I’m having an argument in my head with St. Gregory the Great, whose feast is today. (If that sounds crazy, St. Hildegard of Bingen created an entire language for her own amusement.) While he was responsible for many fine achievements, his theology reflects his patrician background and dualistic view.
Gregory comes from a 6th century Roman style, which saw each day “hastening toward the final judgment.” Cheery, huh? Had he come from the Celtic style in the same century, he might’ve seen each day as a chance to praise the shining world: trees, rivers, wells. I won’t quibble now with his concept of riches as thorns that wound our minds and entice us to sin. (Whew—so much for riches that enable mind-expanding travel, education or generosity to others.)
What prompts my argument is his condemnation of the transitory: “Why then do you love what is left behind?” Well, how else do we learn to love? Isn’t the meaning of Incarnation that Jesus took on bone, sinew, muscle; ate, drank and blessed the things of earth? He seemed to value flowers of the field, birds of the air, gushing water, leaven in lump, wine and bread, making fairly ordinary things his vehicles for teaching.
Consequently, some faiths developed the concept of sacramentals: objects, people, places or activities that convey the divine presence. In this category, we might place a garden bursting with pink and purple sweet peas, afternoon light silvering lake or ocean, pills that heal a painful medical condition, deep conversation over coffee or wine, the first sight of a long-absent friend at an airport reunion, books, music and art that inspire, a flannel shirt soft with memories of mountain trips and cold evenings by a warm fire.
Certain objects—this candle holder from Connemara, this Christmas ornament that hung on my grandparents’ tree, this sweatshirt from a beloved place, this pearl bracelet from a deceased relative–convey more than their utilitarian purpose. They aren’t simply decorative knick-knacks, jewelry or clothing; they bring back a whole world when I see or use them. Ultimately, they speak of the Creator’s care. To treat them indifferently would be ungrateful.
For a recent birthday, my granddaughter was eager that I open her gift first. She is six; her joy translates to physical wriggling, hugging and helping to unwrap. She had excitedly gotten me a mug which I now use daily. The brown bear on its side represents the Colorado Rockies which I love; a little spoon fits deftly into the handle. Most importantly, she bought it with her own money—and a parental supplement. Each time I sip from that mug, I taste her kindness. I’m transported to a shining morning; it’s my birthday again. Surely an object which can convey so much bears an imprint of the divine.
For the same birthday (it was a milestone), my daughter bought all the grandchildren and myself matching t-shirts that said, “I’d Rather Be Reading.” That’s a family hallmark—we all love to read. How could I ever wear it without remembering her thoughtfulness, and all of us lined up together in identical shirts on a couch?
Theologian Richard Rohr puts it in more sophisticated theological language: infinity pouring itself into finite expression. It’s the “self-emptying of God into physical, visible forms” (The Divine Dance, p. 126). How can I get tangled up in the “dilemma du jour” when that rich outpouring is happening? The sacramental tradition always insists: there’s more to this than meets the eye. Much more…