Read an Excerpt
All It Takes Is a Little Practice
Can you imagine having corrective eyeglasses prescribed for you but choosing to wear them only on the day you purchased them and then once a week for an hour or so on Sundays?
No doubt, seeing clearly each day of the week would be a struggle. And yet, unfortunately, this is what many of us do with our baptism, which is Jesus’ vision for life. We “put on” the eyes of Christ on the day of our baptism and then on Sunday when we attend church. Yet, the rest of week, we find ourselves struggling to see as Jesus sees.
Jesus offers us a new way to see—a new way of seeing ourselves, others, life, and God. It is this way of seeing—this vision for life—that the Catholic Church believes and teaches. Like putting on corrective eyeglasses each day, we must also “put on” Christ each and every day so that our vision will be shaped in order to conform to the eyes of God. This Catholic way of seeing can be characterized by five distinct qualities that shape the way we live, move, and have our being. They are
- A sense of sacramentality
- A commitment to community
- A respect for the dignity of human life and a commitment to justice
- A reverence for Scripture and Tradition
- A disposition to faith and hope, not despair
Without these five adjustments to our vision, we simply see the way the world sees, and Jesus taught us to see with a new set of eyes. Thankfully, over the past two thousand years, Catholics have developed a rich treasury of practices that enable us to put on the eyes of Christ each and every day of our lives. These practices, which flow specifically from the five characteristics outlined above, can be integrated into our everyday lives where they enable us, not to withdraw from the world or to blend in with the world, but to robustly engage the world in a life-giving way. This robust engagement with the world avoids what theologian Rev. Robert Barron calls “beige Catholicism”—a bland form of Catholicism that blends in with the rest of our increasingly secular society.
If being a Catholic doesn’t make a bit of difference in your everyday living, why bother? In this book, Practice Makes Catholic: Moving from a Learned Faith to a Lived Faith, I offer twenty-one tried-and-true practices that both flow from and shape the Catholic way of seeing—a way of seeing that can and will make a difference in your life. As you gradually integrate these practices into your way of life, your life will take on new meaning. You will see differently and, as a result, you will live and act differently.
All it takes is a little practice. After all, have we not been taught since childhood that “practice makes perfect?” Although perfection is not humanly possible, the point is well-taken: in order to excel at anything, we need to practice. The same can be said of living the Catholic vision: we need to practice. In essence, practice makes Catholic, and, to practice Catholicism is to move from a learned faith to a lived faith. May this book help you to start preaching .?.?. through your actions. May you become a daily practitioner of the Catholic faith, seeing with the eyes of Jesus Christ at all times and becoming a new creation through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit!
Consider Sharing the Journey
Since the beginning of the Church, Christians have realized that the spiritual journey is not meant to be walked alone. In your spiritual journey, it is important for you to walk with someone. Perhaps that person can be a spiritual mentor for you—someone who has a sense of direction and can assist you in learning how to incorporate Catholic practices into your daily life. Or, perhaps this is your opportunity to mentor someone else on the spiritual journey, whether informally or as a sponsor in the RCIA or for someone preparing for Confirmation. Just as a carpenter or an interior decorator guides an apprentice into their craft, a spiritual mentor can guide others into the way of life known as Catholicism. As a mentor, you have the opportunity to reflect on how you are integrating Catholic practices into your own life and to share the experience with another, assisting him or her as they attempt to adapt to the Catholic vision. For information and resources about using this book in a spiritual mentoring relationship around Catholic practices, visit www.loyolapress.com/practice-makes-catholic.
A Sense of Sacramentality
When you get down to it, the most important things in life are intangible: love, acceptance, belonging, forgiveness, commitment, and so on. In order to truly encounter these realities, they need to become embodied. For example, for people to encounter and experience forgiveness, the words, “I forgive you” must be spoken; perhaps even an embrace is in order. Either way, forgiveness must be embodied and made tangible.
In a similar way, the practicing Catholic relies on tangible, visible signs to encounter the intangible, invisible God. We recognize that the deepest realities of life—the mysteries of life—transcend words. And so the Catholic vision has a sense of sacramentality—a way of using signs, symbols, rituals, and gestures—tangible realities—to communicate the mystery of faith in our daily lives.
In part one, we’ll look at the following Catholic practices related to this sense of sacramentality:
Practice 1: Use Sacramentals
Practice 2: Mark Time the Catholic Way
Practice 3: Fast and Abstain
Practice 4: Speak the Language of Mystery
Practice 5: Pray Sacramentally
To share and learn more in a spiritual mentoring relationship about practicing Catholic sacramentality, visit www.loyolapress.com/practice-makes-catholic.
Sacramentals .?.?. prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. “For well-disposed members of the faithful .?.?. sacramentals sanctify almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1670)
Catholics Did Not Invent Signs and Symbols
In the classic movie The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s companions each sought something that was intangible. The Scarecrow wanted brains (intelligence). The Tin Man wanted a heart (compassion). The Cowardly Lion wanted courage. When at last they reached the Wizard, he presented each of them with tangible signs of the intangible realities they sought: a diploma to represent the Scarecrow’s brains and intelligence; a heart-shaped ticking clock to represent the Tin Man’s heart and compassion; and a testimonial—a medal—to symbolize the Lion’s courage. By virtue of these tangible signs and symbols, each of Dorothy’s companions was able to experience in a more real way the intangible qualities he sought and, in fact, already possessed to some extent. They simply needed to gain awareness of the qualities that were already present.
Outward signs are important to human beings. This is why spouses exchange gifts on Valentine’s Day; why children give gifts to their parents on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; why friends give gifts to one another on birthdays. For Catholics, outward signs provide us with tangible ways of encountering the intangible. We call these outward signs sacramentals. Catholics did not invent outward signs; the use of symbols and signs is innately human. It seems only natural, then, to worship God using signs and symbols.
The use of symbols and signs is innately human.
In his book, The Long Yearning’s End, (Acta Publications) Patrick Hannon, CSC, states that “to be known by the senses is to be loved. And more than anything else, God wants to love and be loved.” Through Catholic sacramentality, God’s love can be seen, tasted, touched, heard, and even smelled!
Remember how Dr. Seuss’s Grinch (The Grinch Who Stole Christmas) tried to steal Christmas from the Who’s by stealing all the tangible, external trappings of Christmas? He failed because Christmas resided, not in the trappings, but in the hearts of the Who’s. In the same way, if some “Grinch” came along and decided to try to steal all of our Catholic sacramentals—holy water, rosaries, statues, medals, scapulars—in hopes of hearing Catholics weeping and moaning because we could no longer encounter God, he would be frustrated by the sounds of Catholics giving praise to God nonetheless. That’s because Catholics understand that God is truly encountered in the human heart but that we, as human beings, rely on outward signs as a means of more deeply encountering such inner realities. The ultimate reality we encounter—the mystery of God—is intangible. And so, Catholics turn toward outward signs as a tangible means of encountering the intangible God.
Symbolism is no mere idle fancy or corrupt regeneration: it is inherent in the very texture of human life.
Alfred North Whitehead
Examples of Sacramentals
Sacramentals can be divided into two categories:
Making the Sign of the Cross
Understanding the Catholic Approach to Sacramentals
In Scripture, encounters with God often involve elements of the natural world: a burning bush, a column of cloud, a pillar of fire, a whispering wind, a mighty wind, and tongues of fire, just to name a few. Perhaps the most familiar example is when God revealed his presence to Moses through a burning bush. This is God’s language. God speaks to us using, not only words, but also signs and symbols, objects from the natural world. Like any good parent, then, God teaches us this language. And so, when Catholics use signs and symbols in worship, we are simply speaking the language God taught us. To see the natural world as a reminder and expression of God’s presence is to see the world sacramentally.
A woman was praying the Rosary in church when she heard a voice call her name. She tried to ignore it but the voice called out to her several more times. She continued to ignore it and kept praying her Rosary. Finally the voice called her name one more time and said, “I am Jesus!” to which the woman replied, “Shush .?.?. I’m talking to your mother!”
For us Catholics, the inner world and the outer world are intimately connected. To be sacramental is to see the presence of God reflected in the physical world. Because of this sacramental sensibility, it is no surprise that when we celebrate our encounters with God—the Seven Sacraments—we use ordinary things from the natural world as channels of God’s grace: water, oil, fire, bread, and wine. By the same token, in our prayers and devotions, we are very comfortable using images and objects to assist us in our prayer. Statues, holy cards, icons, rosaries, crucifixes, and other sacred images draw our attention to the invisible God. We know full well that when we pray before a statue, we are not praying to or worshipping the statue, and we certainly do not believe that the statue is the manifestation of God or of Mary or the saints. Rather, we use those tangible images to remind us of God’s intangible presence in this world. We are simply speaking the language God taught us.
We are simply speaking the language God taught us.
Ash Wednesday—the Most “Catholic” Day of the Year?
We often talk about how some people are “twice-a-year” Christians; they attend church on Christmas and Easter. For Catholics, there is another day that beckons us to return to God by going to Mass: Ash Wednesday. In many ways, Ash Wednesday is the most visibly Catholic day of the year, a day on which Catholic sacramentality literally adorns most Catholics right on their foreheads. Attendance at Mass on Ash Wednesday is typically greater than on certain other holy days of obligation—and Ash Wednesday is not a holy day of obligation! The ashes, made from burning the blessed palms (another sacramental) used on the previous year’s Palm Sunday, are placed on our foreheads in the sign of the Cross as a reminder of our mortality and total dependence on God. It is this reminder of our mortality that makes us rethink how we are living at the moment.
When I was a child in Catholic school, I remember being taught that if I got hit by a car and was killed while wearing a scapular (a small sacramental worn around the neck) I would go straight to heaven. It was a very persuasive argument for wearing a scapular, and I recall donning one for a while after that. It sounded like the ultimate insurance policy. But such an approach to sacramentals is superstitious rather than faith-filled. Catholics wear medals and scapulars and dangle rosaries from their rearview mirrors not out of superstition but as reminders of God’s ever-present grace. The Catechism of the Catholic Church warns us about the dangers of superstition:
Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition. (2111)
Wearing a scapular is no magical guarantee of getting to heaven; however, it is a practice that reminds us daily to follow Jesus as Mary did, being obedient to God’s will, praying always, and tending to the needs of others. These are the activities that lead to heaven.
It’s important to understand that when we say we can “find God in all things” we are nt equating God with any one thing or object. A beautiful rock or crystal can reflect the beauty and majesty of God, reminding us of God’s presence and majesty. That does not mean that God is in the rock or that the rock is sacred. Some current (and ancient) spiritualities claim that such a rock, stone, or crystal not only reflects God’s beauty and majesty but that it is a part of God and therefore possesses healing power or divine energy. This is actually a heresy known as pantheism, which sees God and the world as being one and the same. The movie, Avatar, is visually stunning, yet it promotes the notion that nature itself is a divinity to be worshipped. On the other hand, to find God in all things simply means to see the world as a “mirror” that reflects various qualities of God. When we learn to see this way, we develop a deeper respect for all of God’s creation and for one another because we realize that these are all opportunities to recognize God in our lives.
Perhaps no other sacramental is associated with Catholics more than the Rosary. For many Catholics, the Rosary is a crucial link to Jesus through the intercession of his mother, Mary. Simply put, the Rosary is a form of meditation. While repeatedly praying the Hail Mary, we are reflecting on specific key moments in the lives of Jesus and Mary. We do so while fingering beads. Remember, the Rosary is a sacramental—a tangible object pointing us to an intangible reality, namely, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus. There is no magic involved. The beads simply guide us in our meditation. Human beings like to keep count. No doubt this is why prayer beads are also found in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Orthodox Christianity.
But the Rosary Is So Repetitive!
Repetition is a staple of meditation; the repetition of a mantra in Eastern meditation invites us to “lose ourselves” in something bigger than ourselves. If you think that sounds strange, just remember this concept the next time you listen to the great Beatles’ song, “Hey Jude.” In the latter part of that song, we are invited to repeatedly sing the refrain, “Nah, nah, nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey Jude,” no less than sixteen times. That’s 176 “nahs!” The result is that we become swept up by the music and its repetitive chant. In a similar way, when we pray the Hail Mary, no less than fifty-three times when praying the Rosary, we allow ourselves to get swept away by the story of Jesus Christ.
The Mysteries of the Rosary
When I was growing up, there were three sets of Mysteries to reflect on while praying the Rosary: the Joyful, Sorrowful, and Glorious Mysteries (each with five events from the life of Jesus and Mary). Unfortunately, I did not memorize many traditional Catholic prayers and formulas as a child so as an adult, I set out to correct this. During the season of Lent in 2001, I set out to memorize the mysteries of the Rosary. I successfully did so but, the very next year, Pope John Paul II added another set of five mysteries—the Luminous Mysteries. This was the first change in the Rosary in over 400 years. I guess my timing was off by one year! For a full list of the Mysteries of the Rosary, visit www.loyolapress.com/rosary.
How to Pray the Rosary
A Rosary consists of a string of beads and a crucifix. We begin praying the Rosary by holding the crucifix in our hands as we pray the Sign of the Cross and the Apostles’ Creed. Following the crucifix, there is
- a single bead (pray the Lord’s Prayer),
- a set of three beads (pray a Hail Mary at each, asking for an increase in faith, hope, and love, followed by the Glory Be to the Father),
- another single bead (think about the first of the five mysteries you will pray during this Rosary and then pray the Lord’s Prayer).
Next, there is a medal followed by
- five sets of ten beads, each set called a decade,
- a single bead between each decade on which we think about the next mystery and pray the Lord’s Prayer.
We pray a Hail Mary on each bead of a decade as we reflect on a particular mystery in the lives of Jesus and Mary. Pray the Glory Be to the Father at the end of each decade. We end by holding the medal and praying the Hail, Holy Queen and then holding the crucifix as we pray the Sign of the Cross.
It has been said that we human beings are not physical beings in search of a spiritual experience but rather spiritual beings having a physical experience. Catholicism does not seek to escape worldly realities but rather embraces the world that God saw fit to inhabit through his Son, Jesus. Sacramentals are simply worldly objects that remind us of God’s presence all around us. When we Catholics look around at this world, we see God’s fingerprints everywhere!
Practical suggestions for practicing the use of sacramentals:
- Place a crucifix and a Bible in a prominent location in your home.
- Keep a reminder of your Catholic faith in your workspace and be prepared to explain its significance to those who inquire.
- Carry with you or wear a symbol of your Catholic faith: a medal, a cross, a pin, a scapular, etc. A scapular is made up of two small square or rectangular pieces of cloth, each bearing a religious image, and connected by a string. When placed around one’s neck, one square/rectangle rests on the chest and the other on the back. The most popular scapular is the brown scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
- Look at all of God’s creation as sacramental. Remind yourself to look for God’s presence in nature and especially in other people.
- Ask yourself at the end of the day where you recognized God’s presence.
- Sign yourself with the Sign of the Cross at various moments of your day: as you awake, before and after meals, at bedtime.
- Pray the Rosary, knowing that the fingering of the beads is a concrete way of meditating on the events in the lives of Jesus and Mary.
- When praying the Rosary, focus on the Mysteries that are “assigned” for each day: the Joyful Mysteries (Mondays and Saturdays); the Luminous Mysteries (Thursdays), the Sorrowful Mysteries (Tuesdays and Fridays); and the Glorious Mysteries (Wednesdays and Sundays).
- Consider placing in your home a small statue or figurine of a favorite saint whose intercession you seek.
- Bring palms home on Palm Sunday and place them in various locations in your home, behind a crucifix or an icon, or on the rear dashboard of your car, and keep them there year-round.
- Keep a small bottle of holy water in your home to bless people and objects.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he has turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1–4)
Good and gracious God, you made your presence known to Moses through a burning bush. Help me recognize your presence all around me through the ordinary and extraordinary objects of your creation. May these sacramentals be visible reminders of your invisible yet loving presence.
To share and learn more in a spiritual mentoring relationship about the Catholic practice of using sacramentals, visit www.loyolapress.com/practice-makes-catholic.