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Taste the goodness of the sacrament

The conclusion of Practical Allegory: Keeping the et in the res et sacramentum

The first half of this paper is here.


The fatal error in so much liturgical scholarship and pastoral conversation on the liturgy today is the idea that in order to understand or appreciate a rite or ceremony, we must know what it “means.” This assumes that the liturgy is a language that can be translated into another language — something we expect to be impossible with poetry and music, but somehow think is fine with the poetry and music of the Church. The liturgical allegory of the Speculum worked in the 12th century because it was less interested in meaning than in sacramentality. To explain what I mean by that I need to do some theology.

Here’s where we get to my subtitle: Keeping the et in the res et sacramentum. By the early 13th century, the Church’s magisterium had de facto accepted, through the approval of Innocent III, a threefold way of thinking about the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist.[16] The Latin word sacramentum, sacrament, means a sign of something — classically, a visible sign of a spiritual grace. (That’s still what I teach in my confirmation classes.) Res, Latin for “thing” or “matter” or “reality,” is the spiritual grace of which the sacrament is a sign. Traditionally the res of the sacrament was thought to be union, or closer communion, with Christ and his Church. What, then, is the body of Christ in this formula? And so a third term emerged, res et sacramentum, to describe something that was both “sign” and “grace,” both sacrament and meaning. So in the end we have, in regard to the Eucharist, the sacramentum tantum, that is, the species of bread and wine, which are only signs; the res et sacramentum, the body of Christ, which is both something in itself and the sign of something else; and the res tantum, the grace alone, which is communion.

What I want to suggest is that the development of this middle term in the 12th century enabled a deeper focus on the nature of sacramentality. In other words, the point of the sacraments is not just to get from point A to point B, from pure sacramentum to pure res. There’s more to it. The Speculum’s sacramental vision, then, sits squarely in this middle place between pure sign and pure meaning. In this vision, we actually gain something from this sacramental process that we do not gain otherwise. That’s what the Speculum calls “sweetness.” It’s the affective delight in the sacramental economy. The goal is not to understand — we know what the sacraments mean, which is to say their final res; the goal is to love what we understand, to “chew” on this knowledge[17].

And implicit in this vision is a bold claim: that there is something better, sweeter, more wonderful in the economy of sacraments than there would be in a theoretical economy of unfiltered dispensations of grace. This is a thread that runs all through the Tradition, from the “happy fault” idea in the Easter Exsultet to that little prayer that we quietly recite at over the water at the offertory: “O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restore the dignity of human nature.” For the Speculum, the spiritual and material, or the spiritual and the sacramental, are superior when combined. Its prime example is the Blessed Virgin:

It was great that the Virgin Mary bore Christ corporally, with love (amore) added, which was not divided; yet it was greater because through love (dilectionem) she spiritually carried him. But because she merited to have it both ways at the same time, she merited an incomparable felicity to exist, because often, as the external gift is joined, a greater inner charity flames up and increases merit.[18]

The liturgical allegory tradition, at its best, is a way of fully embracing this more wonderful aspect of redemption. It is wonderful that Christ saves us. And it is wonderful that Christ saves us through the sacraments. To meditate on the latter is not to take away from the former, but to increase our delight in it.


This is all fun to think about, at least if you’re the sort of person who attends a conference like this, but does it help us navigate our awkward situation? That is, how can we enter the world of sacramental and liturgical knowledge and experience in a way that will actually transform us — and, for those of us in pastoral roles, that it will actually transform the people we love and serve?

I’ll end with three positive suggestions, two practical and one theoretical. Here they are.

The unavoidable start for entering the delights of the sacramental economy is the given-ness of the liturgy. I said this would be positive, so, in summary: do the liturgy. But the negative correlation is: stop tinkering. The Church is tired of well-meaning priests and liturgists trying to mess with the liturgy to make it more “meaningful.” By all means we should try to do better if that means speaking more clearly, singing more perfectly, stoking those thurible coals to the exact right temperature. But it is hard to let the liturgy sink into your consciousness when you never know what it will look like. There’s local adaptation, which makes sense, and there’s local innovation, which doesn’t. When I came to St. James School, I think it had done four radically different types of services on Good Friday for the previous five years. That’s one of the easiest places in the liturgical year to really see yourself as part of the story, but there had been so much of an attempt to figure out what was most “meaningful” for teenagers that no one had any idea what was going on. When I asked if we could just do the traditional liturgy of Good Friday, I got some funny looks from my headmaster, who worried that kissing the cross would weird them out. It did. And in the last few years, more and more people come up to do it.

We have to actually teach the stories. There are a lot of ways to do this, like having serious adult small-group Bible studies, or preaching through the narrative books, or doing great-quality children’s catechesis. But I can tell you firsthand that when young people know something about the Passover story, the Eucharist comes across in a different way. And part of our conversation and passing on of the stories has to be the fact that they are our stories. I grew up in church singing “Father Abraham had many sons … I am one of them, and so are you.” Yes, the Old Testament is the Hebrew Bible, and yes, Jews interpret it differently than Christians. That doesn’t mean we should be embarrassed to read the whole Bible with the Church, and to see the many, many ways that it connects with our liturgical and sacramental heritage.

This is the less practical one. Use the imagination. When it comes to understanding what we do in the liturgy, the point is not so much to see what liturgy “means,” as if it were just translating some archaic language. That is something that we can do at a distance without it making demands on things like our physical desires or our financial habits or the kind of language we use. The point is to enter into it with our whole heart and mind. We have to learn how to see ourselves in continuity, to experience that rich layering of experience on experience and knowledge on knowledge that I spoke about earlier. And I think the more we do that, the more effectively we can inoculate ourselves against the poison of meaning severed from tradition, meaning severed from other meaning, beauty from truth, truth from beauty, and both from goodness. Because God’s grandeur endures, not just in nature, but in the sacramental economy of the Church. It is always there, waiting to be investigated and understood so that it can be better loved. To end where I began, with Hopkins:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


[16] The history of this terminology is complex and uncertain. Innocent III uses the terms in his letter of 1202, Cum Marthae Circa (see Henry Denzinger, Sources of Catholic Dogma). The Summa Sententiarum uses it, as does the Lombard, and they may both have gotten it — albeit not with the precise terminology, but with the concepts — from St. Hugh’s De Sacramentis.

[17] I take the word from Bonaventure, Sent. IV D. 8.

[18] 356A-B. The notion of Mary’s double dignity or merit in both spiritual and corporal birth is reflected very similarly in a sermon by Godfrey of St. Victor: “She is first both in dignity and in time. In dignity, because she merited giving birth not only spiritually but also bodily to the Word of God divinely sent into her. Other holy and chaste virgins have merited to conceive and give birth to the divine Word breathed into their souls spiritually from heaven … but this unique, singular, incomparable virgin brought forth for the salvation of the world the one Word of God wholly poured into her through the working of the Holy Spirit not only as we said, spiritually but also bodily and personally in an ineffable way.” See Godfrey of St. Victor, “Sermon on the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin,” trans. Hugh Feiss in Writings on the Spiritual Life, ed. Christopher Evans (New City Press, 2014), pp. 491-82.


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