Tag Archives: sacramentals

Paper or Plastic?

7 Sep

That which we have heard,
which we have seen with our eyes,
which we have looked upon
and touched with our hands… (1 Jn 1.1).

Holy cards abound in our home. They stick out from books and Bibles, and are randomly scattered about on shelves, dressers, and desks. An old wooden cigar box and at least one plastic tote contain the overflow in the basement.

holy-cardsSound like your house?

Of course, when you’re searching for a specific holy card, that’s the very one you can never locate, and such was the case recently when I decided to relearn the Holy Spirit prayer. I can remember the first lines – Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful… – but the second part about becoming truly wise has always escaped me (no surprise).

I could’ve taken the opportunity to do some organizing – like alphabetizing cards by name or charism in little file boxes – or I could’ve printed a hard copy of the prayer and laminated it myself. Instead, I took the path of least resistance and stopped by Aquinas Books to buy a new one. Mike, the proprietor, hunted around a bit, and then gave me the bad news.

“Looks like we’re out,” he said. “Do you want me to order it?”

“Sure – no rush though,” I replied. “And I might want more than one – how much are they?”

“That depends,” he said. “Do you prefer paper or plastic?”

Good question.

Plastic has certain practical advantages, especially if you’re going camping, let’s say, or opening a museum. Holy cards with a plastic coating are waterproof and more durable, plus there’s no way stray marks or smudges will obscure the text. Hence, if the content of the card is of utmost importance, then, by all means, plastic is the way to go.

But consider which holy cards you treasure the most – the ones which don’t end up in the cigar boxes or on random shelves, but stay planted in your breviary and bedside New Testament. Probably they’re the paper cards, worn out, stained, and faded, with maybe even a date penned in the corner, or some other kind of notation. Those are the ones we hold onto because they retain physical signs connecting them to specific times, locations, and life events.

In other words, it’s the very fragility of paper holy cards that tend to make them more particular, and, thus, well, more sacramental. A plastic holy card depicting your Confirmation saint is one thing; a shabby paper version of the same card with a note on it from youNP_20140730_JJGUARDIANS-05U_560427r Confirmation sponsor is quite another. The latter is invested with substantial meaning that is directly related to the object’s temporality.

It’s an idea that was illustrated in an especially exuberant way this summer in the movie Guardians of the Galaxy. Peter Quill, or “Star-Lord,” cherishes a cassette tape labeled “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” – a collection of pop hits from the 70s and 80s that his mom had made for him prior to her death. In fact, Quill goes to great lengths in order to rescue his tape after it was stolen, much to the consternation of his companions.

In this age of internet, iTunes, and MP3 downloads, the hero’s antics seemed anachronistic, and therein the humor: He could’ve easily replaced all the music on that tape with a couple computer keystrokes. It’s clear by the end of the movie, however, that it wasn’t the music on the tape that the hero valued, but the actual tape itself – that particular tape which had been physically handled and manipulated by his long deceased mother, and which thus provided a concrete connection to her beyond whatever mere abstract memories he was able to conjure up. The tape was, as it were, a relic of sorts, and it allowed for a conversation between mother and son that wouldn’t have been otherwise possible. It was, in a purely human fashion, a sacramental.

Books – the old fashioned kind, the ones made out of paper, the ones with pages – are sacramental in the same way. This is especially the case when and because they are actually read – which may sound odd, but it’s a consideration that cannot be taken for granted. “Books are for use, not for show,” declared Yale English professor William Phelps way back in 1933. “You should own no book that you are afraid to mark up, or afraid to place on the table, wide open and face down.”

And yet, these days, the problem isn’t merely that books are reserved for show and not actually devoured. Instead, the current book revolution involves the rapid replacement of physical books with their digital counterparts. In fact, in some classrooms, books and texts are already a thing of the past. Books etc 015

That creeps me out in a big way. I may be a relic myself, but give me a tattered old paperback over a Kindle any day. Actual physical books have heft and odor and tangibility that serve to connect the reader with what is being read; screens have flickering light and blips of data fluttering past and, let’s face it, radiation. Books have a sacramental quality that engage our senses and draw us in; ebooks and print on screens have a superficial, intangible quality that convey information and words, but little else.

And what else is there? I don’t know about your home library, but our books have scrawls and marks and doodles and dogears throughout – indications that real people have dwelt in those pages, have bathed in them and soaked them up. Some of those people I’ve known and loved; others are total strangers. One recent library addition, a gift from an old friend, is a well-worn volume of Saki with an inscription in careful cursive that reads, “Mrs. V.A. Wright, from Dorothy Day.” Could it be… – why not? I leaf through that book and get more than merely the printed words and the meaning they convey; I’m also put in touch with Dorothy Day and Mrs. Wright, along with their own experience of that book, not to mention their friendship. Can a Kindle do that?

Ebooks remind me of the electric candles that I used to encounter in Chicago – always a letdown. Author Lawrence Block had a similar reaction after coming across automated candles in a Manhattan parish that figures prominently in his mystery novels:

“Nowadays the candles are electric,” Block observes with a note of disappointment under the nave’s yellow, clover-shaped ceiling. “You drop a coin in them and the light goes on. I suppose it gets the same absolute inattention [from] on high, but it just doesn’t feel the same.”

The reason it doesn’t feel the same is because it isn’t the same. To begin with, Block apparently lacks any faith, and so for him, the votive candle is only a symbol of prayer rising up to God in heaven – he’s not actually praying. But his point is valid in that part of the candle’s sign value – especially for someone still searching like Block – involves seeing the actual flame flicker; seeing and smelling the smoke; tracing the melted wax with our eyes as it trickles down the candle holder. An electric candle, as a Benedictine friend once complained, is a symbol of a symbol. It’s so far removed from what it’s supposedezekiel to signify as to render it almost meaningless.

So, electric candles, ebooks, plastic holy cards – they’re all are content-oriented, designed to preserve and perpetuate content and image. Consequently, alterations of any kind due to time and incidental use are deemed undesirable and systematically factored out.

Then there’s Ezekiel. In a recent weekday reading, the prophet provided an alternative vision of how we might appropriate signs, symbols, and sacramentals:

He said to me: Son of man, eat what is before you;
eat this scroll, then go, speak to the house of Israel.
So I opened my mouth and he gave me the scroll to eat….
I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.

The sign was to be consumed; the symbol, annihilated; the sacramental link with the divine, literally swallowed up. The content isn’t the point, Ezekiel is telling us. Rather, it’s the transformative encounter that matters and lasts, like the Eucharist itself.

In the end, though, even faltering steps toward such an encounter are well worth it. Like reading on a Kindle – isn’t it better than no reading at all? Sure. And if no wax candle is in sight, will I press the button for an electric flame? No doubt.

“There is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God,” the Catechism teaches us. In other words, a plastic holy card beats no holy card at all, hands down.

And as Luke Jackson so poignantly reminded us, the same goes for a plastic Jesus.


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