G.K. Chesterton and the Sacramental Imagination

 

The following is an excerpt from my book Gratitude in Life’s Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong

 

The August late-afternoon sun shone mercilessly in my face as I looked for my truck in the parking lot of the call center, where I had been working all day as a janitor.

Generally, I liked the hot days in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, especially when I could go swimming in the lake with my daughter Susanna after work. But on that particular afternoon in early August 2018, I had five hours of office work ahead of me as part of a second master’s degree I was getting ready to pursue. If I was lucky, I might get all the paperwork done in order to be in bed by eleven o’clock, before beginning another long day as janitor.

I had taken this janitorial job in early 2018 after my business as a freelance writer had slowed down. Although working as a janitor could be mind-numbing and monotonous, it did have some compensations. For one thing, I was able to spend about a third of my work time listening to audiobooks. As I dusted railings, cleaned toilets, and emptied trash cans, my imagination was ignited with the novels of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, John Buchan, Elizabeth Gaskell, George MacDonald, Evelyn Waugh, and G. K. Chesterton. These novels lifted my spirits and transported me into faraway worlds of suspense, heroism, wonder, and romance.

But on that particular afternoon in early August, the novels I listened to at work only produced a deleterious effect. I couldn’t help thinking that the characters in these stories inhabited worlds that were so fresh and vivid compared to the monotony of modern life.

As I made my way through the parking lot to my truck, I thought, “Why can’t I have the type of adventures that John Buchan’s characters are always falling into?” The novels reminded me that in my youth I had been like the young George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life and dreamed of traveling the world. Instead, I was going grey cleaning toilets.

Once in my truck, I knew I didn’t have the energy to drive home. I was finding it difficult to keep my eyes open, having gotten up at five o’clock that morning to squeeze in three hours of study before beginning my janitorial duties. To make matters worse, a heavy smell of smoke clung to the air from wildfires in neighboring Montana. The smoke gave everything a languid atmosphere and made me feel light-headed and drowsy.

As hot as it was in my truck, I decided to climb into the back seat and have a nap before driving home. After I had situated myself comfortably with a pillow I kept on hand for just such a purpose, my mind continued to dwell on the disparity between my boring life and the adventures of people like Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s novels or the Count of Monte Cristo in Alexandre Dumas’s story by the same name. “Man,” I thought, “I would give anything to visit some of the places in these stories!”

I was just surrendering to drowsiness when suddenly I saw a gentleman sitting in the front seat of my truck. I had no idea where he had come from, nor how long he had been sitting there. When he saw I had become aware of his presence, he simply said, “Hello, what have we here?” in a British accent.

Normally I would have been startled to see a strange man in my truck. But this gentleman seemed to be treating the entire occasion as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. Somehow, this sense of ordinariness rubbed off on me. I would have been tempted to treat him as an apparition were it not for the strong smell of cigar smoke that clung to his tweed suit. (Apparitions generally don’t smell.) As far as his looks were concerned, I can only describe him by saying that he was extremely fat and looked exactly like the pictures of G. K. Chesterton in his later life.

Dozens of questions suddenly occurred to me, but somehow, all I was able to do was to blurt out, “Gosh, you sure look a lot like G. K. Chesterton.”

The man eyed me inquisitively through his old-fashioned spectacles before slowly replying, “My friend, I look like G. K. Chesterton because I am G. K. Chesterton.”

“Oh,” I said in excitement, “I’m so glad you’ve come, because I just love your books, especially your stories.”

He gave an appreciative nod.

“I especially enjoy that scene from The Man Who Is Thursday where the character Sunday is riding through London on an elephant,” I said enthusiastically. “Nothing like that has ever happened in our world.”

“Oh?” he said inquisitively, as if inviting further comment from me.

“Well, I mean, my life in this town is so boring by comparison. Everything just seems so prosaic and commonplace compared to the types of adventures that you wrote about.”

“Ah,” he replied, and then he muttered as if to himself, “this is more serious than I was told.” Then, turning back to me, he asked, “Do you not see a sort of halo to the edges of all earthly things?”

“Um,” I said, “I can’t say that I do.”

Chesterton paused for a moment, as if deciding to change his approach. Then he burst out, “Egad, my man! Does not the sun still rise every morning?”

“Well, of course,” I answered.

“Does the moon still wax and wane?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Does the sea still bare her bosom to the moon?”

“Sure, I guess, if you want to call it that.”

“Good!” he exclaimed. “For a minute you had me worried. How glorious, how splendid, how perfectly romantic!”

“But I don’t understand,” I said. “Didn’t the moon wax and wane when you were living? Didn’t the sun rise every day? The world is simply doing what it’s always done and following natural laws.”

“Ah,” he replied with a faint smile breaking at the corners of his mouth. “But what you call ‘natural laws’ seemed always to me to be the portent of a wonderful magic hovering just behind the very structure of things. No doubt you have grown too weak to exult in the theatrical encore you call monotony. You have grown too stupid—forgive me for making so bold—to receive the golden sun and silver moon like a schoolboy who has one sovereign and a shilling in his pocket.”

I stared at Chesterton, not knowing what to say.

He continued, “No doubt you think it would be most grand to enter into the story of Jack climbing the magic beanstalk. But have you never stopped to fathom the magic of simply living in a world where there are beanstalks? No doubt you imagine it would be quite glorious to live in a world where a fairy godmother can turn pumpkins into coaches. But have you ever stopped to consider the sheer adventure of being alive in a world where there are mothers and pumpkins?”

“No,” I replied, “I can’t say that I ever considered things from that point of view.”

“Don’t you see?” he said. “Strange, peculiar, and glorious things happen all the time, but their sheer regularity blinds you to the magic. Your problem is not a want of wonders, but a want of wonder. You’ll find everything you need to know in your poets. I believe John Donne is the poet who remarked, ‘There is nothing that God hath established in the constant course of Nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once.’” Chesterton paused in an ecstasy of joyful reflection on the quotation he had just shared. “Even that which you consider inconvenient is simply an adventure wrongly considered!”

“I guess I never thought of it that way,” I said. “But still, I would like to have a real adventure like the people in the books I’ve been reading.”

“My friend,” he said, adopting a tone of patience, “you are living in an adventure. Let the imaginative fiction you read awaken within you the elemental sense of wonder you had when you were young. When you were young you did not need fairy tales, because mere life was interesting enough. Golden apples in the stories should refresh the forgotten moment when you delighted to find they were green. In the tales rivers run with wine only to help you remember, for one wild moment, the extraordinary fact that they run with water.”

After a pause he added, “Read Alexander Schmemann. You’ll find everything you need to know in there.”

I thought for a minute, supposing Chesterton was referring to Schmemann’s classic work on the sacramental imagination, For the Life of the World. I was just wondering how Chesterton, who died in 1936, could know about Alexander Schmemann, when I realized that I had been having this entire conversation while lying down in the back seat of my truck. How rude of me. I moved to sit up in order to face my guest properly, but as I did so, it felt as if I was waking from a dream. I blinked a few times and then saw that I was alone. Where had Chesterton gone?

I would have been tempted to dismiss this entire episode as a dream, were it not for the faint wisp of cigar smoke that still hung about my truck, a tangible reminder of my visitor. Or maybe it was just the smoke from the local wildfires.

The Sacramental Imagination

G.K. Chesterton (1874–1936) embodied what is often called “the sacramental imagination.” Along with other poets and novelists associated with this outlook (one thinks of George Herbert, George MacDonald, Gerard Manley Hopkins, C. S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and J.R.R. Tolkien, to name only a few), Chesterton invited his readers to look at the world in a new way, to see the divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life.

Taking inspiration from both St. Francis of Assisi and George MacDonald, Chesterton believed that the spiritual life is an invitation to regain this elemental sense of wonder we had when young and to have our spiritual senses sharpened so that we can begin seeing the halo of sanctity in all natural things. “The whole philosophy of St. Francis,” he reflected, “revolved around the idea of a new supernatural light on natural things, which meant the ultimate recovery, not the ultimate refusal of natural things.”[i]

The Victorian novelist and theologian George MacDonald—whom Chesterton aptly dubbed “The St. Francis of Aberdeen”—captured the essence of the sacramental imagination when he taught that spiritual maturity involves recapturing the sense of wonder we used to have as children. “To cease to wonder,” MacDonald wrote, “is to fall plumb-down from the childlike to the commonplace—the most undivine of all moods intellectual. Our nature can never be at home among things that are not wonderful to us.”[i a]

A Word About “Sacrament.”

This article is about the sacramental imagination. I realize, however, that the word “sacramental” may be problematic for some evangelical readers, perhaps bringing to mind confusing concepts like transubstantiation or controversies between Catholics and Protestants at the time of the Reformation. We can safely set aside all such controversies, since I am using the term sacrament in a way that all Christians—Protestant, Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox alike—should be able to accept. The best definition of sacrament, at least in the historic sense that I am using the term, comes from the theologian and historian Hans Boersma. In his 2011 book Heavenly Participation, Boersma summarized the sacramental lens through which the early Church viewed the world:

“For the patristic and medieval mindset…the world was, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously put it, ‘charged with the grandeur of God.’ Even the most basic created realities that we observe as human beings carry an extra dimension, as it were… Throughout the Great Tradition, when people spoke of the mysterious quality of the created order, what they meant was that this created order—along with all other temporary and provisional gifts of God—was a sacrament. This sacrament was the sign of a mystery that, though present in the created order, nonetheless far transcended human comprehension. The sacramental character of reality was the reason it so often appeared mysterious and beyond human comprehension.”[i c]

Boersma continued by explaining that sacraments are not simply signs pointing toward the spiritual dimension; rather “sacraments actually participate in the mysterious reality to which they point.”[ii]

We can understand sacraments further by reflecting on those occasions when God has been especially near to us. Although God is with us all the time (Ps. 139:8), some of us have had the experience—or perhaps have read about others having the experience—of God manifesting Himself in a special way. During such times, it is as if part of the world becomes temporarily charged with special grace, allowing us to experience God more directly. We read about this occurring when Moses met God at the burning bush, or when Elijah stood before the Lord on Mount Carmel, or when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain, or when Paul describes how he was caught up to the third heaven and “heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter” (2 Cor. 12:4). During these experiences, man moves toward God in an unusual way, so that ordinary earthly things—like a bush, a mountain, a human being—are transformed into occasions of special glory, radiance, and grace.

We normally think of such experiences as God intervening in a unique way to make Himself present to us, or perhaps we might describe these occasions as times when the natural is overcome by the supernatural. But ancient Christian reflections on the Transfiguration suggest that experiences like these enable us to glimpse a reality that is already inherent within our world but which we are not normally equipped to see. During such times, the veil separating us from the spiritual dimension is temporarily pulled back, enabling us to glimpse realities that penetrate to the heart of how things actually are all the time.

We see something like this happening in the events recounted in 2 Kings 6. While making war against the people of God, the king of Syria constantly found his plans frustrated because of the prophetic insight of Elisha. Whenever the Syrian king planned to attack a certain place, God revealed his plan to Elisha, who promptly warned the king of Israel. Eventually the Syrian king learned from his servants what was going on. His response was to send a large force to surround the city where Elisha was staying. When Elisha’s servant arose early the next morning and saw an army encircling them, he went to Elisha and exclaimed, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” (2 Kin. 6:15).

Elisha answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kin. 6:16). Elisha was not referring to human strength but divine assistance. Elisha was able to perceive the spiritual realities that the young man could not, including a host of angelic warriors guarding them. Verse 17 tells us what happened next: “And Elisha prayed, and said, ‘Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (2 Kings 6:17).

This passage gives us an important insight into the nature of Elisha’s prophetic ministry. We often think of a prophet as someone who can see into the future and accurately predict what will happen. But this passage points toward an even more important aspect of the prophetic ministry: an ability to see the world with spiritual eyes. Elisha knew nothing of modern dichotomies like the natural versus the supernatural, the physical versus the spiritual, the sacred versus the secular; to him, everything was permeated with the presence of God. Using the language of later Christian theology, we could say that Elisha was able to see things sacramentally. Or, using Hans Boersma’s language, Elisha was able to know that “the most basic created realities that we observe as human beings carry an extra dimension, as it were.”[iii]

Throughout history, Christian theologians have taught that part of what it means to grow in maturity is to develop spiritual eyes to perceive things in this spiritual way. This does not refer to being able to see angels like Elisha, though this has certainly occurred in some people’s experience. Rather, Christian teachers have emphasized that growing in maturity involves becoming attuned to the spiritual realities that underlie the commonplace, from our family relationships to our daily routine, from our inner thoughts to our deepest desires, from our lying down to our waking up. God is part of all these experiences, yet often we fail to perceive His presence until our eyes are opened, even as Elisha’s servant needed his eyes to be opened.

The clearest examples of ordinary things becoming conduits of God’s presence appear in the New Testament’s teaching about the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. When we approach these specific rites, a question occurs to many. If we view the entire world sacramentally, then do these specific sacraments lose some of their significance by becoming just more of the same? If everything is sacred, then is nothing sacred in a particularized sense? Throughout the last five hundred years, Christians have struggled with these types of questions. Some Christian traditions have attempted to preserve God’s presence throughout all creation by downplaying His particular presence in specific practices or objects. One thinks of the way the Puritans passed laws against celebrating special holidays like Christmas, because they wanted to emphasize that every day is holy.

We can shed light on these questions by reflecting on how the Old Testament talked about God’s presence in the temple. God was present in the Holy of Holies in a way that He was not present in the temple’s outer court, and He was present in the outer court in a way He was not present in ordinary tents and houses. Similarly, when God’s people were wandering in the wilderness, God was present to them in a pillar of cloud in a way He was not present in ordinary rain clouds. But here’s the important point: God’s particular presence in the tabernacle, and later Solomon’s temple, did not negate His presence elsewhere, but rather established it. We learn this by the fact that the Old Testament descriptions of God’s special presence in the temple always pointed toward God’s more general presence in all of creation. This came into fuller focus when God took on our material flesh and began to embody temple functions within His own ministry.[iv] When the veil of the temple ripped from top to bottom, “the boundary between sacred and profane was torn apart,” signifying that “holiness dwells in everyday things.”[v]

We see a similar principle at work in the descriptions of God’s special presence in the particular nation of Israel. The Old Testament continually makes clear that God’s election of Israel was meant to serve as a template for understanding His purposes for all the nations of the world.

Again and again throughout the Bible we see that God’s particular work in one time and place becomes the basis for understanding His relation to the entire world. Certain things and places are sacred in a particular sense, but this establishes rather than negates God’s more general presence elsewhere. Compare this idea to the way a man, after getting married, may find himself having a new respect for all women, or the way a woman may develop a greater appreciation for all children after becoming a mother.

If we apply this same principle to Christian sacraments, Christian thinkers begin to make sense when they frequently point out that God’s special presence in sacraments like baptism and communion can become a template for understanding His mysterious presence throughout the entire world. Just as grace transforms nature so that the ordinary bread and wine of communion become spiritually significant (though the mechanics of what actually happens remains a mystery), so God’s grace also transforms all of nature, including the commonplace realities of our everyday lives. Here’s how Hans Boersma explains this sacramental dynamic:

“While the church fathers and medieval theologians did look to the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the sacrament in which Christ was really present, in making this point they simultaneously conveyed their conviction that Christ was mysteriously present in the entire created order. Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist was, we might say, an intensification of his sacramental presence in the world.”[vi]

A Word About Imagination

Learning to perceive God’s presence in and through the commonplace is something that Christian theologians have often referred to as the “sacramental imagination.” I realize that the term imagination may also require a little brush-clearing work. Let me be clear that by “imagination” I do not mean fantasizing, nor do I mean thinking things that are false. Rather, I am using the term similarly to the way Christian philosophers like Charles Taylor and James K.A. Smith have used it, as a lens through which we perceive and interpret the world around us and map our experiences within it.[vii]

To understand the role of imagination in mapping our experiences, it may be helpful to reflect on how we perceive and interpret concrete everyday objects like a chair or bed. Consider the vast difference between perceiving a chair as merely a practical piece of furniture and perceiving it as an aesthetic object. Both differ from perceiving a chair as a place where I will be confined. The chair may look the same while having an entirely different meaning in each case. Similarly, perceiving a bed as the place where one experiences insomnia differs from perceiving it as a place that has been carefully prepared by a lover. In all such cases, we perceive the same object, but the difference comes down to how we “imagine” it. Through imagination we map a sense of meaning onto our experiences.

It is inescapable that we “imagine” our experience in one way and not another. The important question is whether we imagine our experience in a way that leads us closer to or further away from the truth. If I imagine an unborn child as “a lump of tissue” or “the heir to the throne of England,” both descriptions may be true in a purely technical sense, but each invites us to think differently about the child, and one description may be closer to the actual shape of reality than the other.

Much of the Bible is occupied with helping us to view objects of creation in a spiritual light and, in a sense, to re-imagine them. For example, after reading Psalm 19:1 (“the firmament shows His handiwork”), one can never quite look at the sky in the same way. Or consider Psalm 104:10–11: “He sends the springs into the valleys; / they flow among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field; / the wild donkeys quench their thirst.” After meditating on this passage, a Christian can never watch a donkey taking a drink in quite the same way again. When an animal takes a drink, it is God who provides the water. Through reading Scripture, we are invited to begin viewing familiar things in a fresh light.

C.S. Lewis explored many of these ideas in his writings, since his conversion to Christianity involved a shift in the way he imagined the world. When he was a teenager, Lewis’s imagination had been baptized through reading George MacDonald.[viii] His friend J.R.R. Tolkien built on this by inviting Lewis to imagine the world differently, even before his intellect caught up. “Tolkien helped Lewis to realize that the problem lay not in Lewis’s rational failure to understand the theory, but in his imaginative failure to grasp its significance.”[ix]

In his biography of Lewis, Alister McGrath described the role that imagination played in nudging Lewis toward Christianity:

“There is a certain way of seeing reality that brings it into the sharpest focus, illuminating the shadows and allowing its inner unity to be seen. This, for Lewis, is a ‘realising imagination’—a way of seeing or ‘picturing’ reality that is faithful to the way things actually are.”[x]

In the first book he wrote after becoming a Christian, The Pilgrim’s Regress, Lewis conveyed something of this imaginative realignment. The main character of this story, John, has a vision of an island in the distance. This vision awakens in him an overwhelming longing. He sets out on a lifelong journey, leaving his homeland—which is the land of the dreaded Landlord—to find the object of his desire. Eventually, when he is old, John reaches the land of his longings only to find that he has circumnavigated the globe and arrived at the other side of the Eastern mountains he had known all his life, the home of the Landlord. Lewis explains that John is finally able to see “the real shape of the world we live in.”[xi]

For Lewis, the spiritual life is an invitation for us to see our earthly life anew. In his fiction, Lewis used strange creatures and fantastical lands to invite us to picture reality in a fresh way, so that through imagination we might actually grasp a truer sense of the real shape of the everyday world we inhabit. This perspective informed Lewis’ view of myth, which he described as follows:

“The value of the myth is that it takes all the things we know and restores to them the rich significance which had been hidden by ‘the veil of familiarity’. The child enjoys his cold meat (otherwise dull to him) by pretending it is buffalo, just killed with his own bow and arrow. And the child is wise. The real meat comes back to him more savoury for having been dipped in a story; you might say that only then is it the real meat. . . . By putting bread, gold, horse, apple, or the very roads into a myth, we do not retreat from reality: we rediscover it. As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.”[xii]

The Sacramental Imagination

We have looked at the concept of sacrament and imagination. But how do these two concepts relate to one another? What does it mean to have a “sacramental imagination”?

The sacramental imagination involves learning to perceive the world according to its real shape or essence. It is a way of picturing things that is faithful to the reality we experience while living in a world where grace transforms nature. Think back to Chesterton’s insight that there is a divine splendor that lies concealed in the stuff of ordinary life, and that even the mundane and commonplace participate in God’s grace.

That may sound somewhat mystical and over-spiritualized, so let’s make things very practical. How can the sacramental imagination change our perception of ordinary things like sandwiches, mealtime, sleep routines, family relationships, and suffering? To answer these questions, let’s take each of these things one at a time, beginning with sandwiches.

The twentieth-century Roman Catholic author Andre Dubus (1936–1999) reflected that if someone makes a sandwich for you out of love, then the sandwich not only contains physical properties like nutrients, but it also contains spiritual properties, since God’s love is in the sandwich. This is even the case if the sandwich is made with tired or impatient love.[xiii] Reflecting on Dubus’s beautiful image, Andrew M. Greeley remarked, “The sandwich becomes enchanted because it is permeated by, dense in, awash with the two loves—human and divine.”[xiv]

If a sandwich can become suffused with grace even when it is made with tired and impatient human love, then how much more is this true of the world and our experiences within it, which come to us out of the overflow of divine love? Not only has God’s love constructed the natural beauties we enjoy, from mountain streams to alpine flowers, but His love has crafted the unique set of circumstances and challenges that make up the conditions of each particular life.

The sacramental imagination invites us to begin viewing all activities and conditions in this spiritual light. However, by “spiritual” I do not mean separate from the natural world of familiar objects. The whole point of a sacrament is that the spiritual has invaded and transformed the ordinary. Some more specific examples may be helpful.

Consider sleep. Sleeping is a process we might be tempted to call “secular,” in contrast to “spiritual” activities like going to church or reading the Bible. Yet Psalm 127:2 tells us that God grants sleep to His beloved, while Psalm 3:5–6 teaches us that God is the one sustaining us when we lie down and wake up. To surrender to sleep is to commit ourselves to God’s care. What would our nights be like if we really believed that?

Or consider family relationships. Whenever you help a member of your family or church, it is actually Christ you are helping (Matt. 25:35–40), as surely as Simon of Cyrene helped Christ by carrying His Cross (Luke 23:26). What would our relationships be like if we truly believed this? We often fail to notice Christ’s presence because He comes to us disguised in our commonplace relationships, including relationships that may sometimes irritate and annoy us.

What about something as basic as breathing? Scripture is clear that our breath comes from God (Gen. 2:7; Is. 42:5), and that every breath we take can be an opportunity for mindful awareness of God’s presence within. What would our breathing be like if we truly believed that?

To these we might add numerous other examples. The point is that when we start to view the world sacramentally, we begin recognizing that ordinary things are enchanted with God’s presence. By “imagining” the world sacramentally, we begin to see it according to its real shape.

God’s sacramental presence in ordinary things is not contingent on our ability to impose a Christian interpretation on them from the outside—for example, by remembering to thank God for all good things, or seeing natural realities as evidence of design, as important as this is. Nor is God’s presence in ordinary things instrumental, as merely a material sign pointing to a spiritual reality. Rather, the sacramental vision recognizes that the presence of the Logos has been breathed into the very structure of the world and the nature of the things within it. When we learn to recognize the world in this way—in the correct way—then we begin to see even mundane things as occasions of wonder, beauty, grace, and love.

When my step-grandson was born in 2017, it was a blessing to watch him gradually become awake to the world. The first thing he was aware of in the world—even before being aware that he was aware—was the abiding presence of his parents’ care. All of his experiences—even his own choices and mistakes—were awash in his parents’ love. The sacramental vision is simply an invitation to begin viewing our lives as did that little child—seeing everything we experience as charged with the presence of God’s love for us.

The Sacramental Imagination and ‘Christian Worldview’

The sacramental imagination invites us to rethink one of the hottest topics within Christian apologetics right now: the meaning of a “Christian worldview.”

Father Alexander Schmemann (1921–1983) addressed this topic of Christian worldview in a study guide written for the Quadrennial Conference of the National Student Christian Federation in Athens, Ohio, in December 1963. The students in this group were preparing themselves for a discussion of Christian mission in the contemporary world. Schmemann, a liturgical scholar of Russian descent who immigrated to America in 1951, wanted to guide the students’ discussion through helping them to develop a correct understanding of a Christian worldview.

The study guide Schmemann put together eventually became his classic book on the sacramental life, For the Life of the World. Schmemann’s discussion challenged the atheistic materialism that was so strong in the sixties. The book was even translated into Russian and secretly circulated in the Soviet Union by the underground samizdat, where it was read by people hungry for the spiritual life.

In addition to challenging materialism, Schmemann also challenged popular Christian misunderstandings about what constituted a Christian worldview. In his day, as in our own, there was a growing interest in “spirituality” and “religion,” but these categories often referred to “a world in itself, existing apart from the secular world and its life.”[xv] The spiritual life was often conceived as detached from the ordinary world where we eat, drink, love, and go to work. Having colluded with the reduction of God to a circumscribed area of the “sacred,” “spiritual,” or “supernatural,” man no longer sees all of life as infused with the life of God; man no longer sees all of life as gift. [xvi]

As a historian of the early Church, Schmemann knew that some of the earliest Christian teachers had articulated a holistic vision of the world that stood as a corrective to what he called the “disincarnate and dualistic ‘spirituality’” characteristic of modern Christianity.[xvii] Schmemann’s invitation in For the Life of the World was to recover this ancient Christian vision, one in which “the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man.”[xviii] As part of this recovery, Schmemann urged us to begin seeing familiar and commonplace realities in a new light: “In the radiance of His light the world is not commonplace.”[xix]

“All that exists,” Schmemann reflected, “is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God.”[xx] Since all of creation exists as a means for communion with God, our natural desire for created things betokens a deeper desire for God Himself. We were designed to commune with God through the ordinary things of this world, even things as basic as eating, drinking, and breathing.

All desire is finally a desire for Him. . . . The natural dependence of man upon the world was intended to be transformed constantly into communion with God in whom is all life. Man was to be priest of a eucharist, offering the world to God, and in this offering he was to receive the gift of life. But in the fallen world man does not have the priestly power to do this. His dependence on the world becomes a closed circuit, and his love is deviated from its true direction. He still loves, he is still hungry. He knows he is dependent on that which is beyond him. But his love and his dependence refer only to the world in itself. He does not know that breathing can be communion with God. He does not realize that to eat can be to receive life from God in more than its physical sense. He forgets that the world, its air or its food cannot by themselves bring life, but only as they are received and accepted for God’s sake, in God and as bearers of the divine gift of life. By themselves they can produce only the appearance of life.[xxi]

This sacramental vision—a vision in which the natural is infused with the supernatural and all of life is bathed with the radiance of God’s grace—formed Schmemann’s challenge to the secularism of his day. The problem with secularism, he argued, was that it had stolen what rightly belonged to God through claiming the natural world as its own and then circumscribing “the spiritual life” to a small subset of our experience.

The world is a fallen world because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. The accumulation of this disregard for God is the original sin that blights the world. And even if the religion of this fallen world cannot heal or redeem it, for it has accepted the reduction of God to an area called “sacred” (“spiritual,” “supernatural”)—as opposed to the world as “profane.” It has accepted the all-embracing secularism which attempts to steal the world away from God.[xxii]

Schmemann taught that our true beliefs about the world are manifest in how we eat and how we think about eating. It will be useful to further explore the experience of both eating and breathing through the sacramental lens.

Eating and Breathing Sacramentally 

Christians thank the Lord before eating every meal as a tangible way of recognizing that the food we receive comes from God’s hand (Ps. 136:25). This sense of food as gift was easier to grasp in days gone by, when men and women had a more direct connection with the earth. But even though the food produced by the earth is now mediated through a chain of cause and effect far removed from our direct experience, we still remember to thank the Lord before each meal, thus acknowledging that food comes to us from the overflow of divine love. Yet often our sense of food-as-gift ends once we start eating.

How would our eating habits be different if after saying grace we retained the sense of food-as-gift throughout the entire meal? What would it be like to eat with the type of sacramental vision that sees natural things like food—including food that may appear plain and boring—as awash with God’s love and charged with His presence?

To answer this question, we only need turn to our normal response when receiving a gift. When we receive something as a gift, the natural reaction is to slow down and make ourselves fully present, to become “mindful” (i.e., paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally). For example, if my daughter shows me a picture she drew for me, or my son plays me a piece he composed on the piano, I want to give it my full attention, savoring every detail, making myself fully present without judgment. To be fully present with the activity of eating is no different; we want to eat slowly, savoring every bite, becoming fully immersed in the present-moment experience of receiving these gifts from God.

A Mindfulness Experiment You Can Safely Do at Home

I’d like you to get a raisin (or other dried fruit that you like, if you don’t like raisins) and then sit down comfortably at a table with the raisin in front of you.

Take a few deep breaths while looking at the raisin. Now reflect on the fact that God’s love is in the raisin, in the same way that Andre Dubus wrote about God’s love being in a sandwich made for you by a loved one.

Now do a little thought experiment. Ask yourself how you would approach this raisin if a friend had lovingly tended the vine that produced it for you and then travelled a long way to bring it to your table. While that may be a thought experiment, it gets us close to the truth of what is actually going on here, for it is through the operations of God’s love (and the energies of that love via hundreds of hours of cause and effect) that this raisin has come to be on your table. God’s love is in the raisin.

If God’s love is in the raisin, then respond to it as a gift by offering back your full presence. Observe the raisin with as many senses as possible: the look and color of the raisin, the smell of it, the feel of its wrinkly skin to your gentle touch. Try not to judge or evaluate the raisin, just be present with it. Remember, God’s love is in the raisin.

While doing this, you may find yourself bombarded with thoughts of the past or future, or you may be distracted by other sights and sounds around you. That’s okay, but try to gently let all these thoughts go and return your full attention to the raisin.

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Spend as long as you need at this stage, just being present with the raisin God has lovingly provided.

When you feel ready, slowly lift the raisin to your mouth. Gently touch the raisin with your tongue, noticing the flavor sensations that immediately greet you, as well as the feel of the raisin’s texture to your tongue’s gentle touch.

When you are ready, you can begin eating the raisin. As you do so, observe all the senses that become engaged with it: the salivation that starts as your mouth prepares to receive the raisin, the feel of the raisin as it enters your mouth, the burst of different flavors when you bite into it (can you notice both tart and sweet?), the sound of the raisin as you begin chewing it, the changing texture as your teeth disintegrate the raisin into a myriad of pieces, the feel of the raisin as you swallow it, the feeling of satiation once it is fully consumed.

Now bring that same loving attention that you gave the raisin and focus it on your own breath. Remember, being able to breathe is a gift from God no less than is food. Breathe in and out deeply, with long exhalations. Let all your senses become engaged with your breathing: the feel of the air as it enters, the feel of your diaphragm as it expands, the feel of your diaphragm as it contracts and the air is gently exhaled from your system. As you do this, distracting thoughts will probably float into your brain just as when you were with the raisin. That is normal. Instead of fighting against these thoughts or judging yourself for having them, simply view them as something outside yourself and gently draw your attention back to your breath. As you do this, you are communing with God even if you are not consciously thinking about Him, just as a nursing baby is communing with his mother without consciously thinking about her. Remember Schmemann’s words that “breathing can be communion with God.”

Keep breathing in and out deeply before continuing to read.

An Invitation to Live Sacramentally

The types of practices I’ve encouraged you to do in the above exercises—first with the raisin and then with your breath—are designed to help you fully engage with your present-moment experience. This is an invitation to withdraw your mind from thinking about yesterday or worrying about the future or being distracted by the hundreds of things going on around you, but instead simply to be present with the Lord and His gifts. Throughout history, Christian thinkers have emphasized the spiritual importance of this type of present-moment engagement.

Remember, the sacramental vision sees natural things as participating in spiritual realities, so activities as mundane as eating and breathing can become occasions for communing with God. This sacramental vision of the world invites us to begin receiving all of our experience with love and thus to be fully present with God in those experiences.

Most people who begin practicing these activities are surprised by how much joy they can experience in eating a raisin mindfully, or in breathing mindfully. The joy that arises from eating or breathing with total present-moment awareness is a joy you can have with any wholesome activity. All you have to do is to offer that activity the gift of your total presence.

After doing the raisin exercise, Maximos wondered what it would be like to eat an entire meal with the same level of mindfulness. The next evening he decided to give it a try. Maximos had been working all day and didn’t have time to buy groceries, let alone fix a nice dinner. All he had was some leftover rice and a little oil. As Maximos ate this simple meal, he focused on being present with each bite, chewing slowly to give himself time to notice the flavor and texture of the food and the satisfying feeling when he swallowed it. After taking each mouthful, Maximos put his hands in his lap until he finished chewing, in order to give each bite his full attention instead of rushing to take the next one.

“I thought that meal of rice would be boring,” he explained afterwards, “but I think it actually turned out to be the best meal of my entire life.”

Now food has taken on a new delight for Maximos. He is also much healthier, since his food digests better. Most importantly, eating has become an occasion for Maximos to commune with God.

“Even though I’m not consciously thinking about God when I eat,” he explained, “the simple act of slowing down and being present with my food somehow helps me to feel close to the Lord. He is present with me in each bite.”

This practice of total present-moment immersion is practiced by many monks and nuns who have devoted their entire lives to prayer. In the teachings of many monastics, one way to “pray without ceasing” is to pursue our work with an attitude of mindfulness. One of my favorite spiritual writers, Fr. Alexios Trader, lives as a monk at a monastery on Mount Athos. In a 2013 article, Fr. Alexios shared that being mindfully present in seemingly mundane activities is a way to incorporate those activities into the constant life of prayer.

“Perhaps it might prove helpful to practice mindfulness in those routine tasks such as driving to work or preparing dinner. If our focus is grounded in the task at hand and we perform that task with an awareness that all we do, we do for the glory of God, these tasks become part of our life of prayer. In the monastery, monks are assigned obediences or tasks that are often quite menial. However, these are the perfect opportunity for the monk to focus all his attention on the task at hand, thus glorifying God in all that he does. . . . The same should be true for those living in the world.”[xxiv]

 

Receiving the World With Love

The transformative message of the sacramental vision is that we can approach our entire experience in this world with the gift of our total presence, since all of life is awash in God’s love. We are invited to live now in the reality depicted by the Book of Revelation, where all creation is offered up to God in worship.

In the modern world, we have largely lost this sacramental way of looking at things. One of the reasons so many people become victims of disordered pleasures, such as drugs, immorality, watching horror movies, or thrill-seeking through dangerous sports, is that they are searching for wonder and meaning in all the wrong places, having lost the ability to find it in the commonplace.

Stop and ask yourself what your life would be like if you truly believed—not just in your head, but in the deepest part of your being—that God is present in all of the world. How would your life be different if you really believed that everything around you somehow participates in the life of God?

Remember, the sacramental vision invites us to begin seeing all of life—from when we get out of bed in the morning to when we brush our teeth at night—as occasions for communion with God. We can begin to greet all our experiences—from hearing a baby laugh to feeling the splash of rain on our cheek—as occasions of wonder and grace. We can begin learning to hear God’s voice, not just in times of prayer, but in the smile from a stranger, a friend reaching out to us in need, and even in our own heartbeat and silent breathing. Even by simply being physical, we can participate in the life of God, for as David Fagerberg beautifully puts it, “The Incarnation was a sanctification of our bodies as well as our souls, and the supernatural settles, as a dewfall, upon every natural thing.”[xxvi]

The invitation to be fully present in whatever we are doing or experiencing is an invitation to receive everything—even painful experiences—with love. God is sacramentally present in our suffering, although this can often be hard to understand. This is a lesson Ruth van den Broek helped me to understand. While struggling with a terminal disease, Ruth learned to receive all the experiences God sent her—even the mundane and painful experiences—as permeated with His sacramental presence. In a March 2018 interview for Woman Alive, Ruth was asked about being a Christian with a degenerative disease. She explained that as God is fully present in her pain and brokenness, He transforms it and makes Himself known to her.

“My life is filled with mundane tasks and bodily brokenness, and it’s easy to think that there is nothing of value here. But, as one of my favourite quotes says, “God comes to us disguised as our life” [Paula D’Arcy] and that transforms everything. God is here making himself known to me in the long hours of physiotherapy, the tears of pain and confusion, and the dark nights of the soul which can seem unending. The fact that God is here doesn’t take away the reality of the mundane, the brokenness or the darkness, but it means that they are places I can know God and that fact brings beauty, loveliness and hope to them.”

Most of my readers will not be struggling with a degenerative disease as Ruth does. However, many of us do struggle with circumstances or conditions that sometimes seem to overwhelm us or that may lead us to ask, “Where is God in all this?” Ruth reminds us that whatever our suffering may be, whatever cross God may be asking us to carry, He is transforming it into an occasion of grace and even beauty. For God is not simply “out there,” but present in our everyday lives and pain.

This truth is incredibly liberating, for it means that pain and heartache do not have power to take away hope and gratitude. Wherever you may be, and in whatever circumstances you may be facing, loveliness, beauty, and hope are always present if you are determined to find them. And that means that, through gratitude, it is possible to experience the good life, even when everything is going wrong.

Notes

[i] G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1924), 81–82.

[i a] George MacDonald, The Hope of the Gospel: Sermons Volume 5, The Sunrise Centenary Editions of the Works of George MacDonald (Eureka, CA: Sunrise Publishers, 1892), 56–57.

[i c] Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 21–22.

[ii] Boersma, 23.

[iii] Boersma, 21.

[iv] On Christ’s appropriation of temple functions within his own ministry, see N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999).

[v] Joseph Ratzinger Cardinal, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003), 99.

[vi] Boersma, 26.

[vii] harles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004); James K. A Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013).

[viii] Robn Phillips, “The Baptized Imagination,” May 1, 2011, www.robinmarkphillips.com/?p=5214, accessed March 16, 2020.

[ix] Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis: A Life (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2016), 149.

[x] McGrath, 135.

[xi] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress: An Allegorical Apology for Christianity, Reason and Romanticism (Glasgow: Collins, 1933), 222.

[xii] C.S. Lewis, The Reading Life: The Joy of Seeing New Worlds Through Others’ Eyes, edited by David C. Downing and Michael G. Maudlin (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2019), 110.

[xiii] André Dubus, Meditations from a Movable Chair (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 85.

[xiv] Andrew M. Greeley, The Catholic Imagination (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 2.

[xv] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1963), 12.

[xvi] Ibid., 16.

[xvii] Ibid., 8.

[xviii] Ibid., 11.

[xix] Ibid., 62.

[xx] Ibid., 14.

[xxi] Ibid., 15–17.

[xxii] Ibid., 16.

[xxiv] Fr. Alexis Trader, “Taking Captivity Captive: The Role of Mindfulness in Overcoming Mindless Compulsions,” Ancient Christian Wisdom, August 7, 2013, http://ancientchristianwisdom.com/taking-captivity-captive-the-role-of-mindfulness-in-overcoming-mindless-compulsions/, accessed March 16, 2020.

[xxvi] David W Fagerberg, Consecrating the World: On Mundane Liturgical Theology (Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2016), 26.

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