SACRAMENT

Ephesians 1:7: "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding."

John 15:5: "I am the true vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

Christians disagree on the sacraments. We disagree on how many there are and how they function in the life of a disciple of Jesus. For example, the taking of the cup and bread, some call the Eucharist, some Communion, and others The Lord's Supper; our different names reflect in part our different understandings of it.

But we are all agreed on a more general sense of sacrament. All Christians know that God is continually at work in every aspect of creation, that as Karl Rahner says, "Grace is everywhere." All areas of our lives are open to the actions of God, and in every instance, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the senses to feel and taste, we can know that God abundantly and continually acts upon our behalf beyond anything we desire.

To remain in Christ the vine we must learn to receive God's help through the ordinary matters of life. God can teach us and transform us as we offer our work as prayer, as we care for our families, as we give and receive in our communities. God is at work in both our feasting and our fasting. He can make us more like him as we feast on a savory meal, receiving the richness of creation. He can make us more like him as we fast, dealing death to our gluttonous and lecherous impulses.

Literature is well suited to be a vehicle of sacrament. God may use a story like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to convict us of our own hypocrisy and folly or to enrich us with the love of the created order in all its joyous tastes and textures. We may even encounter God. Frank Burch Brown has suggested four ways in which this can happen:

  1. Negative Transcendence: This is when an artistic work, because of its representation of loss and tragedy, seems to ache for God's presence, even while in the work itself God appears absent.  The one not present is the one that the work cries out for. Elie Wiesel's account of the Holocaust, Night, Shakespeare's King Lear, or the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz (reflecting on the impact of Communism on Catholic Poland) are examples of such an ache.  Each manifests a terrible vision of the world's misery and longing for the divine.
  2. Radical Transcendence: Here, we experience God as the one who is Wholly Other, high and infinite above our experience.  The literary work offers an austere vision of God as fiery and powerful, glorious beyond our understanding.  Many of John Donne's Holy Sonnets or the essays of Simone Weil look to God's majestic difference. We have a sense of our finiteness, dependence, even sinful separation from the the universe's designer.
  3. Proximate Transcendence: This is when the text offers us a picture of God who is mysterious, "within and among and beyond things earthly and tangible" (120).  C. S. Lewis' Aslan or Ron Hansen's novel of the stigmata, Mariette in Ecstasy, offer examples of such experiences--the world seems ordinary but something is also mystical, challenging our common perceptions.
  4. Immanent Transcendence: Here we sense God's sacredness within the ordinary aspects of life, the enfleshed life of the body, a life which we can sense even in a poem, story, or play.  The poetry of Kathleen Norris or the film version of Babette's Feast focuses on God in daily stuff of life.

We sense his profound presence through the world about us. To live sacramentally is to meet God in the particulars.  

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Central Insight: God's grace works through the everyday particulars of life, including the reading of literature.

Suggestions for Application: Recount how God used a particular aspect of a work of literature to teach you or help you experience an important truth. Perhaps describe a work's mediation of a truth about God such as one of the four categories above.

[Brown, Frank Burch. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.]

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding