). Water is both a destroyer and life-giver. Blood and water flowing from the side of the crucified Christ represented his death and his giving of new life.
Three holy oils are prepared as sacramentals at the annual Chrism Mass celebrated during Holy Week: the oil of catechumens, the oil of the sick, and sacred chrism. Here’s a description of the use of the precious oils.
In contrast to our last episode’s focus on silence, it’s time to talk about action as it applies to incarnational piety. There is a subtle difference in meaning between action and acts. Some acts in the spiritual sense, such as praying an “act of contrition” or an “act of faith,” may not seem to be full of energy or interaction, but they do “actualize” our faith as a statement or performance of engagement, belief, responsiveness. They reflect a desire for something meaningful to happen.
Action, of course, is good if it takes the form of an “act of mercy” or “act of worship,” or something else concrete and meaningful. Here are the Corporal Works of Mercy. Participation in liturgy is action, making actual our love for and gratitude to God, even if we seem to be simply sitting in a pew. In most moments of life, God is calling us to be active, or engaged, in our life of faith.
“Love is words plus action,” Ken pointed out. Relationship is an active thing that does make things happen, sometimes quietly or without words. Thanks to Ken for pointing out this heart-touching love song from the band Extreme, “More than Words.”
The rosary is a beautiful resource for silent prayer and reflection. The name Jesus is at the very center of the rosary as prayer and sacramental. The old English word “bede” is translated as “prayer”. Monks prayed 150 psalms, and some laypeople emulated that by praying the “Our Father” or “Pater Noster” 150 times using beads or, as the monks once did, using little stones as counting aids.
The rosary with which we’re most familiar is called the Dominican rosary because that religious order was central in popularizing the devotion and the format. The Servites (Servants of Mary) have a rosary recalling the Seven Sorrows of Mary. The Franciscan Crown Rosary recalls the Seven Joys of Mary. A variation on the rosary is the Divine Mercy Chaplet.
It’s important to take opportunities for silence during Mass and during our participation in the Church’s sacraments. Silence is an attitude of heart, internal and external, based in listening.
In this episode, we move on from everyday things that serve as kinds of “secular sacramentals” to everyday Catholic items and practices that point us toward God. We begin with blessings. Sacramentals, which are often blessed, remind us that every baptized person is called to be blessed and to be a blessing, as described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Out of the mouth proceed blessing and cursing. Here’s a description of the history of a habit, saying “God Bless You.” Also, this book, a dictionary of interjections such as “Zounds!”, walks you through “minced words”—which may derive from blessings or curses—mostly from the colorful past of our English language.
Presidents and other prominent citizens often invoke blessings on the United States, and “God Bless America” is a song that regularly appears in our public discourse. Here’s a clip from a pro hockey game that Bill remembers from the 1970s in which the great Kate Smith belted out her signature song, leaving Bill with a memorable impression of how powerful the blending of a spiritual message with a sporting event can be.
Ken and Bill see the focus of this new series on incarnational piety naturally pointing us toward sacramentals. A “sacramental,” as a symbol used in everyday life to point toward something bigger, deeper and more meaningful, is a word used commonly by Catholics, but it is hardly an unknown concept in the secular culture.
The Pledge of Allegiance (directed toward the flag of the United States of America – *and* to the republic for which it stands) has an interesting backstory that encapsulates some of what we’ll discuss in this episode. Our podcast colleagues Ken Jennings and John Roderick discussed a bit of the Pledge of Allegiance’s history (and that of its creator) in their excellent Omnibus Project podcast episode “The Bellamy Salute (Entry 112.HE0616)”.
Here’s evidence that the basic notion of “sacramental” is a comfortable concept in secular society: Certain holidays might be considered types of sacramental feasts filled with civic pride and patriotic symbolism. Examples include Independence Day (although founding father John Adams thought the symbols we associate with July 4 belonged properly on July 2, the actual signing date of the Declaration of Independence).
Thanksgiving is another powerfully evocative holiday. And for many Americans, the Super Bowl Sunday has the symbolic gravitas of a secular sacramental. The Olympic Games inspire people around the world, and stirring musical themes are associated with these celebrations of excellence. Here’s a musical example from composer John Williams.
Statues often impart powerful meanings and memories as secular sacramentals, whether placed in town squares or in New York Harbor, as is the case for the Statue of Liberty. Its meaning is expressed in “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.
Ken and Bill say hello again to our listeners as we enter our second season of episodes discussing our excitement about aspects of the daily living-out of our Catholic faith. This season is all about “Incarnational Piety” and the aid our Church provides through resources such as sacramentals. In our conversations, we want to celebrate different ways to enrich the action of living the faith in this world while focusing our minds and hearts on the Kingdom of God.
We start this episode looking back at our “Season One,” which focused on joy as a key part of one’s mission of evangelization to others. Each episode was also an “encounter” (appropriate to the “EncounterPoints” name) for the two of us as we got to know each other better. Pope Francis has emphasized the value of authentic encounters among people right from the start of his papacy. He wants humans to build a “culture of encounter.” You can read how he described this in a morning meditation posted in 2016.
What do we mean by “incarnational piety”? The Second Person of the Holy Trinity entered our world, born in a human body, making God’s loving presence profoundly available to us in everyday life, so the incarnation is worth understanding better and celebrating as a continuing encounter with the Lord in our own day. Piety is an act of justice, as Ken points out, because God has given everything to us, and we should conduct our lives as gifts to God. The Catholic Encyclopedia at the New Advent site talks about what it means to be pious in connection with popular devotions.
And that leads us more deeply into the subject matter of this second season of episodes. Sacramentals are a beautiful part of a life of devotion and incarnational piety, engaging our senses and reminding us of God’s sanctifying grace. These sacramentals, as defined by the Catholic Encyclopedia, go along with lives enriched by popular practices and personal holiness. It’s wonderful to use material things to remind us of supernatural things, rather than staying mired in the strictly secular world of materialism.
Our aspiration toward higher things is fully appropriate given the fact that God became incarnate—emptying Himself (Philippians 2:7)—to lift humanity from the mundane to the divine. Section 460 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church mentions the quote—from St. Athanasius—about Christ’s desire to bring us into full union with the life of the Trinity: “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods.”
Given how appropriate and joyful it is to draw closer to the Lord in our earthly acts of incarnational piety, we’ll explore various ways to do that during this series of episodes. Among the resources that will help explain this drawing closer, the Church provides a Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy. We’ll be talking about the beauty of “encounter points,” such as sacramentals, in the upcoming weeks, so please “stay tuned.”