“…there is something wrong with how we look at [the] world. We have inherited amblyopia from Adam and Eve, and the eye that has become lazy is our spiritual one. We let our wandering eye rest not on creations true teleology, but only upon its usefulness to our own self-satisfaction. The world becomes worldly when we do not use our spiritual and sensible eyes together. That accounts for why Christian doctrine must walk the paradox of simultaneously affirming the good of nature, and rejecting the natural as the ultimate end of human existence. The world has not caused our idolatry, rather our idolatry has wronged the world. St. Paul says it groans in the travails of childbirth until man and woman take up their abandoned post of cosmic priest again (Romans 8), and Kavanagh says we can only finally do the world the way it was meant to be done if we are restored to this liturgical relationship with the world. Sometimes the overly spiritual Christian suggests that redemption consists of turning a blind eye to the world, but in fact redemption consists of having our proper activity returned to us in both domains–the profane as well as the sacred.”
In my recent series of articles on the sacramental imagination I have been exploring how it’s possible to recognize God’s presence in all of life. I have been urging my readers to begin seeing all of life—from when we get out of bed in the morning to when we brush our teeth at night—as occasions for communion with God. I have suggested that we can begin to great all our experiences—from a baby’s laugh to a splash of rain on our cheek—as occasions of wonder and grace. It is possible to learn to hear God’s voice, not just in times of prayer, but in a stranger reaching out to us in need, or even in our own heartbeat and silent breathing. Even by simply being physical we can participate in the life of God, for as David Fagerberg beautifully puts it, “the Incarnation was a sanctification of our bodies as well as our souls, and the supernatural settles, as a dewfall, upon every natural thing.”
If you are new to this blog and haven’t been keeping up on this series, here are links to the main articles in this series on the sacramental imagination.
In the present article, I want to take things in a new direction and apply some of these principles to the issue of pain and emotional discomfort. I will be suggesting that the invitation to be fully present in whatever we are experiencing (a point I developed in ‘Eating and Breathing Sacramentally‘) is something we can apply to times of pain no less than experiences of joy.
Throughout this series on sacramentalism, I have suggested that the sacramental imagination involves learning to perceive the world according to its real shape or essence. It is a way of picturing things that is faithful to the reality we experience living in a world where grace transforms nature. This goes back to Chesterton’s insight that there is a divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life, and that even the mundane and commonplace participate in God’s grace.
That may sound somewhat mystical and over-spiritualized, so let’s make things very practical. How can the sacramental imagination change our perception of ordinary things like a sandwich, bedtime, mealtime, family relationships and suffering? To answer this question, let’s take each of these things one at a time, beginning with sandwiches. This will anticipate some of the more specific points I will make later in this post about eating.
The sacramental imagination invites us to rethink one of the hottest topics within Christian apologetics right now: the meaning of “a Christian worldview.”
In 1963, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983) addressed this topic of Christian worldview in a study guide written for the Quadrennial Conference of the National Student Christian Federation in Athens, Ohio in December 1963. The students in this group were preparing themselves for a discussion of Christian mission in the contemporary world. Schmemann, who was a liturgical scholar of Russian descent who immigrated to America in 1951, wanted to guide the students’ discussion through helping them to develop a correct understanding of a Christian “worldview.”
My previous post, “A Visit From G..K. Chesterton“, raised the issue of what is often referred to as “the sacramental imagination.” Along with other poets and novelists associated with the sacramental imagination (one thinks of authors like George Herbert, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), Chesterton invited his readers to look at the world in a new way, to see the divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life.
Chesterton believed that we can best approach this sacramental vision by becoming like little children. He pointed out that as we mature we often lose the sense of wonder towards the world that came to us naturally when young. Taking inspiration from St. Francis of Assisi, Chesterton believed that the spiritual life was an invitation to regain this elemental sense of wonder, to have our spiritual senses sharpened so that we can begin seeing the halo of sanctity in all natural things. “…the whole philosophy of St. Francis”, he reflected, “revolved around the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery not the ultimate refusal of natural things.”
The late afternoon August sun shone mercilessly in my face as I made my way across the parking lot of the call center where I had been working as a janitor.
Generally, I liked the hot days in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, especially when I could go swimming in the lake with my daughter Susanna after work. But on that particular afternoon in early August, I had five hours of office work ahead of me, as part of a second Master’s degree I was getting ready to pursue. If I was lucky, I could get the work done in order to be in bed by 11:00, before beginning another long day as janitor.
I had taken this janitorial job in early 2018 after my business as a freelance writer had slowed down. Although working as a janitor could be mind-numbing and monotonous, it did have some compensations. For one thing, I was able to spend about a third of my work time listening to audio books. As I dusted railings, cleaned toilets and emptied trash cans, my imagination was ignited with the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, John Buchan, Elizabeth Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh and Alexandre Dumas. These novels lifted my spirits and transported me into far-away worlds of suspense, heroism and romance.
But on that particular afternoon in early August, the novels I listened to at work only produced a deleterious effect. I couldn’t help thinking that the characters in these stories inhabited worlds that were so fresh and vivid compared to the monotony of modern life. As I approached my truck, I thought, “Why can’t I have the type of adventures that John Buchan’s characters are always falling into?” The novels reminded me that in my youth I had been like the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and dreamed of traveling the world. Instead I was going grey cleaning toilets.
Once situated in my truck, I knew that I didn’t have the energy to drive home. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open, having gotten up at 5:00 AM that morning to squeeze in three hours of study before beginning my janitorial duties. To make matters worse, there was a heavy smell of smoke in the air from wildfires in neighboring Montana. The smoke made me feel light-headed and drowsy.
As hot as it was in my truck, I decided to climb into the back seat and have a nap before driving home. After situating myself comfortably with a pillow that I kept on hand for just such a purpose, my mind continued to dwell on the disparity of my boring life with the adventures of people like Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s novels, or the Count of Monte Cristo in Alexandre Dumas’ story by the same name. “Man,” I thought, “I would give anything to visit some of the places in these stories!”
I was just surrendering to drowsiness when suddenly I saw a gentlemen sitting in the front seat of my truck. I had no idea where he came from, nor how long he had been sitting there. When he saw I had become aware of his presence, he simply said, “Hello!” in a thick British accent.
Normally I would have been startled to see a strange man in my truck. But this gentleman seemed to be treating the entire occasion as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Somehow, this sense of ordinariness rubbed off on me. I would have been tempted to treat him as an apparition were it not for the strong smell of cigar smoke that clung to his tweed suit (apparitions generally don’t smell). As far as his looks were concerned, I can only describe him by saying that he was extremely fat and looked exactly like the pictures of G.K. Chesterton in his mid-life.
Dozens of questions suddenly occurred to me, but somehow, all I was able to do was to blurt out, “Gosh, you sure look a lot like G.K. Chesterton.”
The man eyed me inquisitively through his old fashioned spectacles before slowly replying, “My friend, the reason I look like G.K. Chesterton is because I am G.K. Chesterton.”
“Oh,” I said in excitement. “I’m so glad you’ve come because I just love your books, especially your stories.”
He gave an appreciative nod.
“I especially enjoy that scene from The Man Who is Thursday where the character Sunday is riding through London on an elephant,” I said enthusiastically. “Nothing like that has ever happened in our world.”
“Oh?” he said inquisitively, as if inviting further comment from me.
“Well, I mean, my life in this town is just so boring by comparison. Everything just seems so prosaic and commonplace compared to the adventures I’ve been reading about.”
“Ah,” he replied, and then he muttered as if to himself, “this is more serious than I was told.” Then, turning back to me, he asked, “Do you not see a sort of halo to the edges of all earthly things?”
“Um,” I stuttered, not quite comprehending the question. “I can’t say that I do.”
Chesterton paused for a moment, as if deciding to change his approach. Then he burst out, “Oddsfish my man, does not the sun still rise every morning?”
“Well, of course,” I answered.
“Does the moon still wax and wane?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Does the sea still bare her bosom to the moon?”, he asked.
“Sure I guess, if you want to call it that,” I said.
“Good!” he expostulated. “For a minute you had me worried. How glorious, how splendid, how perfectly romantic!”
“But, I don’t understand,” I said. “Didn’t the moon wax and wane when you were living? Didn’t the sun rise every day? The world is simply doing what it’s always done and following natural laws.”
“Ah,” he replied with a faint twinkle on the corners of his mouth. “But what you call ‘natural laws’ seemed always to me to be the portent of a wonderful magic hovering just behind the very structure of things. No doubt you have grown too weak to exult in the theatrical encore you call monotony. You have grown too stupid—forgive me for making so bold—to receive the golden sun and silver moon like a schoolboy who has one sovereign and a shilling in his pocket.”
I stared at Chesterton, not knowing what to say.
He continued: “No doubt you think it would be most grand to enter into the story of Jack climbing the magic beanstalk. But have you never stopped to fathom the magic of simply living in a world where there are beanstalks? No doubt you think it would be quite a glorious thing to live in a world where a fairy godmother can turn a pumpkin into a coach. But have you ever stopped to consider the sheer adventure of being alive in a world where there are mothers and where there are pumpkins?”
“No,” I replied, “I can’t say that I ever considered things from that point of view.”
“Don’t you see,” he continued. “Strange, peculiar and glorious things happen all the time, but their sheer regularity blinds you to the magic. Your problem is not a want of wonders, but a want of wonder. You’ll find everything you need to know in your poets. One of the best poets is John Donne. He is the one who remarked that ‘There is nothing that God hath established in the constant course of Nature, and which therefore is done everyday, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.’”
Chesterton paused, in an ecstasy of joyful reflection on the quotation he had just shared. Then suddenly he ejaculated, “even that which you consider inconvenient is simply an adventure wrongly considered!”
“I guess I never thought of it that way,” I stammered. “But still, I would like to have a real adventure like those in the books I’ve been reading.”
“My friend,” he said, adopting a tone of patience, “you are living in an adventure. Let the imaginative fiction you read awaken within you the elemental sense of wonder you had when you were young. When you were young you did not need fairy tales because mere life was interesting enough. Golden apples in the stories should refresh the forgotten moment when you delighted to find they were green. In the tales rivers run with wine only to help you remember, for one wild moment, the extraordinary fact that they run with water.”
After a pause he exclaimed, “Read Alexander Schmemann. You’ll find everything you need to know in the there.”
I thought for a minute, supposing Chesterton was referring to Schmemann’s classic work on the sacramental imagination, For the Life of the World.
Then suddenly I realized that I had been having this entire conversation laying down in the back seat of my truck. How rude of me. I moved to sit up in order properly to face my guest, but as I did so it felt like I was waking from a dream. I blinked a few times and then saw that I was alone. Where had Chesterton gone?
I would have been tempted to dismiss this entire episode as a dream, were it not for the faint wisp of cigar smoke that still hung about my truck, a tangible reminder of my visitor. Or maybe it was just the smoke from the local wildfires.
From Paul Evdokimov’s The Art if the Icon: a Theology of Beauty:
“…everything is destined for a liturgical fulfillment…. The final destiny of water is to participate in the mystery of the Epiphany; of wood, to become a cross; of the earth, to receive the body of the Lord during his rest on the Sabbath; of rock, to become the ‘sealed Tomb’ and the stone rolled away from in front of the myrrh-bearing women. Olive oil and water attain their fullness as conductor elements for grace on regenerated man. Wheat and wine achieve their ultimate raison d’ être in the eucharistic chalice. Everything is referred to the Incarnation and everything finds its final goal and destiny in the Lord. The liturgy integrates the most elementary actions of life; drinking, eating, washing, speaking, acting, communing. It restores to them their meaning and true destiny, that is, to be blocks in the cosmic temple of God’s glory….Nothing in the world remains foreign to [Christ’s] humanity, everything has received the seal of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Church in turn blesses and sanctifies all of creation… The brilliance of divine actions is hidden under the veil of the things of this world….Cosmic matter thus becomes a conductor of grace, a vehicle of the divine energies.”
The following is taken from the chapter on George MacDonald in my book Saints and Scoundrels.
At a time when Darwinism was removing the wonder and magic from the world, reducing people to animals and describing the universe as a giant impersonal machine, MacDonald bequeathed to us an opposite vision. His was a universe filled with enchantment, saturated in wonder and infused with grace. It was a sacramental vision that drew heavily on the Middle Ages, especially the medieval notion that the external things surrounding us are outward signs of inward spiritual graces. As MacDonald expressed it in The Miracles of our Lord, “With his divine alchemy, [God] turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries, yea, every meal into a Eucharist, and the jaws of death into an outgoing gate.”
His novels conveyed this sacramental vision. Although they may technically fall under the category of “realistic fiction”, there was always something fantastic about them. The literary critic Marion Lochhead has compared them to Hans Anderson’s fairy tales in possessing “the gift of turning homeliness into beauty.” He enables us to see the world afresh, to perceive, as it were, the invisible halo on every bird and beast.