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By Eric A. Clayton

I collect magnets from every place I visit. This makes for a very chaotic fridge.

To keep the chaos to a minimum, I limit myself to just one magnet per place. This makes my wife happy but makes for many a tough decision in tourist shops around the world.

Lisbon, for example, was full of awesome magnets. There were tiles of every color, scenes from the cityscape and the word “Lisboa” spelled out in a hundred different styles. How did I decide which to choose?

Don’t worry — this isn’t a reflection on discernment. I just chose the magnet with the most sardines on it. It was an impulse buy.

Sardines are a common food in Lisbon, Portugal. Upon settling in Lisbon, the Romans discovered a ton of these little fish along the coast. Sardines soon became a staple — a source of income and protein — and so to this day, you’ll find cans of sardines throughout the city.

I learned all of this from another artisanal shop. I had bought a sardine-shaped Christmas ornament (obviously) and that bit of Portuguese lore was given to me for free.

For those keeping score at home, as I neared the end of my time in Portugal, I had in my possession both a magnet and an ornament that portrayed a small, oily fish that I hadn’t eaten, seen or cared much about prior to landing at the Humberto Delgado Airport.

Not much of a story.

And that’s why, on our final day in Portugal, when we stumbled upon a lunch special serving sardines — mere blocks away from the site where the Blessed Mother appeared in Fatima — we went for it.

I had to try the real thing, right? Can’t have the magnet on my fridge taunting me for all of time, calling me a liar for pretending I was some huge sardine guru.

It doesn’t really matter if I liked them or not. What matters is this: The image, the idea, the representation of the thing brought me into a real encounter with the thing itself. From word to object to encounter.

I think of the cross that hangs around my neck or the rosary I often keep in my pocket. I think of the icon depicting Abraham entertaining angels that hangs in our kitchen and the Salvadoran cross that hangs near our TV. I think of the tiny depiction of Our Lady of Fatima that I bought my girls from Portugal and the bracelets portraying Our Lady of Aranzazu that I got them from Spain.

Why do any of these things matter? Do we hang them or wear them or put them on display to prove something about ourselves, something to ourselves? Or, do we look to them as stepping stones along the way to a deeper encounter with the thing they point to: our infinite God of eternal surprises?

That magnet I got showing a bunch of sardines is pretty cool. But it means so much more now that I know what a sardine actually looks like, what it tastes like, that I have a story all my own to point to through that simple object.

Because these objects are important. From magnets to miraculous medals, these things lift our gaze up and beyond ourselves to something more, something greater. But we have to have the courage and we have to cultivate the desire to go beyond the object, to take the necessary step to the thing the object invites us toward.

Because while God is certainly in all things, no single thing contains the fullness of God. And so, we use these simple stepping stones to draw ever nearer.

This reflection is part of the award-winning weekly email series, “Now Discern This.” If you’d like to get reflections like this one directly in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

a person smiling for the cameraEric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America MagazineNational Catholic ReporterU.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, the World of Myth Magazine and more. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat, Sebastian. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here.