February 21, 2005

Sacred Objects & Consecration.

One concern that has been on my mind recently is regarding sacred objects and their use in private ritual. The most obvious objection a Christian might have to using sacred tools is that it tends towards idolatry. Being Catholic, I've often had to explain to other Christians (in particular, regarding the saints) the distinction between worship and respect--that is, the difference between the relationship one has with the Divine through that which reveals it (i.e. through the natural world, the person of Jesus, and the sacred text of the Old and New Testaments, as well as through other texts, saints and people in everyday life), and the relationship one has with those revelatory objects or people themselves. Witches are probably also used to explaining this difference, as they are more often subject to accusations of idolatry and even downright materialism due to their relationship with the Divine most directly through nature and the earth.

Since Catholicism and many other Christian sects use incense, oils, salt and water in ritual (as well as statues, crucifix, etc.), it would seem that there is a place in Christian worship for such sacred objects. Thus idolatry is not my main concern. Anyone interested can probably find some helpful articles on the subject, from either the Wiccan/Neopagan point of view, or that of Catholicism. What is my major interest? How such objects become or are designated as sacred, the methods of such consecration, the individual's capacity to consecrate, and the metaphysical/spiritual activity itself--that is, what is really taking place during the act of consecration.

Of course, many modern Witches do not address some of these concerns, simply because the common, pantheist view is that everything is sacred, all objects are part of the Divine and have the Divine within them. Therefore, consecrating an object and designating it as "sacred" is merely the act of recognizing some inherent truth about it--something that anyone can do, without ceremony or special skill. Those who practice in covens do not restrict the ability to consecrate objects to priests/priestesses (if they even have these roles within the coven, which some do not). In short, a Witch might say that, to "bless" (or "charge") a chalice of water or wine, to anoint a ritual tool with oil or "smudge" it with the smoke of incense--is simply a physical act, a way of directing his energy and focus and dedicating an object especially for religious practice, not so that the nature of the object changes, but so that the Witch himself may be more receptive to its inherently sacred nature, its relationship to the Divine.

For many Christian witches, this explanation might work perfectly well. Personally, I find myself getting hung up on the question of a priest's role in consecrating holy water, for example. Each full moon, I collect a small amount of fresh stream or rain water (or melted snow, in the winter months) to keep on my altar. I use this water to anoint myself every morning while singing the Glory Be quietly to myself as I conclude my morning centering prayer. I think of it as a daily cleansing, refreshing my spirit and readying for the coming day. During this season of Lent, I have also begun to explore the use of essential oils, trying to incorporate it into my morning prayers--the scent remains with me all day, reminding me to center and send up a short prayer of gratitude to God (luckily, the oil blend I use--lavender and sandalwood in a jojoba base--is so pleasant, I can't help but feel lifted when I smell it, which certainly helps to give rise to my thanks to the Divine quite naturally). What is this difference between this use of water (collected from the outdoors) and oil different from the preparation and use of holy water and oils in the church setting? This question is perhaps only of passing importance, but if I answer that there is no real difference, then as a Catholic I'm led to ask, what about transubstantiation?

Transubstantiation is a difficult matter--it is one of the Mysteries of the Church, quite intentionally paradoxical, to lead one into heightened states of contemplation (that's right--it's not just meant to confuse and encourage blind submission, but to encourage questioning and spiritual exploration). I will return to it in a moment, but first I would like to consider the possibility of what actually happens when an object is designated as "sacred" and blessed/charged.

Although I personally believe that all of existence is Divine and exists within the Divine (and the Divine within it), I do not equate material reality with the Divine, as does pantheism. Rather, I prefer the more complex (and again, somewhat paradoxical) concept known as panentheism, which suggests that God is within and beyond the world. Thus, I do not see consecration merely as a psychological change of the practitioner, but an actual change in the nature of the object or space being consecrated. What is this change? I ask myself what is the change which I experience when I feel blessed? The answer is, I feel as if I have been opened, somehow, and that I have become a better vessel through which the Divine flows. This experience does not deny that I am already within the Divine, and the Divine within me, on an ordinary basis--rather, it's akin to "opening up a window" and letting in the Breeze (the Breath of wind) as well as the Light. I have come to understand the consecration of objects in this way: a kind of "opening up" which allows them to more effectively radiate Divine energy and love. Consecration, then, is not investing an object with one's energy, but rather drawing on that energy--the more such an object is drawn on, the more it becomes capable of giving, radiating. Sites of pilgrimage are rendered sacred because of the receptivity of the faithful who visit and draw on its naturally radiating the Divine.

Thus, the water and oil I use during my prayer is effective because I am open and receptive to its inherent ability to radiate Divine love, energy and blessing--and the more I draw on that radiating divinity, the more open and easily giving these things become. The same applies to the communion bread and wine during transubstantiation--Christ is not "put into" it by the priest's blessing, but instead he "becomes present" because of those faithful present (the priest included) who sincerely draw on these sacred food stuffs for that specific purpose. In theory, then, anyone--priest or layperson--could consecrate the bread and wine. Indeed, in the early days of the Church, when communion was still understood as just that, communion--a meal shared among fellow Christians in private homes, even while still a persecuted minority in the broader society--this was essentially the case.

Official Church Doctrine?

Sacramentals derive from the baptismal priesthood; every baptized person is called to be a "blessing," and to bless.
-- CCC 1669

(Incidentally, those who are not baptized may not have much concern for this restriction, so they may also feel free to bless or "charge" objects.)

Of course, those who were raised Catholic might not be comfortable consecrating their own bread and wine. As with many things in the Craft, effectiveness is often affected by the practitioner's own belief about whether certain actions will work. If you have your doubts about your own ability to consecrate certain objects--whether it be holy water or communion bread--feel free to work with your local church to obtain these things. If you cannot, you might look at your personal rituals as a way of imitating and acknowledging the power and meaningfulness of taking communion during Mass. Honestly, this is how I understand my own ritual workings when it comes to the Eucharist (though I feel perfectly comfortable blessing my own water, oils, salts and incense). In the future, I may change my practice, and I will definitely explore these questions in more detail. I hope this has been helpful, or at the very least provocative.


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