The traditional definition of a Sacrament is “an external sign of God’s internal presence and acting” or “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” (St. Augustine). We hold a strong conviction that God wishes to communicate with us, every minute of every day. That is why many theologians speak of grace as “God’s personal self-communication” and our sacraments as key moments when this self-communication of God comes to us.
Grace is not so much someTHING that is given but someONE who is experienced as present – namely God. This is why many theologians today do not speak so much of sacraments “giving grace” (like it’s a thing or substance) but rather we hold that our sacramental celebrations awaken us, “enabling us to experience grace to recognize God’s presence” in a new or fresh way. They are opportunities to become focused and experience God in a profound way. A metaphor might be that they are like ‘putting on eye-glasses’, so that we can see more clearly, or become more aware.
So our sacramental celebrations invite us to become conscious of God’s always present creative, sustaining, and loving presence. And when we Catholics speak of the sacraments, we are not limited to the big seven. We believe that virtually everything we experience is potentially revelatory of God. Every experience we have is sacramental if we cultivate an awareness of God in everyday life.
Nothing is more significant to our Catholic identity than our sacramental principle which states: that all reality (everything we experience in our day to day life) is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s grace if we are paying attention. “A Sacrament is any person, place, thing, or event, any sight, sound, taste, touch, or smell, that causes us to notice the love which supports all that exists, that undergirds your being and mine and the being of everything about us.” says Fr. Michael Himes in his spectacular article entitled Finding God in All Things: A Sacramental World View and its Effects.
God is no more present in church than in a pub, but we generally are more present to God in church than we are in a pub. The problem of presence is not with God, but with us. (Cassidy)In other words, we don’t pray to make God present to us. God is already present, always present everywhere. We pray to make ourselves present to God. (Rolheiser)
Dr. Richard Gallardietz offers this metaphor to help us understand our sacramental principle. He invites us to imagine being at the doctors office with the light, cheesy “muzak” playing softly in the background throughout the waiting room. Someone sitting next to you nudges you and asks “Hey, what is this song that is playing?” and you stop filling out your medical forms for a minute, listen and respond “Oh, that’s The Beatles song Let It Be.”
Before that moment you were not paying attention to the music in the background at all. It was there, but you were not aware until someone invited you to stop and pay attention. THAT is what a sacrament is; a celebration that helps us to become aware of God’s grace that is ever present. Everything in life, every experience, sacred or profane, is potentially revelatory of God if we are paying attention.
All of creation is an overflowing of love from God, because that is just how God is – abundant and overflowing. So, God didn’t just love us into being, but God loved everything into being. God is the pulse, the ultimate ground to all that exists. Now, of course, we aren’t always aware of God’s presence in everything, but when we are, we Catholics call that sacrament. At your dinner table laughing and sharing with your family members – God is present. You hold a two-week old baby and feel a sense of awe and wonder as you touch her tiny hand – God is present. In a simple meal of wine and bread – God is present.
We are always free to pay attention to these experiences, or not. When we are paying attention, that is what we call a sacramental moment.
A closing story…
3000 Kings sat in succession on a high marble throne on the eastern gate of a great powerful city. All of them called upon God to appear so that they might see him, but all went to their graves with their wish unfulfilled. After the kings had all died and the city had fallen into shambles, a pauper, barefooted and hungry, came and sat upon that throne.
God, he whispered, the eyes of a human being cannot look directly at the sun, for they would be blinded. So, of course, I know I cannot look directly at you. Have pity Lord, temper your strength, turn down your splendor so that I, who am poor and afflicted may see you.
Then God came as a piece of bread, a cup of cool water, the oil of healing and a warm tunic offered by a friend, a small hut for shelter and in front of the hut sat a woman nursing an infant. Thank you Lord, the pauper whispered, you humbled yourself for my sake that I might see you…and I do see you…and I bow down to your beauty and truth.