Living Sacramentally: Showing Visible Signs of Invisible Grace

May Christ bring us all together to everlasting life.  Rule of Benedict

It is not surprising that the symbolic acts which lie at the heart of the sacraments are all expressions of human intimacy: a bath, a laying on of hands, an embrace, a rubbing with oil, a meal. These actions have become symbols of the coming of God into our lives because they are the actions which have to do most marvelously and delicately with our coming closer to one another. Tad Guzie, “The Book of Sacramental Basics”

When friends of Sr. Catherine Cleary took some Russian friends to Mass recently, they had a question after the service. They asked, What did you go up and eat? They had never attended a Eucharistic celebration, and were curious about what they’d seen.

For the Russians, the experience had been neither Sacramental nor sacramental with a small “s.” Without an understanding of the event, it hadn’t transcended the obvious literal and physical act for them. It wasn’t a visible sign of invisible grace (St. Augustine). It was a curiosity, nothing more.

But living sacramentally is about more than participating in church rituals. While the Seven Sacraments formally celebrate the spiritual milestones of humanity, they do so in keeping with our call to a daily spirituality of attention and presence; of sacramentality. They do so, as Tad Guzie says, as “expressions of human intimacy.”

Such expressions take place daily. That is, Baptism evokes the loving care with which a parent cradles and bathes a newborn baby. Reconciliation calls us to right relationship with others through the power of forgiveness. Communion reflects the need we have to nourish and sustain one another at the table. Confirmation affirms one’s readiness to go on to the next level. Marriage celebrates our call to lovingly create family and community. Holy Orders celebrates our reverence of the call to help bring God to others. And Anointing of the Sick (formerly Extreme Unction) reflects our empathy with those who are struggling with ill health.

Sister Mary Core says we are all called to live sacramentally, with attention and presence to others, to the world, and to all creation.

“If we choose to be attentive to God’s love, grace and presence within us, then we choose to live in a manner that reflects Christ’s presence in our lives,” she says. “The result is, we become sacramental to others. We help others to know God through the visible sign of God in who we are.”

But a sign is only half of the communication structure. It requires that someone notice it to be complete. If no one notices – as the Russians didn’t notice the act of Communion – there is no communication. That is, grace must be actively accepted to be received.

 “The Catechism recognizes our lives are guided by signs,” Sr. Catherine Cleary says. “Stop, Yield, For Sale. They carry messages. We too may carry messages of the presence of God, but we need others to read them. We can’t lock ourselves in a room and not come out for one another. It’s a two-way street.”

The Second Vatican Council underscored the primacy of Sacramental – and sacramental – living in its revision of the Catholic Catechism. It said, ‘The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men and women, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish & strengthen and express it. Thus they are called sacraments of faith.’

To live sacramentally, then, we must come out of our rooms and - through acts of empathy and attention - show signs of Christ’s presence in our lives. We must embrace, forgive, nourish, affirm, love, and reverence all creation. Start by making and serving dinner with candlelight and a willingness to really listen. Or by laying a loving hand on a troubled shoulder. Or by reaching deeply into the well of forgiveness, and starting anew. Whether our signs are recognized by others for the grace they contain or not, it’s how we are called to live.