A Sacramental Imagination

A few weeks ago, I attended a handful of the events at Harvard Divinity School’s bicentennial weekend, including a festive reunion party on Friday evening and a faculty-led class on Saturday morning. 

Two of my life-long best friends, who I met on my first day of orientation at HDS.

Beyond providing a chance to see old friends, fountains of champagne and an inspiring address offered by the President of the University, the reunion filled me with a profound sense of gratitude for the place that I got to call home during my graduate student years.  With its breadth of alumni working for justice and peace in many and varied ways, its commitment to advancing the understanding of religion in a complex world, and the spaciousness with which it welcomes people and ideas spanning a wide spectrum of background and belief, Harvard Divinity School is a special place.   My time there significantly impacted my spirituality, my understanding of the world and the people in it, and my vocation.

What I was reminded of in an overarching sort of way on Friday night, I had confirmed in a very specific manner during the Saturday morning class I attended titled “Marilynn Robinson and the Sacramental Imagination.”  Offered by a favorite professor of both mine and Caleb’s, the session explored the idea of the sacramental imagination from both the Catholic and reform perspectives and addressed how Marilynn Robinson transcends the distinctions in her novel Housekeeping.  It was the first time I heard, in concrete and digestible terms, what exactly “the sacramental imagination” entails, and I was struck both by how very Catholic I am in my understanding of creation (as is related to the sacramental imagination) and the implications that this has for my theology and my way of being in the world.

If a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace” (thanks for that pithy description, Saint Augustine), something that both points to God and makes God present, than the sacramental imagination is the way of viewing the whole created world as revealing God’s presence.  In other words, the universe is a sacrament: by its existence, it points to the existence of God, and God is present within the creation itself.  Catholic and reform theologians agree on “what” of the sacramental imagination, but they disagree on the “why,” with Catholics believing that God’s love was so abundant that God overflowed creation into being, and Protestants believing that God’s love was so abundant that God decided to create beings (all the plants and animals and things of creation). 

There are of course many, many, many more intricacies to distinction (intricacies that have significant implications on Catholic and reform theology more broadly); I have but a cursory understanding.  The personal key take away that I gathered from the talk, however, is simple: I am resoundingly Catholic in my understanding of the Sacramental Imagination, and I have been for as long as I can remember.  The idea of a loving divine energy that overflowed creation into being resonates with me so much more than the idea of a personified being creating sub-beings. 

I’ve always felt uncomfortable with language that personifies God the creator (I’m down with the humanity of the second person of the trinity…but not so much with the first and the third) even if it is to express nice sentiments: God loves you, God cares about you, God wants to hold you in God’s arms.  In the circles I run in (even the Catholic ones), this seems to be the dominant language for talking about God, and so I’ve always felt a bit sheepish about the fact that they don’t strike a chord with me.  It’s not that I disagree with sentiment behind these words (if God is infinite, overflowing Love, than sure, God loves me).  It’s that I don’t imagine God as a human-like being, so it’s as hard for me to understand God caring for me as it is for me to grasp a beautiful fern leaf or a setting sun caring for me. 

But an energetic and vibrant life-force that courses through creation, animating it with spirit and renewal and goodness, itself the very source of spirit, renewal and goodness; a belief that the core of me — my soul, my true self, my spirit — is a drop of that life-force, a light within; a conviction that all people share this inner-core-of-light, and thus we are united; a sense that my life calling is to nurture the life-force-creator-God-divine-energy in the people with whom I work, play and love, to tenderly care for the light of myself and the light of others — now that I can get behind!

It looks like HDS is still impacting my sense of vocation and space in this world.