Catholic Sacramental Spirituality
July 13, 2002
My topic this afternoon will be on sacramental spirituality as the ground for peacemaking.
Presently I work in a parish. Throughout my life what I’ve perhaps done best is try to help people on the local level, the parish level, rather than do theology just for the rich and the famous. Theology is for everybody. I’ve spent my life between academic work, a lot of lay ministry work, and working for diocesan offices in three different states. About every five years I’ve gone back to living and working in a parish setting. By returning to touch base at the parish level I have not only found a wonderful place for myself, but I have gained credibility in the church of the people of God, because I’ve actually lived and worked in their daily environment. After working in Idaho, I told the priest I was going back to a parish. “Why would you do that?” he asked. I responded, “Well, because I want to,” – to which he remarked, “Don’t you know that’s the hardest job?” So most of my work has been trying to put together theology and the people of God. And my short talk today may reflect some of that.
My only contact with Mennonites, before this, was in Idaho where I was a regular volunteer in their third world shop. I got to know many wonderful people and saw their discipleship in action. I treasure that experience.
To try to speak about sacramental spirituality in ten minutes is like trying to put a Catholic in a straight jacket. Where do I start or what do I do in ten minutes? So, I’ve selected what I feel speaks to me of the sacraments – the presence of Christ in sign and symbol in our lives, and how that reflects on and calls us to peace.
When we go into the Abbey everyday for prayers, there is a placard that greets us. It reads: “Peace, welcome, this is a house of prayer and worship.” I find it quite touching that the actual place we come to pray and to worship calls us immediately, with the first word, peace. The second word is welcome. All spirituality, but especially sacramental spirituality has a sense of hospitality, a sense of welcoming, a sense of gathering. Only as we welcome and acknowledge one another are we called to prayer and worship.
Another piece of the sacramental-liturgical life here is the liturgy of the hours, which we have, been sharing and enjoying during this week. As we come to the liturgy of the hours, the words themselves remind us of peace. For example, last evening Psalm 85 spoke of “the voice of peace.” And even the place speaks of peace. It gives the day a rhythm, a rhythm that is grounded in work and prayer. It is here through prayer and song and silence and the word that we meet Jesus and one another. Finally, for the monks who know each other only too well, sitting next to each other everyday takes a certain nonviolent peace!
Two little vignettes about September 11th made an impression on me. At the time that event occurred, we happened to be in our parish church for daily mass. At the end of mass, the secretary came in and gave Father a note. It was after communion. He sat down he glanced at it and then, before the final blessing, he told us what had happened as far as we knew it at that early time. He made this announcement and then proceeded to give us the final blessing, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” It was powerful, and remains powerful for me yet. In all the horror of that morning, we were sent, through our prayer, to go in peace to love and serve the Lord. We say that everyday, but that day it really meant a great deal.
The other is a little story. A Native American grandfather was talking to his grandson about how he felt about the tragedy on September 11th. He said, “I feel as if I have two wolves fighting in my heart. One wolf is the vengeful, angry, violent one. The other wolf is the loving, compassionate one.” The grandson asked him, “Which wolf will win the fight in your heart?” and the grandfather answered, “The one I feed.” I remembered, the food we have to share is the bread of life. We, too, are the body of Christ. How dare we then feed anything except the loving, compassionate and forgiving wolf in our hearts if we are truly a Eucharistic people. That’s the challenge we’ve been talking about these days. “Which wolf will we feed?” Which heart do we feed when we’re feeling all these different emotions? And is the Eucharistic sacrament sufficient food?
David Power says that sacramental spirituality is “incarnational and terrestrial.” Sacramental spirituality is terrestrial, of the earth. We both offer the things of the earth and give thanks for redemption – and there is no separation between those two. The things of the earth are water and wine and oil and bread and fire. It’s also music and space and liturgical movement and liturgical garb. And as I’ve reflected, it’s even about – in our case – having only male clergy. That, too, that is part of the human stuff, if you will, of our liturgy that we have to keep accepting even if not always agreeing with it. It as part of the humanness of our celebration. The words, the ritual, the rites can also be a danger for Catholics as they can become ritualistic and the ritual overtakes the powerful meaning.
Incarnational means that Jesus comes in our humanity. Jesus is the primary sacrament because Jesus is the self-revelation of God. Jesus is “the invisible God made visible.” So a discussion of sacramental spirituality must start with Jesus. We must start with the Paschal Mystery, the dying and rising experiences of His life and our lives. At our Eucharist, the presider says, “Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith” and all believers respond: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” That is, as someone mentioned this morning, the reign of God. When we’re talking about the Paschal Mystery, we’re talking about entering into the reign of God now though not yet. Beginning with baptism, we enter into the water, dying, and we come to new life as a rising. The white garb that the newly baptized receives is the sign that we are clothed with Christ, that we’ve put on Christ.
I worked in Idaho where there are many Mormons. In Idaho Falls one day, there was a huge window sign that said, “Mission Suits for Sale.” I knew it meant the black suits the young men get as they begin their two years of mission work. But as I drove down the road I thought, “You know what, we already have our mission suits. We received them when we were baptized; that white garment was our mission suit. Every sacrament or sacramental experience reminds us that we are indeed part of that Paschal Mystery and are called to the same mission – the discipleship of Jesus.
The revision of the Holy Week liturgy in the late 1950’s, climaxed with the Easter Vigil was, for Catholics, a tremendous experience because it brought back for us not only the understanding but also the actual experiencing of the Paschal Mystery. The restoration of the Easter Vigil has been one of the greatest gifts that the Catholic Church has received to help the Church find the center of its spiritual life. All other prayers and spiritual exercises either flow from or into this experience.
So, as Jesus is the primary sacrament, the Church, then, is the sacrament of Jesus. It is through the Church that Jesus is revealed and that Church is us, the people of God. That’s who we are. As Catholics, we have many ways that we believe that Christ reveals himself to us within the community, but especially through what we have come to know as the seven sacraments. I want to approach them just a little bit differently. Jesus as the primary sacrament comes to us in various ways. “He comes as the welcomer at baptism. He comes as strengthener at confirmation. He comes as nurturer at Eucharist. He comes as forgiver at reconciliation. He comes as healer at anointing. He comes as leader at holy orders, and he comes as lover at marriage.” (Streeter, OP) What we are called to in our spiritual is that we are to welcome everyone, to be inclusive; we are to be strong and to give strength to others by acting as mentors and by calling forth the gifts of the Spirit in other people; Eucharist invites us to be nurturers . How do we feed others? When do we feed others? As peacemakers, we are challenged to be forgivers. (For Catholics, as you know, this has been a difficult part of the scandal – we believe in forgiveness and redemption but we’re not able or allowed to forgive.) We’re urged to be healers at the anointing of the sick, healers in society and with individuals. We’re called to be leaders, to minister to one another and above all to be servants to one another; and finally, we are all called to be lovers. To love is to get to the bottom of who God is. A sacramental spirituality then, would mean that these are but seven ways why which Christ is present to us, and we are present to one another. We are present in this world as the body of Christ.
I’d like to say a few specific things about the Eucharist which is, the love of my life. At Vatican II we were reminded that “the Eucharist is both the source and the summit of our life.” If we keep remembering that, then the Eucharist will always be the center of our life. The writer Kathleen Hughes presented Eucharist in a way that made a lot of sense to me. She talked about coming forward for communion as people being in a bread line. We come, we stand in line in our church with our hands open, waiting for that little piece of bread and drink of wine. We are hungry; we want to be fed; and we stand, in a sense, reaching out, knowing that we are needy to some degree. We stand together in our poverty . It’s an image I’ve used with people in the parish and many say that it makes sense to them, the experience of wanting to be fed with the bread of life. One would hardly go stand in a bread line or a food line if they were not hungry. Putting ourselves in that place says, indeed, that we want to be nourished and fed.
The Eucharist is full of moments of forgiveness and peace. Today at the liturgy I found myself listening again for all the times that forgiveness is mentioned. One example is the preface for one of the Eucharistic prayers for reconciliation:
“Father, all powerful and ever living God, we praise and thank you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, for your presence and action in the world. In the midst of conflict and division, we know it is you who turns our minds to thoughts of peace. Your Spirit changes our hearts. Enemies begin to speak to one another; those who were estranged join hands in friendship. The nations seek the way of peace together. Your Spirit is at work when understanding puts an end to strife, when hatred is quenched by mercy, and vengeance gives way to forgiveness. For this we should never cease to thank and praise you. We join with all the choirs of heaven as they sing forever to your glory, Holy, Holy, Holy….
What a powerful prayer.
We regularly give and receive the sign of peace as a community; we begin each service with the prayers of reconciliation, the call for forgiveness, the recognition we are sinners and in need of God’s mercy. We also have the prayers of the faithful. At a recent marriage ceremony the prayers of the faithful included: “For our church to keep the promise of salvation, we pray to the Lord. For our world to keep the promise of peace, we pray to the Lord.” There are calls for peace right within our marriage vows. Before the Eucharist, we say, “Lord we are not worthy” but we dare to stand here and be part of this great event.
Where do you look for information on sacramental liturgy and spirituality? I’m convinced that if one reads the four constitutions from Vatican II – namely: the Church, the Church and the Modern World, the one on Scripture (“Dei Verbum”) and the one on liturgy – you would be grounded, in what our church holds to be the core of spiritual/sacramental life, as well as those sacramentals and pious devotions that flow from this core.
Finally, I want to remind you that you are in the very place that has been made holy because it is one of the places in our world where the liturgical movement was restored or renewed. Virgil Michel, who was a monk here at the Abbey was very young when he died but what he did in his short life was amazing. Along with Godfrey Diekmann, who died just recently, these monks, supported by the community here, helped the world (not just Stearns County, but the world!) to understand what the liturgy based in sacramental life could be. “Michel once asked, ‘Could society be changed unless the hearts and souls of persons changed first?’ He believed this happened in liturgical worship and practice.” Virgil Michel implemented the impulse that leads us from participation in worship to involvement in the search for peace and justice in the world. That was in 1930.