Carolyn Zimmer – Blog Post 1

by Jan 20, 2024Students

Can we encounter God outside of the rites of the Church? Look, far be it from me to say that you cannot encounter God outside of the sacraments. In fact, Josef Pieper explains that ”…no theology of the sacraments has ever taught God’s gracious acts to be contingent on our liturgies, on sacred places and times…”[1] I think asking the question implies a view of the sacraments as a constraint. But God does not want things from us; he wants things for us. The sacraments, instead of being a way to minimize the way that God interacts with us are actually God’s way of bestowing his grace to us as a gift whilst recognizing the way he created us.

The pervasive understanding in today’s culture is fundamentalist – things are merely things.[2] Joseph Ratzinger explains in Theology of the Liturgy that such an understanding is untrue. Human beings have a sacramental existence. We are material, but we are also something more. He talks about what he calls “creation sacraments” which “develop at the important junctures of human existence and reveal both a picture of the essence of man and also the nature of his relation to God.”[3] The four creation sacraments he discusses are birth, death, sexual relations, and a meal. Although all four of those are biological events, we inherently understand that what is happening during those, (when rightly ordered) is more than merely biological. Think of the birth of your children if you have any. Or think of having a meal. Eating is a biological function. All animals eat. However, humans have a meal. The biological act of eating becomes something more. Ratzinger explains, “…a meal creates community, eating is complete only when it happens in company, and human coexistence achieves its fullness in the community of nourishment that unites everyone in the common interest of receiving the gifts of the earth.”[4]

Similar to how a meal is more than just material food, humans are not mainly material bodies with spirits dusted on top like the sprinkles on a cake. Nor are we mainly spirits with material bodies imprisoning us until we are released by death. Humans are both bodies and souls. Ratzinger explains that man “himself is spirit only from body and body only from spirit…” [5] God recognizes that we are both body and spirit and therefore he meets us in a material and spiritual way. Philippians 2: 6-7 tells us that “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” God transcends his transcendence to become a human and relate to us on a human level. Ratzinger goes on to explain that the “divine element can meet [man] in no other way than in the sphere in which he has his humanity, namely, through the medium of common humanity and corporeality, without which he would necessarily cease to be a man.”[6] The sacraments extend the logic of the Incarnation. They enable us to transcend the material world and receive spiritual graces while remaining rooted in the “historical context that comes from Christ.”[7]

Without a clear understanding of the sacraments, they can appear as though we believe they are magic tricks. “If we do these certain things, then God has to do XYZ.” Josef Pieper explains that magic is an attempt to control supernatural powers to make them serve human purposes.[8] The sacraments are effective, not because we as humans have followed a specific formula, but because of God’s grace.[9] We should not think of it as “If humans do ABC, God has to do XYZ.” Rather, “God has promised that if humans do ABC, he will be faithful and dispense his grace upon us.” And God knows our hearts. He knows if the person performing the action has any intention of doing what the sacrament implies[10], or if the recipient does not willing accept the graces with devotion and faith.[11] And he knows we are not perfect, so he does not withhold his grace based on the disposition of the minister.[12] The formulas and formality of the sacraments is less about God being nit-picky and has more to do with “the inherent quality of not being at any one’s disposal, the same way a completed poem may not be changed at will.”[13]

If you ask me, “Can I encounter God outside the rites of the Church?” is the wrong question. I think the better question is “Am I rejecting a gift that God is offering to me?” If I reject the sacraments, am I rejecting the way he established to interact with me in favor of encountering him in a way that is more comfortable to me, or makes more sense to me, or seems less strange to me? Am I rejecting the gift he wants to give in favor of a gift I would prefer to receive? Because I think we can all agree, that God loves us more than we love ourselves, and he wants more for us than we want for ourselves. So let’s entrust ourselves to him in the sacraments that he so generously established for us, and see where he leads us. My guess is that it will be above and beyond anywhere we could have imagined ourselves.

[1] Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, pg. 38

[2] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, pg. 154

[3] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, pg. 156

[4] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, pg. 157

[5] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, pg. 158

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, pg. 163

[8] Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, pg. 36

[9] Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, pg. 37

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, pg. 38

[12] Ibid.

[13] Pieper, In Search of the Sacred, pg. 40