The Sacramental Approach, Part 1

I have written about trying to teach the sacramental approach before, when my Louisiana kids and I were tackling Flannery O’Connor stories:

I gave my students the example of the Eucharist. “What’s the Eucharist?”

“The body and blood of Jesus.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“So I can’t just pray and receive his body and blood in a symbolic or ‘spiritual’ way? I have to eat the bread and wine?”

“Yeah you have to eat it.”

“Okay. Well, O’Connor is saying it’s the same with stories. You can’t get the ‘meaning’ or ‘message’ of a story any other way. You have to read the story itself – you have to eat and drink it. That’s where the meaning is. You can’t just pull it out in some abstract way. That’s what O’Connor thinks, anyway.”

For the typical high school student, this is very hard to accept. Like most people these days, they are Gnostics, and they would prefer to separate body and soul, sign from sacrament, story from meaning. It’s easier that way.

“Sacramentality and the Short Story” April 2013

I’ve been weaving the sacramental approach into the way I try to encourage kids to embrace mystery in stories and other works–but until I taught Christian Authors for the first time last semester, I had never made it the title of a unit or an explicit part of the curriculum.

But this past summer when I was thinking about what were the essential things I wanted kids to learn in a Christian Authors course, this was the very first thing that came to mind. I learned about it myself through extensive reading, largely thanks to Flannery O’Connor, of course, but also through Dostoevsky and Greene and Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson, all of whom engage this approach in very different but powerful ways.

I also learned about it from two professors in college: Dr. Lowery taught it to us explicitly while we were in Rome so that we could enter into that experience more deeply; Dr. Gregory taught it to us far more implicitly by the way she approached lyric poetry. She describes something very akin to the sacramental approach in her profound essay “Lyric and the Skill of Life”:

I would like for a moment to take seriously this sense that the discernment and preservation of “grace” within the world entails art: that is to say, a deliberately cultivated skill, an habitual focus of both mind and affection, a discipline of attention. The arts enacted by the poet are open to the reader willing to accept their difficult conditions. The steady and serious reader [Emily] Dickinson hopes for comes to share in the economy of grace – the ascetics of perception, feeling, and thought – that grounds her discipline.

The tough thing about the sacramental approach, however, is that the only way to really learn it is to discover it yourself–to gradually become aware of a common thread, a particular vision, weaving itself through the best art, the best books, even the best movies.

What is the sacramental approach, you ask?

That is the question my students are asking right now. I have not given them a definition, and I don’t plan on giving them one until they can already come up with a good account of it themselves. So, I’m not going to give you one right away either.

However, I have given them definitions and examples of some other approaches Christian Authors (and any authors, really) often use–so that by contrast they can see what the sacramental approach is not:

The Didactic approach – from the Greek didache meaning “teaching” – an approach that openly tries to teach or inform. Good examples of these are Church documents, many parts of St. Paul’s letters, large sections of the Gospels (esp. the Sermon on the Mount), theology texts… even The Chronicles of Narnia, which try to teach a younger audience what Jesus is really like. Even the parables of Christ are largely didactic–though, I would argue, not exclusively so.

The Apologetic approach – from the Greek apo “from” and logos “word, speech, account, reason” – an approach that tries to persuade using logic and evidence. C. S. Lewis’ Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Problem of Pain and other works are examples of this. Chesterton also used the apologetic approach–even in many of his Father Brown mystery stories.

Propaganda – from the (relatively modern) Latin propagare “to propagate, to spread” – an approach that tries to spread ideas, often by biased means, often by manipulating emotions

Obviously, one would hope that Christian authors would not use propaganda. Yet even certain members of the Pro Life movement use it (and feel justified in doing so). And a lot of modern Christian music and movies really earn this somewhat dishonorable label–because the art they create (manufacture?) is bad, and it exists only in service of (or subjugation to) the message.

An example of Christian propaganda we looked at in class today:

I mean, all you have to do is look at the title of the movie to know the message. The atheist professor is the stereotypical meanie who has a painful past and lots of resentment and pride to boot. The young handsome Christian has to make lots of cliche choices and engage in a final showdown of some sort.

In these first few days of the semester, I am trying to help my kids come to their own understanding of the sacramental approach by giving them lots of experiences–both of what it is, and what it is not.

An example we looked at in class today is Richard Wilbur’s beautiful poem about the experience of waking up in the morning and that half moment of semi-consciousness between dreaming and waking, spirit and body: “Love Calls Us to Things of This World.” You will notice that it is neither didactic nor apologetic–and nor is it propaganda.

But it is surprising. There are lots of images and juxtapositions you wouldn’t expect–and I bet you can easily find the one line in it that rather shocked everybody.

Nor is this poem explicitly Christian. As one of my students pointed out, it mentions “nuns”, but not really in the most flattering way.

As I said to my students today, the sacramental approach is one of the hardest things to teach. To just give them my definition of it would miss the point–and would deprive them of the chance to discover this deeper vision, to enter into a new way of looking at the world, to start noticing it everywhere, to begin fumbling for their own words to give it voice.

More to come.

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2 Comments

Filed under Catholicism, Education, Flannery O'Connor, Literature, Teaching

2 responses to “The Sacramental Approach, Part 1

  1. Douglas Johnson

    My dogged nudged me 2:30AM. Having awoken ever so slightly, I checked my email on my iPad and I wound up noodling over this essay of yours for the next five hours. It’s fantastic. I ended up re-reading a lot of essays in a wonderful book edited by Andrew Davison titled Imaginative Apologetics, that I read some years ago and which I think you would like a great deal. I’d buy you a copy if I knew where to send it! There are so many relevant essays, but I would turn first to the Michael Ward essay on C.S. Lewis.

  2. Douglas Johnson

    Not sure how relevant what I am about to share is, but in Imaginative Apologetics, Michael Ward tells an old joke about driving his car out of the service garage and asking Billy the Mechanic if his turn signal is working:

    Billy looked at the light and “replied, ‘Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes. No. Yes.’

    This little exchange neatly encapsulates Lewis’s definition of imagination. ‘Imagination’ is a notoriously slippery term and different thinkers and writers define it in very different ways. According to Lewis, imagination is simply ‘the organ of meaning’.

    Billy the car mechanic’s ‘organ of meaning’ was sadly deficient. A flashing phenomenon, as far as he was concerned, could have only one possible meaning: electrical failure. He was able to see the raw data – light on, light off, light on – but was unable to discover the correct meaning of those brute facts. He had sight, but no insight.”

    And then a little later, Ward discusses the meaning of the turn signal some more:

    “But what kind of meaning would they have? A true meaning, showing that the driver was about to make a turning? Or a false meaning, showing that the driver had forgotten to cancel the lever? It is human reason, in Lewis’s view, that judges between meanings, helping us to differentiate those meanings that are true and illuminating from those which are false and deceptive.”

    To the above I would add that it is necessary that meaning comes from outside ourselves and is shared communally. Things can only mean something communally. The phrase “to me, this means…” Is nonsense because if everyone had their own individual “meaning” of things then nothing would have any meaning. For God to have meaning for us it is necessary that that meaning comes from outside ourselves and is shared by others.

    Okay, bit of a tangent but I hope it’s useful.

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