Monday, June 29, 2015

The Primordial Sacrament: An Encounter With God

Original Photo from Pixabay.
I recently went on retreat on the seven sacraments, and the retreat master closed his first talk with a fairly cryptic statement, which he didn’t expound upon. He said, “The primordial sacrament is an encounter with God.” This is where I thought his talk really should have begun.

Now, what did he mean by this? Among other things he meant that, at their root, all of the sacraments are an encounter with God, of various types, with various forms.

The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines a sacrament in this way: The sacraments, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, are efficacious signs of grace perceptible to the senses. Through them divine life is bestowed upon us. (CCCC 224; CCC 1113-1131)

He also noted that these encounters with God are not bound up in the seven sacraments, by which, I think he was being a little poetical - as not all encounters with God are of the kind by which we receive the divine life spoken of in the Catechism. They may merely touch our hearts in a way to which we are no longer accustomed.

Here is what I mean: In our original, unfallen state, man was able to walk and talk with God in the cool of the evening, but after the fall, we lost that state of friendship with God. We are no longer accustomed to this kind of encounter - and when we have them, it’s kind of a big deal.

For a long time after that, people who had regular, profound encounters with God were something of a rarity (they called them prophets!). The Jews didn’t have sacraments as part of their regular spiritual lives. It wasn’t really until the coming of the prophets that there were more than a mere handful of people who had “mountaintop” encounters with God more than a few times in their life. (What’s a mountaintop encounter? Think, “Mt. Sinai” or “The Transfiguration”.)

So, the fact is that we do have the sacraments - why? I think that, in part, we have sacraments because we desperately want them. We have an intense desire for God. We have always desired to get back to our original, unfallen state, so that we can have communion with God, like our First Parents did. Writers throughout the centuries have observed this desire for God. Two that come to mind are,
  • St. Augustine who noted in the Confessions that “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,”
  • and Mark Twain (who, though not authoritative) aptly observed, “If there wasn’t a God, someone would invent one.”
The Compendium says that God himself… has written upon [man’s] heart the desire to see him. (CCCC 2; CCC 27-30,44-45)

The sacraments satisfy, in a measure, this desire for God, and for the beatitude of being in his presence, but they are fleeting, and that, too, is for our benefit. If we stared on the raw glory of God, in our present sinful states, I don’t think we could stand it. Isaiah said it well, when he responded to one of his visions of God, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) Isaiah really thought he was going to die from this vision, and he was terrified.

The sacraments give us a taste of the beatitude that we were originally made for and that we will go to after we die, but their fleeting nature increases our appetite for the whole meal - and this, too, is for our benefit. For the more we desire God, the closer we come to seeing him as he is in eternal life. Amen.

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