The Songbird and the Cell Phone: Rediscovering the Sacramental Sense

A friend of mine tells this story: Not long ago he took some students and parents from the public high school where he teaches on a trip to Italy. There were twelve or 15 of them, and they shared the tour bus with others. The trip was a success. Everyone had a lovely time visiting some of the most beautiful places in a beautiful country.

But after a while my friend realized that something strange was going on.

Whenever they pulled into a town square and parked in front of the local cathedral, everyone piled off the bus and immediately started shooting photos of the church. “They began taking pictures before they even looked at it,” my friend said. “What mattered was shooting those photos. They could see the cathedral later, if there was time.”

My friend thought that was odd. But I couldn’t help thinking that this behavior isn’t so different from what hap­pens at a Sunday liturgy today. The two things may even be related. The emphasis at such a liturgy is on doing things, keeping busy, allowing little opportunity for reflective qui­et. Seeing things—not just with the physical eyes, but with the eyes of the spirit—gets short shrift. In liturgical celebra­tions like this, the ideal of full, conscious, active participa­tion that the Second Vatican Council spoke of has been externalized. This is liturgy for people more interested in taking pictures of the cathedral than in seeing it.

Participation in the Liturgy

Some time back I came across a remark by H. Richard Mc­Cord, the executive director of the laity office of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, that inadvertently suggests where this thinking comes from.

Participation in the liturgy is a common means of spiri­tual formation. Though weekly Mass attendance has declined, laity are participating in worship more exten­sively and in greater depth through the ministerial roles of reading, singing, distributing communion, assisting at the altar, providing hospitality, and so on.

I take this to be a typical statement of a viewpoint common today. There are several things to be said about it.

First, the casual dismissal of the decline in Sunday Mass attendance by American Catholics, from two out of three 40 years ago to one out of three today, is happy talk. Second, to equate doing things—”reading, singing, distributing communion . . . providing hospitality, and so on”—with full, conscious, and active participation is seriously confused.

Third, there is absolutely no evidence that this approach involves liturgical participation any deeper and more prayer­ful than the participation of the largely silent congregations several decades ago. Claims to the contrary are statements of ideology, not empirically verified fact. Fourth, even if one is willing to grant, for the sake of argument, that lay people who do these things at Mass are more deeply engaged in li­turgical worship than people were 50 years ago, the number of those who do them is extremely small, compared with the vastly larger number who do not.

And fifth and finally, what a comment like this mainly expresses is the mindless enthusiasm for lay ministries so common in official circles today. A rational, well-consid­ered concern for full, conscious, and active participation by the laity wouldn’t concentrate on the ministries of a few but on the baptismal priesthood—the non-ordained priest­hood of the faithful—in which all Christifideles participate. As the Catechism says: “Through Baptism and Confirmation the priestly people is enabled to celebrate the liturgy” (1138). How often these days do you hear homilies saying that in­stead of urging lay people to give Father Bob and Deacon Tom a hand by distributing Communion?

The Loss of the Sacramental Sense

But the fundamental problem—the problem of seeing the liturgical celebration with the eyes of the spirit—goes much deeper, operating on a very different plane. A lot more is involved than questions of liturgical translations and the structuring of liturgical rites. This is the problem of the loss of the sacramental sense in Western culture, and it’s that above all else that makes full, conscious, and active par­ticipation so difficult. Our immanent, externalized liturgical celebrations merely reinforce this underlying problem.

In modern times, we see a pervasive loss of the sacra­mental sense and a concurrent hollowing-out of our under­standing of what “sacrament” signifies, leaving behind only the shell of symbol. The difference between sacrament and symbol is crucially important. A symbol points to another reality extrinsic to itself; whereas, in the case of a sacra­ment, the other reality is embodied within the sacramental sign and intrinsic to what the sacrament is and does.

Conventional symbols have a kind of radical arbitrari­ness: They are subject to being changed. When circum­stances dictate setting aside one symbol for something, there is no difficulty about adopting another, as advertisers adopt new logos for products depending on which of their aspects they wish to highlight and which audience they mean to attract.

It’s very different with a sacrament. The sacramental sign and the reality it signifies are inseparably joined. Fun­damentally alter a sacramental sign, and the reality it signi­fied is no longer there. For example: Substitute something else for bread and wine, and you no longer have the Body and Blood of Christ. And, as this suggests, the reality em­bodied by sacraments is itself unique. Pope John Paul II said in Crossing the Threshold of Hope:

What else are the sacraments … if not the action of Christ in the Holy Spirit? When the Church baptizes, it is Christ who baptizes; when the Church absolves, it is Christ who absolves; when the Church celebrates the Eucharist, it is Christ who celebrates it …. All the sacraments are an action of Christ, the action of God in Christ.

Where people suppose that sacramental liturgy is only a symbolic act to which those who perform it assign its mean­ing, the devising of liturgical settings naturally emphasizes values like novelty, ingenuity, relevance, experiment, ex­citement. Practically speaking, as then—Cardinal Ratzinger has pointed out, they aim to entertain. But the more enter­taining the celebrations become, the more support they’ll lend to the belief that what is going on is symbolic, nothing more. By contrast, where it’s supposed that the central ac­tion is a sacramental act that is primarily Jesus’ rather than ours, the approach will be fundamentally conservative. It will stress values like dignity, gravity, decorum, reverence, devotion, piety, awe. The test of good liturgy will be a test of faith: whether the worshiping community grows in .ho­liness by full, conscious, active participation in the action of Christ.

How the Problem Arose

How did the loss of the sacramental sense happen? There are various accounts. It is suggested, for instance, that the problem began with the fading—somewhere between the Patristic era and the Middle Ages—of a sense of symbolic realism, according to which symbols participate in the real­ity of what is signified and make it concretely present.

At least three important sources of the problem stand out in modern times.

One is the Reformation and the emergence of the Prot­estant view of sacrament. Luther believed in the Real Pres­ence, at least in the context of the Eucharistic celebration itself, but his general leaning against sacramentalism is well known. Calvin believed in a “virtual” presence, but over time it was not his view that prevailed among Calvinists but Zwingli’s: namely, the view that the Lord’s Supper was a purely symbolic rite.

Rev. Benedict Ashley sums up the implications of the “de-sacramentalizing” trajectory in Protestantism in Theolo­gies of the Body: Humanist and Christian: “For many Protestant theologians this de-sacramentalization of Christian life did, and perhaps still does, seem progress toward a more spiritu­al understanding of the gospel. External rites were replaced by interior experience. But as Luther himself pointed out to those who tried to dissuade him from his belief in the Real Presence, this kind of excessive spiritualism undermines the fundamental Christian belief in the Incarnation.”

The second stream in this development is the body— soul dualism identified with Descartes: Cogito ergo sum. Spi­noza revised and refined that into ego sum cogitans—I, in being conscious, am existent. And so we have a radically dualistic account of the human person, which takes it for granted that the fundamental reality of such a being is mind or spirit; that the body is not very important indeed, is hardly relevant—in defining the reality of this person; that the external, material world in which bodies live and act has only a kind of attenuated reality and inferior value; and that both things, world and body, may be manipulated to the extent one is able to manipulate them and cares to do it. There is not much room here for incarnationalism and a sacramental sense.

Finally, the critic George Steiner, in his book Real Pres­ences, speaks of what he calls the dissolving of the “con­tract” with language and other media that occurred in lit­erature and the arts between the late-19th century and the middle years of the 20th century. Before then, Steiner says, there was in literature and art, and in those who practiced them and enjoyed them, “a central supposition of ‘real presence”‘: artists and audiences took it for granted that these were signs pointing to a realm of ontological reality beyond themselves.

Steiner attributes the “ontologically crucial first step” away from this central supposition to Stephane Mallarme. The crucial move by this prominent French poet of the Vic­torian age was the conscious repudiation of the idea that language refers to a reality beyond itself. Mallarme was the precursor of a school of poets who held that what really matters about poetry is sound, not sense. At their most ex­treme, some of these writers strung together nonsense syl­lables and called them verse.

So, in Steiner’s account, we pass rapidly through Nietz­sche and Freud and arrive at deconstructionism, whose les­son is that “where there is no ‘face of God’ for the semantic marker to turn to, there can be no transcendent or decidable intelligibility. The break with the postulate of the sacred is the break with any stable, potentially ascertainable mean­ing of meanings.” Which, whatever else it signifies, certain­ly signifies a state of mind according to which any meaning there may be in our sacred gestures—our prayers, our litur­gies, our sacramental acts—is meaning we place there, not meaning that is simply present as a given. It is pointless to look to prayer, liturgy, and sacraments as the threshold to a realm of transcendence with which they put us in touch.

Ordinary people are not deconstructionists, but avant garde theologians and catechetical and liturgical theorists often more or less are. Through them this kind of thinking has a trickle-down effect on the liturgy. And in this way, too, ordinary people are cut off from crucially important dimensions of sacramental faith.

Learning to See Again

Where shall we find solutions to our present problems? If these difficulties have causes as deep-rooted as they ap­pear to have, that is not easy to say. But as a preliminary attempt at an answer, here’s a story about a songbird and a cell phone.

As I was attending Mass one morning some months ago, a bird outside the window of the church burst into ecstatic song just at the moment the priest elevated the Host. It was an epiphany that moved me to murmur: “My God, how beautiful that is!” Here was a small intimation of transcen­dence, an intuition of sacramentality, of the sort that, expe­rienced more intensely and on a larger scale, led the psalmist to sing: “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps 18:1). Or William Blake to write in “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a grain of sand,
And Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

A few weeks later, at Mass in the same church, something very different happened. With diabolically precise timing, somebody’s cell phone went off just at the Consecration. My reaction also was different. “[Expletive deleted],” I said to myself.

But later, as I thought about these two incidents, I start­ed to see them in a different light. After all, I asked myself, why shouldn’t one find sacramentality and transcendence in the cell phone as much as in the songbird? The cell phone is a striking illustration of human communication, and human communication is an image of the divine communication that has its fullest expression in God’s self-revelation in and through the Word made flesh. In the cell phone, too, we see an extraordinary application of human genius that, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in Laborem Exercens, is best under­stood as a form of co-creation with God. John Paul II calls the idea of co-creation a central element in a spirituality of work; and we might add that it also is a potential element in recapturing the sense of sacramentality whose loss is at the root of our liturgical woes.

Now, admittedly it’s a stretch to imagine someone dis­tracted by a cell phone during Mass adverting to a papal encyclical in order to be recollected and regain the sacra­mental sense. Still, the ideas in play here do point to some­thing important. To put it simply: The world can be seen in a sacramental light even now.

Here are well-known lines from another poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed.

This of course is the opening of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” which was written in 1877. It is a magnificent poem, and for our purposes it’s interesting in a particular way. The first line—”The world is charged with the grandeur of God”—announces the sense of natural sacramentality that the psalmist and Blake also expressed. But there is genuine novelty about what follows, for Hopkins affirms that the divine grandeur flashes out “like shining from shook foil, /It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.”

Here is something new. Writing in the same years as Mallarme, whom Steiner links to the collapse of tran­scendence in modern literature and art, Hopkins finds the raw material of sacramentality precisely in the detritus of industrial civilization itself. In this vision, “shining from shook foil” and “the ooze of oil crushed” declare the glory of God.

So it can be done. The sense of sacramentality remains a possibility. But the question that the example unavoidably raises is this: Must one have the same sensibility as Hopkins in order to have this sacramental sense? If so, most of us are out of luck. And so, too, is any realistic possibility of full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy, since it absolutely requires the sacramental sense.

In a way, the answer to the question—must we all see with Hopkins’s eyes?—is yes. We do need a sensibility like that—but not, thank God, to the same degree or with the same refinement. We simply need to do the best we can to acquire the habit of contemplation and the way of viewing reality that comes with it. Few of us will be contemplatives of a high order; but if we persevere, by the grace of God we are entitled to have at least modest hopes.

The Eye of Contemplation

Of course our hope should be realistic. In his book The God of Faith and Reason, Monsignor Robert Sokolowski calls atten­tion to certain intrinsic limits arising from the fundamental Christian distinction between God and the world:

The world and the sacred have a Christian tone for us because of the Christian distinction in whose light we experience them, and the tone can become more pronounced for those who live the Christian life with greater dedication and love. But such experiencing insists precisely on a unique absence [i.e., the experi­enced absence of God], on a term that must prompt faith and hope but not direct vision.

This is the voice of philosophy, and in its frame of reference it is correct. But operating within the Christian tradition, we also are entitled to appeal to the voice of contemplation and Christian mysticism.

Philosophy tells us what we can manage on our own. The sense of transcendence in this case is an interpretation of some natural reality—a glorious sunrise, a mighty moun­ tain range. Contemplation is something like that. But con­templation and mysticism also offer access to a real pres­ence of another sort—a direct apprehension of the presence of the divine which takes place on the initiative of God. At its highest reaches, this experience is shared by very few—a Teresa of Avila, a John of the Cross. But to judge by anec­dotal evidence and personal testimony, in its less dramatic forms such direct experience of the presence of God is by no means so very rare.

What does all this have to do with the liturgy? I think it might be put as follows: The problem of the liturgy to­day is that for 40 years we’ve been trying to do something that was certain to fail. We tried to have full, conscious, active participation without cultivating the sacramental sense. Our immanent liturgies today are in fact obstacles to doing that. It’s like shooting pictures of the cathedral without stopping to see it. Now, if we wish to recapture the art of seeing, we must seek the help not only of phi­losophers and theologians and liturgists, but especially of poets and saints.

In his Dark Night, St. John of the Cross speaks of a “reno­vation” of the spirit, which he describes as a direct divine illumination of the human intellect and will, such that the soul becomes “a soul of heaven, heavenly and more divine than human.” But this probably is well beyond realistic expectations for most of us. Something more modest and more within our grasp is suggested by the full eight lines of Emily Dickinson’s “The Bustle in a House” that in its quiet, understated way exemplifies the kind of sacramental seeing I am talking about:

The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth,—
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Until eternity.

There are libraries full of works by spiritual masters explain­ing how to practice contemplation. I offer only this advice: The best way to begin is to begin. God does the rest.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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