Signs of Sacred Things
Some of you know that whenever we have a new members' gathering here
at NHCC, I ask participants to tell me about their background in faith.
This parish is comprised of folks who grew up Congregational, Roman
Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Jewish, Unitarian, and Orthodox among
other groups. So we all bring something special to the table, and we
all learned differently, too. Therefore, I usually ask new members if
anyone can teach us the seven sacraments defined in Roman Catholic
history to get on common ground. Who can do that?
Now, for extra credit, which two of these are not called
"common" or "lesser" sacraments, that is, the two
ordained by Jesus? (For answers, click
Sixteen centuries ago Augustine of Hippo gave a simple definition of
a sacrament. It is, "A sign of a sacred thing." A sign of a
sacred thing. Sometimes the word sacrament is translated
"mystery." Given that, you might not be surprised to learn
that a thousand years ago, Hugh of St. Victor, a wise monk, named 30
sacraments: 30 mysteries. The list of seven wasn't settled until
halfway through the sixteenth century.
Sometimes I wonder if Protestants suffer by having only two
sacraments. I wonder if our list is too limited and bears so much
pressure that it does that very un-Protestant thing and severely
restricts the way that we perceive God? Indeed, do we really perceive
God in our sacraments? For example, today at World Communion Sunday, do
our actions, our words, our bread and cup give us a sign of a sacred
If you've received your newsletter already, you may have read the
quote from Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in my letter. These are
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
Flame, oil, greatness, warmth, bright wings, brooding.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil…
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Sometimes it takes an artist, a poet, to explain the thing that
science and theology and prose endeavor to explain and often do well.
For the poet in this case says that the whole world is suffused,
saturated, touched, blessed with the presence of God. Artists see that
two signs or seven or even thirty are not enough to explain creation's
wonder and the Creator's gifts. So they keep painting and reaching for
words and angles and visions to display what is right in front of us
Whenever I sit down with a couple to plan a wedding, I ask to spend
several hours together in preparatory conversation. Somewhere in the
middle of all that I ask almost the exact same question of each duo:
where and how do you nourish and restore your spirit? I explain that I
believe and assume that every human being has a spirit and that
history, psychology, and experience all teach us that our spirits need
fuel and nourishment, so I wonder where they get it.
Somewhere around 90% of all the folks I've met over 21 years include
in their answer something about nature, mountains, oceans, woods and
the out of doors. Actually I have never had someone tell me that they
need to spend more time indoors or shopping or even sleeping. But
nature scores near unanimity.
Listen again to words from today's Psalm: The heavens are telling
the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims (God's) handiwork.
"Day to day" pours forth speech, and "night to
night" declares knowledge.
The poet from once upon a time was sharing the faith that all
creation is a sign of a sacred thing: every night and day. Or as it
says in Psalm 37, "Take delight in the Lord," because on a
personal level, a political level, and a cosmic level -- embracing all
creation -- God is present to us.
Where do you nourish and restore your spirit? Where do you see signs
of the sacred?
My two favorite moments of rest in our worship are when the choir
sings and when I listen to the postlude. I'm often busy the rest of the
time. But those are sacred moments to me.
There is something sacred to me about seeing my children at rest.
Call me crazy if you wish, but when they are asleep, still, restoring
their strength, without tension or want, I feel the same.
I love Boston. I even like New York. And Newton is wonderful. But
getting away from buildings, when I am anywhere near almost any body of
water, I feel a peace in my body and spirit that is different from what
I get in developed places. I can sit and stare at the ocean for hours,
and I know just how fortunate and blessed I am even to speak that
sentence: this is not a privilege available to all in our world. Yet
when I have visited the high cliffs above the ocean in Scotland and
Ireland, in Hawaii and Indonesia I have felt near an axis mundi.
Where sky and sea and land intersect, I feel very close to God.
Where do you see signs of the sacred?
There is an old heresy called pantheism, which states that
everything is God and God is everything. This became a heresy because
it denies God's transcendence, even while it makes some claims about
stuff here being divine that probably isn't. But beside that old heresy
is an equally old Christian doctrine trickily named something very
similar: panentheism. It is orthodox and ancient. Panentheism
means that God is in everything, and everything is in God. You can find
the Psalmist saying that and the Apostle Paul and even Jesus, at times.
For panentheism, God is not an object with people as subjects, but
people are infused with the divine, as is creation, and we experience
the presence of God in all creation. In the thirteenth century Meister
Eckhart said that "everything is bathed in God, is enveloped by
God, who is round about us all, enveloping us." In the twelfth
century Hildegarde of Bingen wrote that "God hugs you. You are
encircled by the arms of the mystery of God." Panentheism opens us
to new visions and new life.
This week we have the powerful convergence of Yom Kippur and Sukkot,
Ramadan, World Communion Sunday, and the birthday of Francis of Assisi,
perhaps the most creation-centered theologian in Christian history.
Jews, Muslims, and Christians are pausing for a moment to look back,
look at their lives, partake differently, and recognize not only God in
our presence but God's call, even demand, for our future. Which is why
the way that we see sacraments, creation, and ourselves is so
I believe that if we approached our lives and our world in a
sacramental way, we would also change our politics, our economic
practice, our family values, and our global conditions. I believe that
if we allow artists and visionaries to help us with our sight of sacred
things, we would see that living anew in life-giving ways is possible.
The way that we do our sacraments all too often now allows us to leave
God at the altar, and the way we conduct ourselves across the globe
today allows us all too easily to ignore the Divine that exists in the
If we could see signs of the sacred across nature, it would be much,
much harder to strip mine, pollute, or despoil and much more possible
for all of us to cut back on our demands.
If we could see the image of God in all persons, it would be much
harder to send forth weapons of war that don't even require the
presence of anyone to deliver them as they fly long distance above and
away from connection. It would be much easier to practice
inter-religious respect. Seeing the world sacramentally has social
Last month the Girl Scouts completed a survey indicating that
starting as early as the age of nine, 45% of all girls have some
serious issue of self-esteem manifested in eating disorders, classroom
behavior, and even self-mutilation. Why doesn't our Christianity quote
Paul asserting that we are all temples and God's Holy Spirit dwells in
us? Why aren't we panentheists, teaching kids that God in them fosters
the highest self esteem possible?
Year after year, pluralities of male college students report that
they regularly, regularly, practice binge drinking, meaning five or
more doses of alcohol within a short period. What pain do we try to
mask, and what identity do we fail to recognize, when we are blind to
anything sacred in our presence that would guide us otherwise?
I don't have a simple trick for seeing the sacred in our presence
more effectively. But perhaps it begins with encouragement from our
theology, examples from our history, and support in our community.
Perhaps we can share our stories of when our spirits are restored and
expand our numbers of what we call sacraments. Artists can help, but so
can social activists, as well as average folks who recognize that
narrow thinking reveals a very thin God.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus feeds the crowds right after
healings are performed, and in each case in this Gospel, Jesus feeds
folks at the margins, Galileeans, away from the chosen group. As I've
said, He pushes the margins to display the way of God. Perhaps my
favorite line in today's communion story involving thousands is that
all ate and were satisfied. And they saw plenty. Satisfaction and
sufficiency, at the margins, when we expand our signs of the sacred.
This month, during Sukkot and Ramadan and at a time of world
communion, I encourage you to seek the sacramental side of creation.
Seek it to expand your faith: your relationship to God. Because you
already know a lot about sacraments.
Copyright © 2006
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.