Recovering a sacramental vision


Majesty, English oak, Quercus robur, in Nonington, Kent, England. One of the largest maiden, or unpruned, oaks in all of Europe grows on a private estate in Kent. Thought to be more than 400 years old, this aristocratic tree boasts a girth of more than 40 feet. At one point, a large branch broke off the north side of the tree, leaving a hole that reveals the cavernous space of the hollow trunk. —National Geographic: “These Ancient Trees Have Stories to Tell.” Photograph by Beth Moon

I grew up without a sacramental vision of the world, and I was poorer for it. Without such vision, the world is flat and familiar—material all the way down. With such vision, the universe is full-orbed and enchanted because of a deep kinship between the sensible and spiritual.

My American literature course begins and ends with the sacramental vision of two writers who, on the surface, could not be more different: Jonathan Edwards, an 18th-century New England Congregationalist pastor, and Flannery O’Connor, a 20th-century Southern Catholic novelist. And yet, both Christians see the world through the sacramental eyes that the contemporary Church desperately needs if we are to honor the goodness of Creation and the scandal of Incarnation.


From Beauty of the World (1725)

The beauty of the world consists wholly of sweet mutual consents, either within itself, or with the Supreme Being. As to the corporeal world, though there are many other sorts of consents, yet the sweetest and most charming beauty of it is its resemblance of spiritual beauties. The reason is that spiritual beauties are infinitely the greatest, and bodies being but the shadows of beings, they must be so much the more charming as they shadow forth spiritual beauties. This is peculiar to natural things, it surpassing the art of man.

From Images of Divine Things (1728)

That the things of the world are ordered [and] designed to shadow forth spiritual things, appears by the Apostle’s arguing spiritual things from them. I Cor. 15:36, “Thou fool, that which thou sowest is not quickened, except it die.” If the sowing of seed and its springing were not designedly ordered to have an agreeableness to the resurrection, there could no sort of argument in that which the Apostle alleges; either to argue the resurrection itself or the manner of it; either its certainty, or probability, or possibility.


Again, it is apparent and allowed that there is a great and remarkable analogy in God’s works. There is a wonderful resemblance in the effects which God produces, and consentaneity in his manner of working in one thing and another, throughout all nature. It is very observable in the visible world. Therefore ’tis allowed that God does purposely make and order one thing to be in an agreeableness and harmony with another. And if so, why should not we suppose that he makes the inferior in imitation of the superior, the material of the spiritual, on purpose to have a resemblance and shadow of them? We see that even in the material world God makes one part of it strangely to agree with another; and why is it not reasonable to suppose he makes the whole as a shadow of the spiritual world?


The Book of Scripture is the interpreter of the book of nature two ways: viz. by declaring to us those spiritual mysteries that are indeed signified or typified by the constitution of the natural world; and secondly, in actually making application of the signs and types in the book of nature as representations of those spiritual mysteries in many instances.


“Catholic Novelists and Their Readers” (1963)

The very term “Catholic novel” is, of course, suspect, and people who are conscious of its complications don’t use it except in quotation marks. If I had to say what a “Catholic novel” is, I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. Only in and by these sense experiences does the fiction writer approach a contemplative knowledge of the mystery they embody.

To be concerned with these things means not only to be concerned with the good in them, but with the evil, and not only with the evil, but also with that aspect which appears neither good nor evil, which is not yet Christianized. The Church we see, even the universal Church, is a small segment of the whole of creation. If many are called and few are chosen, fewer still perhaps choose, even unconsciously, to be Christian, and yet all of reality is the potential kingdom of Christ, and the face of the earth is waiting to be recreated by his spirit. This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic.


Whatever the novelist sees in the way of truth must first take on the form of his art and must become embodied in the concrete and human. If you shy away from sense experience, you will not be able to read fiction; but you will not be able to apprehend anything else in this world either, because every mystery that reaches the human mind, except in the final stages of contemplative prayer, does so by way of the senses. Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act, but became incarnate in human form, and he speaks to us now through the mediation of a visible Church. All this may seem a long way from the subject of fiction, but it is not, for the main concern of the fiction writer is with mystery as it is incarnated in human life.

Baron von Hugel, one of the great modern Catholic scholars, wrote that “the Supernatural experience always appears as the transfiguration of Natural conditions, acts, states . . . ,” that “the Spiritual generally is always preceded, or occasioned, accompanied or followed, by the Sensible. . . . The highest realities and deepest responses are experienced by us within, or in contact with, the lower and lowliest.” This means for the novelist that if he is going to show the supernatural taking place, he has nowhere to do it except on the literal level of natural events, and that if he doesn’t make these natural things believable in themselves, he can’t make them believable in any of their spiritual extensions.

Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner, Flannery O’Connor: A Proper Scaring (1988)

In an address delivered to a symposium at Sweet Briar College, O’Connor contended that “the real novelist, the one with an instinct for what he is about, knows that he cannot approach the infinite directly, that he must penetrate the natural world as it is. The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that.” The sacramentalist is anchored in the concrete world—and the source of that anchoring is the Incarnation, God as historical person, God as a sensory entity, God rooted in human experience. The sacramentalist views the things of this world as vehicles for God’s grace. As Frederick Asals has explained O’Connor’s sacramentalism, “It is the natural world that becomes the vehicle of the supernatural, and her characters’ literal return to their senses becomes the means of opening their imaginations to receive it.” The emblems and their accompanying symbols in O’Connor’s work force the characters’ (and the readers’) attention to an immediately apprehensible truth—approachable because it is grounded in everyday reality and can be experienced through the eyes and the ears.


3 thoughts on “Recovering a sacramental vision

  1. Pingback: Sacramental poetics | Bensonian

  2. Pingback: Art is obedient to the creative gratuity in the world | Bensonian

  3. Pingback: A guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories | Bensonian

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