For Christians, ultimately the whole world is holy and everything in it, especially the physical, is potential material for sacrament. Our belief is that the universe shows forth God’s glory, that each of us is made in God’s image, that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, that the food we eat is sacramental, and that in our work and in our sexual embrace we are co-creators with God.
That’s a stunning belief, and it separates us from most other religions, where so much of the purpose of religion is to free oneself from the physical, the earth. But in Christianity “the word becomes flesh”, God enters into the physical and thus everything that is physical is potentially sacramental. It’s noteworthy that scripture, in that famous line about God becoming flesh does not simply say that God became a man, a human being. It says more: “God becomes flesh”, physical, earth. Therefore everything physical is potentially a sacrament.
But we struggle with this. Our daily lives are often so distracted, dram, and fixed upon things that seem un-holy that the idea that everything is a sacrament can appear more like wishful thinking than theology. The world doesn’t always show forth the glory of God, what we do with our bodies at times makes us wonder whether we really are temples of the Holy Spirit, the mindless way that we so often eat and drink doesn’t speak much of sacramentality, and the language we use to speak about our work, sex, and our lives in general rarely hints at the fact that we are co-creators with God.
Why? Why aren’t we more habitually alert to the fact that we are standing on holy ground and that are everyday activities come laden with sacrament?
There are many reasons, mostly rooted in the fact that we are human, that life is long, and that it isn’t easy to sustain high symbols, high language, and high ideals in the muck and grime of everyday life. Eating, working, and making love should be holy, but too often we do them more for survival than for any sacramentality and “getting by” is about as a high symbol as we can muster on a weekday. I say this with sympathy. It isn’t easy, day by day, hour by hour, to experience sacrament in the ordinary actions of our lives.
But there’s another reason why we have lost the sense of sacramentality in our lives, namely, we have too little prayer and ritual around our ordinary actions. We too seldom use prayer or ritual to connect our actions – eating, drinking, working, socializing, making love, giving birth to things – to their sacred origins. For example:
Among the Osage Indians, there’s a custom when a child is born, before it is allowed to drink from its mother’s breast, that a holy person, someone “who has talked to the gods”, is brought into the room. This person recites to the newborn 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 brought back, this time to tell the story of creation and the sacred origins of water. Only 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 this time tells the story of the origins of grains and other foods. The object of this is teach the child that eating is not just a physical thing, but a religious one as well.
My parents and their generation did this too, in their own way: They had their fields and workbenches and bedrooms blessed, they prayed grace before and after every meal, and some of them would go into a church to propose marriage to another. That was their way of telling the story of the sacred origins of water before drinking it.
Today, by and large, we’ve lost both the way of myth of the Osage Indians and the way of piety of my parents. We live, eat, work, and make love without these high symbols. Generally, we don’t connect our food to its sacred origins, don’t consider our work as co-creation with God, don’t bless our workplaces and boardrooms, and would shrink at the very thought of blessing a bedroom where sex takes place.
We are the poorer for that, not just religiously, but humanly. When our everyday activities aren’t sacramental, they soon become flat and we unconsciously compensate for that by increasing the dosage.
I’m not sure where we should go with all of this, since we are drawn neither to the myths or the piety of old, but unless we find prayer and rituals to connect our eating, working, and making love to their sacred origins, ordinary life will remain just that, ordinary life, nothing special, just the muck and grime of slugging along.