Catholics are called to live a sacramental life, which means seeing everything as a sign, in its own way pointing to God, Who made all things – especially us – so that they might return to Him. The world is charged with the grandeur of God, wrote Hopkins in his 1877 poem, and over that world the Holy Ghost broods.
A sacrament, as Saint Thomas puts it, is a sign of a holy thing. In a broad sense, there is no existent thing that is not in some way sacramental: Red-hued sunsets, dappled lakes, a friendly smile, a fine meal, harmonic polyphony – all of them in their own way point to the Beauty Who is their origin, ever ancient, ever new.
Yet for us Catholics, some things are set aside as more significant signs of God, sacred signs, which display some natural beauty – music, cathedrals, holy water fonts, sacred prayers – but whose deeper, spiritual import must be learned by Faith. Those without Faith, living on a purely natural level, could appreciate the glorious majesty of Mont Blanc, but they would be puzzled by a scapular; icons of dead saints would be to them just a panoply of dead people, like the long line of dusty photographs of past prime ministers. Even the meditative quality of Gregorian chant would be used just for ‘relaxing’, and even cathedrals, which display some of the majesty of mountains, after all is said and done, are they not just piles of stone? Hence, the iconoclasm of John Knox, leaving the glory of Saint Andrew’s to its centuries of rack and ruin. But even those ruins are sacramental, as anyone who has wandered through them knows.
Then we have the even more mysterious seven sacraments, which not only signify, but cause what they signify. They are, as the Church teaches, efficacious signs, producing their effect ex opere operato, by their very being performed, irrespective of the state of the minister or the recipient, for it is Christ Who works in them. The greatest of these is the Eucharist, the sacrament of sacraments, the very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Word made flesh.
If all of the sacramentals in our Christian life are ordered to the sacraments, all of the other sacraments themselves are in turn ordered to the Eucharist, the closest we can get to heaven in this life. Hence, the centrality of Holy Mass, without which we could not really live, at least, not at a supernatural level.
A sacramental life is a liminal life, that is, living on the very threshold of eternity, which we may be asked to enter at that moment God has decreed for the dissolution of our bodies, and the unhinging of our souls from our flesh. The sacramentals, and the sacraments, not only help remind us that our homeland is not here, they also help us prepare for this transition. For if there one central message we may draw from Christ’s words, it’s that our state in the next life depends upon what we do with this one. As we were in life, so we will be in eternity. Our thoughts, words, deeds, omissions; our receptiveness to grace, the love of God indwelling in our minds and hearts, the only principle by which we can truly love our neighbour as ourselves.
We should live immersed in the eternal, aware of that coalescence of heaven and earth, matter and spirit, that comprises creation. Ponder: Your guardian angel is right ‘beside’ you as you read these words. The saints are not out in some remote location beyond the Milky Way, but with you in your room. And Christ is closer to you than you are to yourself. The people around us – all of them – are potential companions in heavenly glory, and it is our task to help get them there, as we ourselves strive to reach that end, the only journey that in the end really counts.
The best – and, really, the only – way to live so immersed in the eternal is through the sacramentals and sacraments, all those myriad of signs the Church has given us through the ages. That is why in these pages we emphasize the saints – living signs! – so that each day we might know who the companion of the day might be, from the more obscure and forgotten (who may often be the most effective intercessors!), to the more obvious and celebrated.
But not just the saints themselves, but their writings, their relics, and pilgrimages to sites associated with them.
Yes, I know I go on a bit about pilgrimages, but they are some of the most effective sacramentals, involving our bodies and souls. Two recent examples: August 9th is the anniversary of the dedication of our local cathedral, Saint Columbkille’s, a feast day in the diocese, as is the feast of the Irish saint himself (June 9th), who brought Catholicism from Ireland to my own native land of Scotland. I try to make a special trip to the cathedral on that day, to pray (for which, if one fulfils the requirements, a plenary indulgence may be gained). But, then any visit to any church is significant, especially when we may pray, even for a few moments, before the Blessed Sacrament.
And the other day, I had the honour and joy of being a pilgrimage guide for a visiting family out to Martyrs’ Shrine, dedicated to the Jesuits who offered their lives for the Faith in this nascent land. The site of the martyrdom of Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant is simple, three wooden crosses, and an outdoor altar; but holiness is there, for those with eyes to see.
But each of our days should be filled with smaller, daily sacramentals: The sign of the cross, brief prayers for purity or patience, holy water, invoking saints, a bit of spiritual reading, meditation on Scripture. Even our good works are sacramentals, picking up some trash someone threw on the ground, even saying a prayer for them as you do so; a smile or conversation with someone who needs a bit of encouragement, even if we do not feel much of that ourselves; remembering the unborn, the vulnerable and victims of war and violence; and doing what work we are meant to do fully and well.
Everything will then be seen in a new light: Our lives become unified, integrated, seamless garments, the ordinary flowing into, and becoming, the extraordinary. What was once humdrum or prosaic becomes ‘charged’ with God’s glory, shining through ‘like shook foil’.
Some have the grace, and the calling, to see all of this more clearly, and live accordingly. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ, wrote Saint Paul to the Philippians. ‘Loss’, that is, if they lead is astray from God. The religious life is one lived fully immersed in the sacramentals and sacraments, especially the contemplative path, with much of one’s day spent in chanting God’s praises and work for His kingdom. Saint Philip Neri said that such a vocation was the greatest gift Our Lady could offer to a soul, and those who say yes to this call are fortunate indeed. It was said of Saint Joseph of Cupertino that he could scarcely get anything done, for so many things reminded him of God that he would fall into ecstasy, if not float off the ground in his intense desire for heaven, which flowed through his soul and body.
Most of us, alas, are bound much more firmly to earth, a good thing for those with children, minivans and mortgages. But, to paraphrase the ever practical mystic Saint Teresa, we should see God in the pots and pans, the porridge and pandemonium, all the swirling and unsettling events of this passing world. But we should also take time set apart specifically for Him, daily Mass and Holy Communion if we are able, but at least brief prayers offered up, our homes suitably adorned with sacramentals – crucifixes, images, books. Even try a pilgrimage, whether long or short! Just so will we have our loins girded, our garment in order, prepared for His eternal wedding feast, if we but say yes to His invitation, each and every moment.