Call it whatever you’d like—looking for an opportunity to evangelize or eavesdropping (I’d prefer the former)—but the young couple at the table behind me and a Pastor of a home church were talking about why the couple was leaving the Catholic Church. He was in full salesman’s mode, doing his best to “recruit” them. They both felt that “there is no sense of community whatsoever and the sermons are really dull. We just feel like we’re not being fed.” “Sorry for interrupting,” I said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing how unhappy you are at your Parish. Have you considered trying another Parish before leaving the Catholic Church altogether? Maybe it’s the Parish and not the Catholic Church that isn’t a good fit.” I learned about the couple—both grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school and actually knew the faith of the Church surprisingly well. Sensing some momentum building from the nostalgia, I went for the kill (in the most charitable sense of the word), “Would you both be OK with walking away from the Sacraments and from the Eucharist? That is the really cool thing about being Catholic—no matter how unfriendly the people are and no matter how bad the homily, we are absolutely guaranteed to have a real encounter with Jesus each week. Nowhere else can give us that.” And then I got…nothing. “Well, the Sacraments are not really that important to us. We just really want to worship in a place where we feel comfortable.” I immediately realized I had grossly underestimated thinking that the Sacraments were a big deal to anyone who was Catholic. My friends in the restaurant are not alone—a recent study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) found that despite a growth in the Catholic population world-wide, there has been an overall decrease in the Sacramental action of the Church. And just like the couple in the restaurant, the problem may not be catechesis. Instead what may be lacking is the necessary context of the entire Sacramental system.
The Christian conception of a Sacrament rests upon a certain pattern of viewing reality that is almost universally rejected in an age that has come to be dominated by rationalism and technology. We speak in a language that reduces each thing as “nothing but X.” Love is “nothing but a series of chemical reactions in the brain.” Human beings are “nothing but machines for propagating DNA.” The universe is “nothing but a collection of atoms in motion” (all of these are direct quotes from nothing but Richard Dawkins’ vocal cords). These atoms in motion may lead to an expanding universe, but it is a universe that is significantly smaller than when it started.
The lie of nothing but-ness is the belief that things can be known exhaustively once we have understood their chemical and physical properties. Hamlet was right when he told Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are contained in your philosophy.” Reality is more than meets the eye and we will only appreciate it when we see things not just as things but also as images pointing beyond themselves. This is the sacramental worldview that is foundational to inviting the power of the Christian Sacraments into our lives
To see how much this reductionism infects your thoughts, ask yourself the following question: why does the moon orbit the earth? Most of us would say it is because of gravity. Some might say so that there is some light at night. But that only answers by what mechanism the moon orbits the earth or what makes it useful. Both only lead to further questions—why gravity and not a giant pole? Why the moon for light and not flashing lights across the sky? The sacramentalist looks for the meaning of the moon as it is. And what does he find? That the moon tells us of the Blessed Mother, reflecting the light of Son on the darkened world. She remains in our orbit because of the natural attraction of two bodies, namely love.
One might object that it is simply a matter of imagination that I see the moon that way. Of course scripturally speaking this is not a stretch at all. Revelation 12 presents Our Lady as having the “moon under her feet” showing off this connection. But even on a human level we see both that things have meanings beyond themselves and we are not free to make them up. Isn’t this exactly why Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers Quarterback who refused to stand during the national anthem is coming under so much scrutiny? He is trying to attach a new meaning to the flag rather than the meaning that everyone else accepts as true. The flag stands for the greatness of the American Spirit—one of courage, self-sacrifice and patriotism. It not only symbolizes those values but also brings them about by its very presence. Men literally have died defending the flag, not because the material is valuable, but because of what the flag is. The flag is a sacrament.
CS Lewis compares these two ways of seeing, calling them looking at and looking along, in his essay Meditation in a Toolshed:
I was standing today in the dark toolshed. The sun was shining outside and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. … Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences.
Everything is charged with meaning if only we are willing to look along and not just at. This offers a way out of the profound boredom that so afflicts so many of us. Rather than looking for distractions we find that the very things we are avoiding contain the meaning of life. When we realize that meals are not “nothing but” the biological act of feeding, but instead a profoundly human and social activity by which life and the sources of life are shared among the diners then we will not be so apt to miss meals with our family. When we see sex is not “nothing but” an urge but instead a fruitful and total giving and receiving of a man and woman then we will do nothing to violate its sacred character. When instead of seeing our work as “nothing but” how we make money, but a call to complete God’s work of creation then our work will fulfill us, no matter how menial the task.
Oddly enough, it might be by listening to the favored secular mantra, namely “Respect for the Environment,” that we can restore the sacramental habit. The word respect literally means to look again. Let us all develop this habit of looking again, this time along, our environments and see if our Sacramental lives don’t change for the better.