Weapons for battle: the use of sacramentals (holy water, blessed salt, crucifixes) in the Christian life
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.
Click here for part one in this series: Spiritual Warfare 101: prayers of protection.
How do you get a priest to bless salt? Do you just hand him the can of Mortons? The water is always available and I have had a priest bless a rosary or medal now and then, but never salt.
The “recipe” for making holy water actually calls for salt and water, so if your priest is regularly making it for his parish, he’ll be familiar with the practice of blessing salt. You can totally bring him a can and ask him to bless it for you, or email/call him to ask when would be convenient for him schedule wise to do it. I’m not sure how involved the production of it is, but I think it’s pretty quick. You could even ask him to do a bunch at once (since he’s going to be praying the prayers anyway, might as well get a large scale production going) and then you could divvy it up into bags to share with your fellow parishioners/family/friends.
I actually caught my priest off guard when I asked him to bless salt for me. I had given him the heads up that I was bringing St. Benedict medals to him to be blessed, but didn’t think about the salt until the last minute. When I handed it to him, Father looked at me (not even officially Catholic at the time, it was November ’15 and we were received Easter ’16) and said, “I wasn’t aware, so I didn’t print the blessing for the salt out in English. I have the Latin blessing on hand though.” He actually chuckled at me when I replied, “Somehow, I think that’ll be even better!”
Yes to all of this! I don’t think a lot of people including Catholics, are aware of the spiritual wars going on. I’ve mentioned blessing a house after having repair people over or just people you don’t know well and gotten some raised eyebrows. But it’s like cleaning house. You don’t know what people bring in with them. My kids do get hit with strings of nightmares and I don’t think it’s coincidence. It can be obvious as a form of attack. I’m grateful to the Norbertine Fathers of Orange, CA for making me aware of sacramentals and handing out big ziplocs out of their trunks of holy water, blessed oil, blessed salt, medals … Literally a spiritual warfare tool kit! They’re an amazing order!
The prayer over salt is both a blessing and an exorcism and is not a very long prayer. I’ve had our salt blessed on the way out of church after Mass. Whenever I make soup for someone who is sick I add a pinch of this salt along with the regular salt and seasonings as I pray and stir for their health. Also, we “chalk” our door on the Feast of the Epiphany using blessed chalk each year. The accompanying prayer calls down blessings and protection for those who live in the home. These are not good luck charms, nor are they superstitious incantations but rather are very beneficial aids to prayer and visible reminders of the graces we can tap into in faith. This is a great post, Jenny!
Jenny, I’d like to underscore what you are saying in your blog post with a reference to the actual Church teaching that might also be helpful to your readers, and then I will comment on one aspect of it:
CCC1670: Sacramentals 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 cooperate with it. “For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event of their lives with the divine grace which flows from the Paschal mystery of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. From this source all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power. There is scarcely any proper use of material things which cannot be thus directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God.”
As it says here, sacramentals prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it. Those are the key points for understanding how they are beneficial in the many ways you are describing in this post, and I think you covered that point very clearly.
The analogy of using them as “weapons” is okay to the degree that we think of them as materially useful, because we are created as sensory beings and God gives us sensory tools to apply ourselves to the spiritual realities. But a weapon can also be thought of as something we wield and can make us feel somehow empowered externally, when actually the opposite is occurring: sacramentals make us receptive to something that is coming to us from God. We wield nothing really, we simply allow God to manifest his grace in our life. We dispose ourself to this through an act of faith.
So, yes, having all of these material reminders of God’s ability to act in our life is good. But we have to balance this material aspect with the faith aspect, lest we yield to the idea that we need to have lots and lots of sacramentals like some spiritual arsenal, and begin to depend more upon the material presence of them. More does not mean more protection in that weapon sense. More means more opportunities to be reminded of our faith in God’s protection. But there is a kind of saturation point at which one is relying more upon the presence of the sacramentals than the act of faith that needs to accompany their use. We do need to recognize that danger, because many Catholics do unwittingly fall into that trap and it does lead people to “magical thinking” or a habit of acquiring a larger hoard of them instead of focusing on what sacramentals are truly about.
So, we do not do battle against evil with sacramentals themselves, rather, through their presence and use we dispose ourselves to activate the graces God gives to us, and grace itself assists us in our battle against evil.
In this respect, the item worn on our person, such as a medal, is carried on us in an ever-present way and as you stated, we want our behavior to correspond as much to that holy reminder as we can, and sinfulness would make us feel unworthy to wear it. It is why often you will see that as a first sign of someone falling away from faith: someone who wears a medal will stop wearing it. Same with a crucifix on the wall in your room. We are happy to have that in our presence when we truly want to draw upon the graces God wants to bestow upon us. But if we start drifting away from Christ, the last thing we want on the wall is a reminder of our lack of correspondence to grace.
In that respect, sacramentals I think play an important tangible role in supporting our desire to be faithful people. So it is more than warfare against evil, it is a confirmation of our faith in God being alive and well in our daily life, a physical reminder that we are in fact striving to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Having a sacramental is not a guarantee that you won’t “throw in the towel” in your battle against evil, but avoiding or getting rid of your sacramentals is a sign that you probably will.
The cooperation with graces received is the key to the correct use of sacramentals, don’t you agree? A properly blessed rosary is a sacramental object, but the indulgences associated with it depends on our praying with it, as an example – a set of rosary beads doesn’t pray on its own. That said, the exorcist priest in our diocese blessed my rosary using words that it might be a “weapon against evil” – but again, when prayed upon by myself or someone else using them. My husband wears his medic alert medallion on a neck chain along with his crucifix, confidently claiming he has all his bases covered. If anything happens to him and the paramedics can’t save him then he hopes someone notices the crucifix and calls for a priest. We both agree our crucifixes are a constant reminder to keep trying to live as disciples of Christ.
Yes! This is such an important point. I’m so glad you made it. As Catholics, we can get very caught up in the “cultural Catholic” habit of seeing this things almost as an end themselves, almost something we can almost worship, and not as tools or reminders that call upon and remind us of God’s grace and sovereignty.
I used to teach religious education in a public school in the U.K. – I was openly catholic and as such I had a lot of flack. The more senior classes where awful. After a term it was so bad I thought ‘enough is enough’; I couldn’t teach, they were disruptive, talking over the top of me and agressive with it. If your religious in the U.K. you might as well wear a sign saying ‘stupid’.
Anyway, after my enough is enough I gave myself and the kids some distances. It was their final year so I sat them exam questions to be done in silence and we went through answers at the end. I didn’t really talk so the opportunity to be aggressive was diminished. Before the three lessons I took à bottle of holy water and made a cross on the door, praying ‘God, anything not of Jesus forbid to enter this room, I ask this in Jesus’ name’. Then I took the holy water and put it all over the room. At the end of the first lesson there was a noticeable difference. At the end of the third there was a cordial atmosphere. God worked.
What a good post Jenny-thank you.
I really enjoy reading this post. You are a good theologian and I know how to recognize one when I read her articles! 🙂
Fr. Joseph LoJacono
Thanks Jenny for the article, as a priest I want to clarify the point of blessing the water and or salt. You seem to be referring to the traditional form of blessing the holy water with salt. The current book of blessings does not require salt and their is no independent blessing of salt with exorcism. Many priests don’t know the old book of blessing and might look at you crossed-eyed if you asked for salt to be blessed.
I have blessed water with exorcised salt every since I was a Deacon 9 years ago. It is the only way I do it. I often bless exorcised salt and recommend it to people for blessing their homes. One needs to find a priest familiar with the old rite of blessing to have the water blessed with salt with a triple exorcism and blessed salt with a triple exorcism. The new rite is valid to bless water and it is truly blessed, but there is no exorcism over it. Any priest has the right to use the old book of blessing now. I am not in a traditional order, but I regularly use it, outside of Mass. I minister at Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara, California for the IVE priests.
Good points, Fr. Joseph. Our priest did use the traditional form of blessing and exorcising salt, and always adds such salt while blessing holy water. His rationale for using the older form is that we should make use of these rich traditions rather than losing them to history.
We’ve found that along with the other new priests coming out of formation they tend to be more interested in tradition than those of my generation, at least where I live. He uses his i-phone to bring up appropriate blessings – such as the double blessing for a rosary with a St. Benedict Medal crucifix. We are blessed to have as our new pastor a priest who appreciates our rich heritage.
This was really helpful. We converted last year, and then moved to a new parish, and I don’t know what everything is (and I have an unfortunate fear of doing something weird, or wrong, like stealing holy water! 😉 ). So the water cooler water is free to take? Is there any special way that holy water should be treated? Or can you just fill up a water bottle?
I have heard of people having their house blessed. Is that a common thing to do?
You can totally fill up a water bottle – just label it with a sharpie or something so nobody drinks it. Though there’s nothing wrong with drinking it! I have my kids take a tiny sip if they’re having a hard time falling asleep after a nightmare, or if they’re sick. I figure it’s a good way to double down on prayer for them.
You can email or call your pastor to set up a time to have your house blessed – it’s a nice way to get him over for dinner, too, if you haven’t had the chance to do that before. But if he’s super busy, the blessing itself is only 15 minutes or so, so tell him you’re happy to have him come whenever is convenient for him. That’s one of the first things we do when we move into a new home, along with an enthronement to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Sometimes we’ve even been blessed enough to have whomever the priest was say Mass in our house, which is so special (but needs the permission of the local bishop and a traveling Mass kit)
And hey, welcome to the family!
I was brought up Roman Catholic as a daughter from a father from Quebec and he has 3 aunts in Quebec as nuns, His mother who never learned to speak English seemed to know when one of the grandchildren were doing something against the catholic faith ( she came down to bring one of my brothers to the priest cause he was dating a divorced women and that was a sin) But I want to add I found out she got on her knees nightly and with her rosary and prayed nightly and then I found out she could read playing cards someones life, she had a special gift and I was told I was given this gift as was my other sister who I am close with as I hear things that are not there and esp water I feel a weird feeling in a certain area and always within a few days a body was found where I had those weird sensations,
I brought up both my children in the Roman Catholic Church.
But I have a question for the priest, I seem to sense “evil ” people and my oldest brother’s 3rd wife when I 1st met her I told him “she is no good and will make your life miserable and turmoil, she is not in love with you she is in love with who you were” I said you need to get rid of her but he said he could not as she knew somethings he had illegally done and then told her sons and mother” I said I can not believe you could be so stupid as you just got out of federal prison for Mafia related crimes , I never thought you could be so stupid, we’ll she ended up poisoning him and one summer thye stayed at our home and caused so much turmoil , sneaking around trying to listen to conversations , then she stole my pain pills and antiques from our home so my husband threw her out and told my brother “If that was not your wife I would shoot that bitch as she has caused this whole family to be after each other” my husband is Catholic.
My homies old 250 yrs old and everyone felt homey and I always had family gatherings there , but after she left a shift in our home could be felt and my husband was saying crazy things like “she bewitched you” my daughter who is 32 is still traumatized after all these 5 years and then I found her address of her home on my credit report that made it impossible for me to get anything and we owed nothing and I worked as a RN all my life. But I became depressed after my brother told me “sue does evil things when people cross her, when you threw her out” WE saw her throw his wallet out of the passenger side of there truck cause she wanted to be with my brother and husband while they golfed and he could meet old friends, I said “Sue men need time for themselves and I do not want to rum around chasing balls . it is not fun”
My depression worsened and things in the house started getting evil, cold spots chairs sliding above my head, hearing groups of people talking above my bedroom but not hearing exactly what was said, latched doors popping by them selves , then one day my sister whom I am close with and has the gift I have , we were cooking downstairs and it was hot with all the holiday baking, my father was the last person to live upstairs in the apartment and he had his Catholic cross and his rosary and his mom’;s rosary wrapped around the cross, and there was a paper saint , I think Mary holding a child , it was paper and in French, So my sister went upstairs to get the pain I needed and when she came down she stood at the doorway not saying a thing but white as a ghost and I swear I could see the hairs on her arms sticking up, I said “Betty what is wrong” She said ” I went upstairs in the kitchen and bent down and a evil spirit tried to enter my body with a sound and I could not move, I know you told me you felt that sister in law left a evil spirit in your home but I did not believe you as your home as always been such a homey feel and family always came to your home for special occasions, but what about dad when he lived there , he never complained about strange things. we both went upstairs and she put her hand on that saint on my dad’s bedroom wall and she “feel this Cathy it is warm and it was a cold that is hard to tell ,you can see your breath, so we took the saint and held hands and went around the apartment and said a prayer to banish these evil spirits and to go to the light thye were not welcome. my son and his wife moved out as she could not stand the pictures flying g off walls to middle room . I want to c]bless my home with my sister if we can get rid ion it any suggestions of materials I would need.
PS : I had a paranormal team come in and thye told me I was not wanted there and it said it clearly
Amen!! As someone (don’t remember who) said, there are only two teams: God, the angels, and the saints and the devil and his minions. We shouldn’t let our faith stay as intellectual ascent only, Catholics are a sacramental people, and the sacramentals are a great way to live our faith. Preach, sister.
You can drink exorcised water and exorcised oil and eat exorcised salt
Look into the difference between blessed and exorcised sacramentals and the New Book of Blessing sacramentals. Fyi: http://www.academia.edu/7797797/The_Order_for_Blessing_Water_Past_and_Present
Thank you Emmy for posting the link. I always used exorcised salt and oil, given to me by a friend. But when I ran out, there was no priest in my area who knew (or was willing) to do the necessary prayers for exorcised salt and oil.
The blessing for exorcised salt and oil is different.
Thanks for the clarification, Emmy. I guess I didn’t realize how blessed we were to have been given exorcised salt for our home!
One day a group of new people will show up, look at these ceremonies, rituals and traditions and not ask what their origination meant, why it started or what they mean today and declare them from the devil. They will use this to justify removing children from parents, send them to boarding schools and shame the parents into abandoning their beliefs. The new government will use this group to further their control over those that keep these sacraments. They will claim to be “God’s people”.
And if it does happen, God is still in control.