This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts exploring the contemporary significance of the thought of my mentor William F. Lynch, SJ (1908-87). They will be identified by their titles (Lynch # 1, # 2…) so those less interested can skip, but they will explore current topics and concerns just as my previous posts have.
Today’s topic, for instance, is about how we experience the sacred both in traditional Christian sacraments and in the wider secular world of places and objects and events. Towards the end I explain Lynch’s continual recommendation of such “Both-And” thinking as well as his other regular recommendation that we “enlarge” the scope of our imagining and thinking, since both ideas provide grounding for a “both-and” approach to sacraments.
These “Lynch postings” will have some links to further reading. They will also at points be explicitly philosophical since Lynch always sought to relate his discussion of contemporary concerns to the philosophical or deepest roots of such concerns. Yet I will make every effort to keep the discussion concrete and the philosophy clear.
The theme of today’s writing is straightforward: that we Christians experience God’s sacred presence and grace both in Church rituals or sacraments and in the wider secular world of nature and persons and events. It’s a both-and, not an either-or. Indeed, these two experiences of God’s grace need and reinforce each other: church sacraments make us more sensitive to the presence of God in the world, and the experience of God’s presence in the world helps us understand the fuller meaning of sacraments and rituals.
Yet exploring this theme is not so easy. As always, “it’s complicated.”
What I write below barely scratches the surface and focuses almost entirely on Catholic ideas and experiences. I believe it may be relevant to important developments in “sacramental” thought and practice among contemporary Protestants. And that it related to the role of sacramentality in other great religious traditions.
I recently went to morning Mass at a fairly conservative Catholic parish. I say “conservative” because these days the priests in such parishes are the new priests coming from the Catholic seminary in Denver. The small congregation that morning was almost entirely old folks, so I fit in. The ritual was wonderfully reverent and the sermon (given my prejudices) surprisingly good. After the Mass many stayed for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
I didn’t stay. Rather I went home and enjoyed a cup of coffee on my porch, surrounded by nature – birds and bees, trees and flowers, sun and wind. It was, I believe, an experience of the sacred present in the natural world (even in the coffee) at the same time that fellow Catholics at that church were experiencing God eucharistic presence in the Monstrance.
I once knew an older Irish American guy who drove his wife to Mass each Sunday, but never joined her in Church. He respected her practice, yet preferred to find God in nature by sitting outside the church. I also knew an Italian American man in my hometown who would bring his wife to church every Sunday and then sit in the car reading the Sunday New York Times. I never talked to him about this, but his practice reminds me of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s recommendation that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other.
Recently I read Margaret Coel’s novel Night of the White Buffalo (2014), part of her best-selling Wind River Reservation mystery series featuring Fr. John O’Malley, SJ. He is pastor at the Mission Church and also an extraordinary detective. For there’s always a murder to be solved in each novel. Yet as a pastor, O’Malley is deeply involved in the lives of folks on the Rez. Thus in each novel we not only learn “who-done-it,” but much about contemporary Native American life.
In Night of the White Buffalo, a white calf born on a buffalo ranch near the reservation sends a sacred shockwave through the native world, especially among those who honor the traditional story about the “Woman Clothed in a White Buffalo Skin” who returns to her People as a white calf when their needs are critical. (For me, this tradition is kin to Catholic belief about Mary’s Apparitions and to the apocalyptic Woman Clothed with the Sun in Rev. 12: 1.) Soon hundreds, and eventually thousands, of Native Americans from across the country will come to the ranch to see the white calf and to leave (sacramental) totems — feathers, pipe tobacco, jewelry, prayer notes – and donations on the fence around the herd. Many of the locals who come are Catholics who regularly receive the sacraments at the Mission church. O’Malley isn’t bothered by this overlap of “sacramental” practice and belief.
Then, on a recent summer morning, I took my granddaughter to join other children playing in the fountains outside Denver’s Union Station. Watching these little ones I experienced Jesus’ saying “they are of the kingdom of heaven.” Often, too, I sit with my dog outside the station and am amazed at the diversity of folks passing bye. More than amazed, I really sense that these are the body of Christ.
Yet my Catholic upbringing emphasized the Seven Sacraments and many “sacramentals” – lesser sacred objects like candles, holy water, medals, rosaries, and crucifixes that had been blessed by the Church. Far more fundamentally, these Catholic teachings and practices separated such church-related sacredness from the larger world of essentially secular things and practices. One’s home was an exception because the presence (on walls and desks) of blessed candles and ikons, as well as the practice of family prayers before meals and at night, assured the sacredness of a Catholic family’s home.
There was at that time much devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, but (at least in my memory) not much talk about the sacredness in the natural world or in public places.
And these days, at least in “conservative” dioceses like Denver, children must be baptized in Church by a priest (except in cases of emergency) and marriages must be blessed by a priest and only in churches (no outdoor settings). Mass is mandatory, at least on Sundays, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament still much recommended.
Still, I doubt that even the most conservative Catholics any longer consider non-baptized children as limbo-bound pagans. And I’m not sure whether they any longer think of all those married without benefit of the sacrament as “living in sin.”
I am trying to make a general point about traditional Catholic restriction of the sacred to things performed or blessed by priests and mainly in church buildings, at altars or fonts or (in some places still) communion rails. Yet I know I am simplifying terribly and overstating the point.
At very least, traditional Catholic veneration of the Saints sees them as signs and reminders of the sacred in daily and “worldly” activities like caring for the sick, feeding the poor, giving to beggars. Though it is noteworthy that until quite recently most of the saints have been church men and woman – priests and nuns.
These days there is serious theological discussion about “the Catholic or sacramental imagination” at work, for instance, in secular film and fiction by Catholic directors and writers. Priest Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1929-2013), who contributed much to that discussion, even argued that Catholics have better sex lives because of their “sacramental” sensitiveness to God’s presence in physical objects. And his wildly popular novels about Catholics are quite deliberately filled with racy characters and scenes — not so much to sell his books as to criticize “traditional” Catholicism’s narrow views about sexuality.
Then, too, Jesuits have long spoken about “finding God in all things.” Indeed, William Lynch spoke the following words in 1954 at a Mass for a Catholic Poets’ Society:
Our God is a God of Existence, and not of dreams . . . He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and being this kind of God, being a God of existence, then He can only be found in existence, in the things that are, in real people, real situations. This God is not to be found in the past, nor in the future, nor in a dream, but in the present, its people, its mud, its obscurities, its need for pain and decisions . . .
So we come, finally, to Lynch’s ideas which, for me at least, provide firm foundation to the both-and understanding of sacraments which I am urging.
Lynch’s constant battle was against the pervasive human tendency to absolutize particular practices or beliefs – to make them into “the one way” or the only way to see and understand. Such tendencies lead to polarizations, to seeing things in either-or ways. The way, I have been suggesting, “conservative” Catholics tend to think about sacraments.
To combat such tendencies, Lynch regularly recommended what one of his later articles calls “The Task of Enlargement” (1976). It’s a commonsense practice – pulling back from a too narrow focus on things, seeing the bigger picture. Yet when there is conflict or serious difference, especially when polarization has already set in, it is a very difficult practice.
In the case our understanding of sacraments and sacred presence, we need to enlarge our vision so that, to repeat, church sacraments and secular or natural sacraments (whether children playing or a white buffalo calf) are part of a bigger picture. Both are needed and reinforce each other. We find God in all things in part because we are sensitized to God’s presence by the physical/ritual reality of church sacraments. Yet our sensitivity to natural sacraments also enables us to embrace the fuller meaning of church sacraments and to avoid practicing them superstitiously.
In more philosophical terms, Lynch’s fourth book, The Integrating Mind (1962), provides a detailed exploration of what he calls “contrariety.” The word is philosophical jargon for the fundamental fact that we humans, as finite and physical creatures, always and everywhere find ourselves living within many tensions between “contraries” — like past and future, self and world, body and mind, secular and sacred, church and state, nationalism and internationalism, and so on and on.
Our constant tendency is to simplify things by grasping onto one pole of such contraries and separating from the other – escaping from our bodies into mind or spirit (or doing the reverse), retreating from the world into ourselves, retreating from the globe into supposedly patriotic nationalism, escaping from the past by leaping towards the future or (perhaps more commonly) escaping some future by nostalgic return to the past.
Of course it never really works, at least not for long. Rather the realistic challenge for us is that of integrating these contraries — living with the tension so that each pole or contrary nourishes and develops the other — so that memories give grounds for hope, or being engaged out there in the world gives us a more real sense of ourselves. Or, as the old Latin has it, we experience mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body). Or (to repeat) a sense of the sacred in church opens us to the presence of God in all things.
So that’s my thought today – concern about God’s presence in both church and world, with (hopefully) some help from Lynch. Of course, there is much more to be thought and said, and I hope as always that some readers might add their thoughts on this site.
Let me end by highly recommending a recent short online article by Dani Clark, one of NCR’s staff writers. The title itself may intrigue – “St. Bernadette’s Rib Opened Something” – and the writing is wonderfully earthy and real. About food and drink on an Italian Island, about a relic of the Saint being honored in a local church, with memories of a miraculous medal and the real presence of Mary and other mothers. It’s a really good read which, in its way, gets at much of what I’ve been laboring over in this posting