Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sean Ferrell: Sacramental Universe [Guest Post]

Sean Ferrell, Sean is one of the smartest and well read people I have met, and a heart of a pastor. He is someone I call when I need advice, or a shoulder.

><> ><> ><>

Karl Rahner may well be the most important theologian of the last 500 years for both Roman Catholics AND non-Roman Western Christians. And if you are an evangelical or a mainline Protestant, he may be the most important theologian you've never heard of. It was the theology of Karl Rahner that was the basis for the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church which happened October 11, 1962 - December 8, 1965. (Yes, his theology is important.)

Rahner’s theology radically changed all of Western Christian thought, and the theological transformation he began is sometimes known as the Rahner Revolution. This great revolution changed the emphases of sacramental theology, and of grace itself. Perhaps the most important concept to arise out of that theological revolution is the idea of Sacramental Universe. Though the concept takes hold in Rahner's theology and the theologians who follow him, the term is normally attributed to William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury in a former age.

Until very recently, Western Christians (Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical), perceived that God was somehow not always present with us, and that God’s presence was to be experienced in church (only), and that God’s presence was invoked primarily, if not exclusively, in the sacraments (Baptism, Holy Communion, etc.) The Church was seen as the primary arbiter of God's grace by its administration of these aforementioned sacraments. Rahner’s theological revolution turned these ideas on their heads. In this theology, God has been taken out of the box of being owned by the church. Rahner and other modern theologians assert that God is always and everywhere present, and that the problem is not God’s presence to us, but our presence to God. In other words, even in the most mundane of moments of our daily lives, God envelopes our very being, and the whole universe with God’s gracious love and presence. Even still, for lack of vision, we find it difficult to recognize God’s presence around us.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poem, Aurora Leigh includes one of the best metaphors for the Sacramental Universe.

She writes,

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries

Browning refers, of course, to the Old Testament story of the burning bush where God’s presence is so concretely manifested to Moses. The story at the heart of the Old Testament from Exodus 3 where God enjoins Moses from the burning bush to “remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” clearly ring through Browning’s words. Like the concept of Sacramental Universe, Browning does not only locate God’s presence in the burning bush on the mountain of God, but in every common place, everywhere. We who see take off our shoes and live reverently. And “the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

For years now, I have used one of Scott Mutter’s photographs from his book, “Surrational Images” called “Church Aisle” in teaching confirmation classes to adults. As is his practice, the image is actually a juxtaposition of two photographs. The clearest image is of the interior of a church. When you looks more closely at the photo, one finds what appears to be a New York City street down the center aisle of the church.

Scott Mutter's Church Aisle

I have oft pictured myself standing on that city street. If I take the time to re-tune my vision and if I can listen beyond the noisy street, I can see the Sacramental Universe: God’s glorious presence all around me. But more often than not, I am concerned with the passing car, or avoiding being hit by a bus, (the mundane stuff of life), and join the rest in plucking blackberries.

Perhaps the greatest joy of the notion of Sacramental Universe is a spirituality that is grounded in the Incarnation and the stuff of everyday life. Unlike the gnostic forms of Christianity, it does not seek to catch God out of the air, but to see God more clearly in the world around us in our everyday lives, and experience God physically and tangibly.

This way of seeing holds the potential to make any of us an ordinary mystic. And as many ordinary mystics know, Brother Lawrence’s practice of seeking God’s presence in the mundane – even when he cleaned toilets – is a model for seeking Christ.

Brother Lawrence wrote,

“I drove away from my mind everything capable of spoiling the sense of the presence of God.... I just make it my business to persevere in God’s holy presence... My soul has had an habitual, silent, secret conversation with God.”

When the God who created the cosmos and saw fit to write grace into every nook and cranny, when the whole universe is a sacrament, when God is always and everywhere present, when we are never in a place of not being loved by Godevery breath and heartbeat become prayers ascending, and every moment is filled with the potential of deep divine encounter, every place in the cosmos a burning bush.

Open your eyes...

Mary Jane Miller's Christ is Present at All Times from the series "Line,Blur and Halo"

><> ><> ><>
Sean Ferrell is a priest in The Episcopal Church. He lives with his wife and two sons in Jackson, Tennessee, and serves as Rector of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church.

No comments: