Christianity teaches us that our world is holy, that everything is matter for sacrament. In its view, the universe is a manifestation of God’s glory and humanity is made in God’s image. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, the food we eat is sacramental, and in our work and in sexual embrace we are co-creators with God.
This is high theology, a symbolic hedge which dwarfs that found in virtually every other religion and philosophy. Nowhere else, save in outright pantheism, does anyone else affirm anything so radical that it borders on blasphemy. But this is Christian thought at its best.
The problem however is that, most times, our daily lives are so drab, distracted, and fixed upon realities that seem so base that its makes this idea (“everything is sacrament”) seem adolescent fantasy. When we watch the news at night our world doesn’t look like the glory of God; what we do with our bodies at times makes us wonder whether these really are temples of the Holy Spirit, the heartless and thankless way that we consume food and drink leaves little impression of sacramentality, and the symbols and language with which we surround our work and sex speak precious little of co-creation with God.
Why is this so? If the earth is ablaze with the fire of God, why do we, in the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, sit around and pick blackberries? What have we lost?
We have lost the sense that the world is holy and that our eating, working, and making love are sacramental; and we’ve lost it because we no longer have the right kind of prayer and ritual in our lives. We no longer connect ourselves, our world, and our eating and our making love, to their sacred origins. It is in not making this connection where our prayer and ritual falls short.
Let me try to illustrate this with a few examples:
Among the Osage Indians, there is a custom that when a child is born, before it is allowed to drink from its mother’s breast, a holy person is summoned, someone “who has talked to the gods” is brought into the room. This person recites to the newborn infant the story of the creation of the world and of terrestrial animals. Not until this has been done is the baby given the mother’s breast. Later, when the child is old enough to drink water, the same holy person is summoned again. This time he or she tells the story of creation, ending with the story of the sacred origins of water. Only then, after hearing this story, is the child given water. Then, when the child is old enough to take solid foods, “the person who talked to the gods” is brought in again and he or she, this time, tells the story of the origins of grains and other foods. The object of all of this is to introduce the newborn child into the sacramental reality of the world. This child will grow up to know that eating is not just a physiological act, but a religious one as well.
An older generation, that of my parents, had their own pious way of doing this ritual. They blessed their fields and workbenches and bedrooms, they prayed grace before and after every meal, and some of them went to finalize their engagement for marriage in a church. That was their way of telling the story of the sacred origins of water before drinking it.
By and large, we have rejected the mythological way of the Osage Indians and the pious way of my parents’ generation. We live, eat, work, and make love under a lower symbolic hedge. Most of our eating isn’t sacramental because we don’t connect the food we eat to its sacred origins and, for the most part, we don’t really pray before and after meals. Most of the time we consider our work as a job rather than as co-creation with God because we don’t connect it to any sacred origins and we don’t bless our workbenches, offices, classrooms, and boardrooms. And our sex is rarely the Eucharist that it should be because the very thought of blessing a bedroom or having sacramental sex causes laughter in most contemporary circles.
I am not sure what the solution is. Our age isn’t much for the mythology of ancient cultures or for the piety of more recent generations. The ways of the past, for better and for worse, are not our ways. But we must find a way … a way to connect our eating and our drinking, our working and our making love, to their sacred origins. Socrates once said that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is also not sacramental. Eating, working, and making love, without reflective prayer and proper ritual, are, in the end, drab and non-sacramental. The joylessness of so much that should bring us joy can tell us as much.