The sacramental imagination

A common notion in studies of Christianity and the arts  is “the sacramental imagination.”  It goes like this:  Christians with a high view of the sacraments believe that spiritual realities are mediated by means of physical things.  Christian artists with those beliefs, therefore, can easily employ images derived from the material world in order to communicate their faith.  This is also why so many Christian artists are Roman Catholics, a church whose sacramental theology encourages this kind of imagination.

That may be.  But it occurred to me–while contemplating that “Luther and the Body” article I blogged about earlier in the course of this road trip that I’m still on (driving long hours giving time for just thinking)–that Lutheran sacramental theology offers a basis for this sacramental imagination more than Roman Catholicism does.

The Roman Catholic view of Holy Communion teaches that the physical bread and wine is no longer present. We receive Christ’s Body and Blood only.  We perceive the “accidents” of bread and wine, their appearance, but the only “substance” is that of Christ.   This take on the physical material reality seems to be more that of Eastern monism–that the physical realm is an illusion–than an actual affirmation of the physical as a vehicle for the spiritual.

The Lutheran doctrine of the Real Presence, though, teaches that the bread and the wine, in their physicality, are still present, as is the actual Body and Blood of Christ.  (Again, don’t call this “consubstantiation,” which is the Roman Catholic attempt to explain this  teaching in terms of their own “substance” and “accidents” distinction that Lutheranism rejects.)

The mode of Christ’s presence is explained not in terms of different “substances” but in terms of “the ubiquity of Christ.”  That is, just as God is omnipresent without displacing the existence of other objects, Christ, because of His personal union of the divine and human natures, can be, in His body, present in bread and wine.   Not that He is in the Sacrament only in the sense of God being everywhere, but in a unique sacramental union in which He is present specifically through the Word of the Gospel, his body and blood being given and shed “for you.”

Now, this kind of teaching first of all is going to encourage those who believe it to think of God in Christ as being not far above the universe, looking down, as the imagination of many Christians has Him, but, rather, as being very close.  God, of course, is both transcendent and immanent, but the latter often gets minimized, which it can’t in Lutheran spirituality.

Furthermore, Lutheran theology also teaches the presence of God in vocation.  (It is God who gives us this day our daily bread through the vocation of the farmer and the baker; God milks the cows through the work of the milkmaid; God creates new life by working through mothers and fathers; vocation is a mask of God, etc., etc.)  This again encourages people to see the spiritual dimensions of the physical world.

For artists, it means that not only physical images can manifest the spiritual realm, the very act of creating–whether by paint, words, film, or whatever medium one’s vocation involves–manifests not just the presence of God but His activity, that He creates by means of human creation.

Not getting vocation

Why is this wrong?

As far as God is concerned, someone is unemployed if the person is not working for Him, said a Latin American mission leader at a global missions conference in Tokyo.

Many people argue that they have a job and have plenty of work, said Obed Alvarez, international director of the New World Mission Association in Peru. However, the landowner (God) is calling those standing idle to work for him, he pointed out as he read from Matthew 20 about the parable of the workers in the vineyard.

“We should understand that all are unemployed if we are not living out God’s plan for us,” said Alvarez at the Tokyo 2010 Global Missions Consultations this week. “It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, a senator or the president, you will always be idle as far as He is concerned if you don’t have a part in missions.”

The missiologist and church planter continued, “The president of the republic is just as idle as far as the Lord is concerned, if he is not doing anything to advance the missionary cause. What is his investiture worth if he is still a sinner and his destiny is hell?”

Alvarez – who founded the Latin American School of Missiology, the first school of missions in Latin America – said people can have other jobs but they should have the identity that first and foremost they are a missionary.

via Mission Leader: You’re Unemployed if Not Working for God |

Vocation & Opus Dei

Opus Dei is the Roman Catholic order that has become the bogey-man for paranoid secularists, leftist conspiracy theorists, and Da-Vinci-Code believers. And yet, for all of its alleged conservatism, it seems to be something unknown in medieval Catholicism; namely, an order for lay people. From an article by Carla Hall:

Julia Boles, 46, lives in Arcadia, Calif., with her lawyer husband and their nine children, ages 5 to 20. She also manages to attend Mass daily, set aside time for prayer twice a day and, with her children, pray the rosary.

“People say: “Nine kids? How do you handle that and go to Mass?' I say, 'How could I do this without the Mass?”

Boles is a member of one of the most talked about and least understood Catholic organizations in the world: Opus Dei, which means “work of God” in Latin.

Although the face of Opus Dei in “The Da Vinci Code” is a murderous masochistic monk — a fiction, the group's members say — Boles typifies the group’s American demographic: She’s a woman. Most of the 190 members in Los Angeles are women, as are slightly more than half of the 3,000 members in the United States.

There are no monks. And only 2 percent of nearly 90,000 members worldwide are priests, one of whom, Jose Gomez, is Cardinal Roger Mahony’s newly named successor as archbishop of Los Angeles. Gomez is the only priest to come up through Opus Dei and be made a U.S. bishop.

Setting aside the distortions of “The Da Vinci Code,” critics have pointed to the group’s historic connection to right-leaning governments and its secretiveness. Brian Finnerty, spokesman for Opus Dei in the United States, said the group takes no political positions.

Seton Hall law professor John Coverdale said the organization’s goal is to offer lay Christians a path toward a holier life without becoming a priest or a nun. “People would see their work as a professor or a journalist or mother or whatever they are as something to offer to God and something that they need to try to do well,” said Coverdale, 69, a lay member of Opus Dei.

“The main idea is to help members come closer to God in their everyday activities,” Finnerty said.

Boles agreed. “It's not a bunch of pious things,” said Boles, whose husband and two eldest children — UCLA students John and Ginny — are members, too. “I’m chasing after kids. I’m trying to get meals on the table. . . . All of those things are precious in God’s eyes if they are done with love. If you try to do it as well as you can, for God’s glory, with concern for your neighbor and mine, it’s wonderful.”

I have noticed that many evangelicals and Roman Catholics are embracing Luther’s doctrine of vocation. This sounds like it, doesn’t it?

Then there is this:

Members go to daily Mass, set aside time to pray and sometimes fast or sacrifice a treat or pleasure as a way of honoring Jesus.

There is corporal mortification, though not as portrayed in “The Da Vinci Code,” they say. “It’s not a bloody whipping of oneself,” Coverdale said. “It’s more an annoyance.” He wears a leg chain with dull spikes — called a cilice — around his upper thigh for a couple of hours a day while praying. It’s designed to be uncomfortable but not to draw blood. And once or twice a week, during a prayer, he whips himself on his buttocks with a type of rope referred to as “the disciplines.”

“It doesn’t particularly hurt; maybe it stings a bit,” Coverdale said.
The Rev. Paul Donlan of the Opus Dei center near UCLA follows a similar routine. The idea is to bring oneself closer to Jesus’s suffering as he wore the crown of thorns and carried his cross.

“It’s a gesture,” Donlan said. “The real discipline of getting to bed on time, getting to work on time, saying no to an extra glass of wine, boy, that is far more painful than any of this.”

Most married Opus Dei members do not practice corporal mortification, at least not as literally as single and celibate members. “For me, it’s mortification to get up early and get that prayer in at 6 a.m.,” said Boles, laughing.

The latter I can see, but mortification with scourges and the equivalent of barbed wire around your leg I question. Can there be any value in self-chosen, self-inflicted pain like this? I’m not sure that bringing monasticism, ascetic practices and all, into the “world” is a true affirmation of the lay vocations. Still, what do you think of this?

Men at Work stories

One of my students is doing an internship with William Bennet and has asked for my help. I thought I’d tap into you readers of this blog, who always manage to come up with some really good ideas on just about every subject. I’ll let the student explain what he needs:

I am working on a research project for Mr. William Bennett on Manliness and I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction.

The book is divided into various sections of manliness, such as Men at War, Men at Play, etc.

We are currently looking for excerpts from literature, history, biographical, and essays, from all of human history (I know, a rather modest goal) that deal with Men at Work. These excerpts should ideally depict good men with an exceptional work ethic. But they can also show the negative as an example of what NOT to do.

Are there any quotes, essays, stories, or great men from history that have inspired you to work hard and that depict good, hard working men? I know your specialty is English Literature. Are there maybe one or two examples from your field that exemplify hard work?

Any help at all would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time.

So we are looking for writings about men acting in vocation, specifically, the workplace. I thought of Hemingway’s “Old Man and the Sea.” What else

UPDATE:  My student and Mr. Bennett won’t be able to anthologize whole books, so are there episodes in specific novels that would be good to use?  (For example, I cited the scene in Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” in which Ivan builds a brick wall and how that honest, satisfying, constructive labor gave him a sense of meaning even in the indignities of the Soviet prison camp.)  He could also use examples from non-fiction (Studs Terkel’s “Working,” as has been mentioned), as well as quotations, etc.

The vocation of a knife-maker

HT: Rich Shipe

Songs about Vocation

As I mentioned, I’ve been doing a series of interviews on Issues, Etc., about the new edition of my book Spirituality of the Cross Revised Edition. When we were talking about my chapter on Vocation, the producers were playing some music to go along with it.

One piece was Bob Dylan’s You’ve Got to Serve Somebody!

Another was even more to the point, Eric and Polly Rapp’s More Than Enough. What a good song! Click to the site and listen to it. Here are the lyrics:

More Than Enough
(© 2006 Eric Rapp. All rights reserved.)

Look around you–who is your neighbor?
Who do you see here in need of God’s love?
Look around you–because of the Savior
What you’re doing for them is more than enough

When you go to work, where a day seems a lifetime,
you’re asking is this what God wants you to do
Take comfort in this: your boss is your neighbor
you’re doing good works God prepared just for you

Look around you–who is your neighbor?
Who do you see here in need of God’s love?
Look around you–because of the Savior
What you’re doing for them is more than enough

A woman stays home feeding her baby,
changing the diapers and cleaning the clothes
She can do this with joy because of the Savior
God’s will for her now is in front of her nose

Look around you–who is your neighbor?
Who do you see here in need of God’s love?
Look around you–because of the Savior
What you’re doing for them is more than enough

When evening comes and your head hits the pillow
and you think that your life doesn’t seem up to snuff
Be glad in the Lord and all that he gave you
what he did on that cross was more than enough

Look around you–who is your neighbor?
Who do you see here in need of God’s love?
Look around you–because of the Savior
What you’re doing right now is more than enough
What you’re doing right now is more than enough

The Rapps are a folk duo who became Lutheran converts. Check out their website and buy their CDs.

What are some other songs about Vocation?