Reprinted from the June 2001 issue of Envoy Magazine with permission.

Know what a finial is? Sounds like a piece of beautiful pre-Vatican II altar paraphernalia, or a papal vestment, doesn't it? Actually, you probably see finials every day. They're the ornamental doohickeys that screw lampshades onto lamps.

I know this, because my wife knows this. She bought us a new finial recently. It features a molded image of the Holy Family at the Nativity and, in case you're wondering, I like it, too.

Why would anyone want to own such a thing? Well, as it happens, we have an entire collection of Nativity renderings - some admittedly unusual - that we put out every Christmas. With the addition of the finial, we've decided to call it quits for a while . . . a long while . . . before we veer into a level of eccentricity that might one day shame our son in the eyes of his neighborhood friends.

I don't remember exactly when it was but, somewhere along the way, my wife and I developed a taste for what might be called "faith-based accents for the home." Nice ones, mind you, not glow-in-the-dark statues, 3-D Bible scenes, and eyes-that-follow-you holy pictures (with all due apologies to manufacturers and devotees of glow-in-the-dark statues, 3-D Bible scenes, and eyes-that-follow-you holy pictures).

It's not just the Nativity scenes. We're reining in sacred image acquisitions across the board. Why? 1) It's a habit that can get easily out of hand. 2) We're not rich. 3) If we put all our everyday and seasonal stuff out at one time, you'd think we were running a Mom & Pop religious goods store out of our home.

How much stuff could I possibly be talking about? Let's start outside. In front of the house, we have a plastic-that-looks-like-granite St. Joseph. Out back, we have a plaster-that-looks-like-plaster St. Michael. Then, there's inside . . .

  • Sidelight window: Stained-glass Jesus.
  • Front hall: Our Lady, John Paul II, Holy Spirit, St. Michael.
  • Living room: Our Lady, St. Michael, the Annunciation.
  • Family room: house blessing, crucifix, St. Joseph.
  • Our son's room: crucifix, St. Michael, St. Joseph, guardian angel prayer, holy water font.
  • Our room: crucifix, Sacred heart, Immaculate Conception, Madonna & Child, St. Joseph prayer.
  • Kitchen: Holy Family refrigerator magnet, St. Michael refrigerator magnet, guardian angel refrigerator magnet, Divine Mercy refrigerator magnet, standard-issue parish calendar sponsored by a local funeral parlor.
  • Okay, so the calendar was a freebie. I just wanted to bring it up. What is it with funeral parlors and calendars, anyway? I mean, how handy does your local mortician's phone number really need to be? How come pizza parlors never sponsor these things?

    Anyway, back to all those other things I listed. That's just the stuff we keep around for every day. And I'm sure I missed a few things. Christmas and Easter each have their own additional accoutrements. As a matter of fact, it takes us until St. Patrick's Day to finish putting away that Nativity collection.

    Yes, I'm kidding. It actually takes us until St. Joseph's Day. (For those of you without a handy funeral parlor calendar, that's two days after St. Patrick's Day.)

    Now, am I under the impression that just having this stuff around makes me a better Christian than you? No.

    My faith is as woefully deficient as the next guy's.

    But that being the case, it's nice to see ideals of faith around the house ... and physical statements of my family's beliefs.

    Statues and pictures are also apologetics tools of a sort. They're quiet, but they can start conversations for the conversationally inclined. They can also make self-evident statements of faith for less vocal believers.

    And, truth be told, they can make you feel pretty good about yourself from time to time, woefully deficient faith notwithstanding. For instance, our stuff got us good marks on a recent homily checklist.

    Don't you love scoring high on a homily checklist? You know what I mean. The priest lays out a bunch of things you ought to be doing, and you've got most of them covered. It's a great feeling.

    I can't speak for women, but for men, I think the whole checklist thing is an echo of childhood baseball card collecting. Not baseball card investing, treating the things like stock certificates the way they do these days. I'm talking about collecting, trading, and pitching 'em against walls in competition with fellow collectors.

    Every once in a while, in a pack of baseball cards, you'd get a checklist for a particular series of cards, to figure out what you had and didn't have (need him, need him, got him, got him, need him, need him, got him).

    Just having the checklist was a big deal. Completing it was an experience bordering on cosmic.