I was recently asked, is it possible to encounter God on my own without the rites of the Church? The short answer is yes. As Joseph Ratzinger reminds us, “[God] Himself determines the mode of His presence.”1 The Catechism also reminds us that it is God who has the sovereign power to reveal Himself to us throughout history in various ways, including words and deeds.2 God spoke to our ancient fathers through prophets and dreams. Thereafter, He remarkably and mercifully revealed Himself to us through His Son, Jesus Christ, God incarnate.3 In salvation history, the Word became flesh and we were able to encounter God face-to-face on the streets of Nazareth, the sea of Galilee, and every desert and mountain between Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
However, the sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.”4 This is cause for celebration! The sacraments present an opportunity for us to encounter God in a tangible way: “the authentication of the divine in the human.”5 Just as the invisible became visible in the person of Jesus, the sacraments provide a glimpse of the eternal in what will be while also being a reminder of what already is, namely, the reality of the Risen Lord revealed to us in the Paschal Mystery. God has already claimed us as His own, paid with the blood of His only Begotten Son. Therefore, we gather together as His people to celebrate God’s desire to be in relationship with us (with me!) through worship and praise, prayer, and an authentic desire to be in His presence!
For those who trust and believe, the sacraments provide an opportunity to take part in God’s salvific plan for us. We know we will encounter God and we have a role to play in meeting Him. This reminds me of the story of Elisha in the Old Testament when he was told to dig ditches before the water came.6 God has already done the work, but we can also prepare the way. We can lean into His plan for us – by digging basins or by bending our knees at a pew in church. Thus, the rites provide us with an opportunity to prepare for our encounter with God.
In modernity it is often said that attending church is merely a ritual that is void of meaning and lacks an authentic encounter with the divine. However, those who believe know that Mass is our faithful participation in a miracle. This cannot be overstated. God asks us to trust Him and wait. If we believe that God is who we say He is,7 then we can manifest our own invisible faith in our visible acts of obedience. We can not only seek Him first,8 but we can do so in precisely the manner Christ intended.9
The criticism that the rites are mere pomp and circumstance is fair if we show up to participate in the sacraments without profound conviction. As Josef Pieper says, this is where the demand for desacralization becomes both “understandable and indeed inevitable.”10 However, we can reinforce the sacredness of the rite by our own sacred actions and, specifically, by our public worship (i.e., ad cultum divinum).11 Pieper’s position is grounded in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. Our Church fathers said that the presence of the divine occurs more intensively in the sacred action. Indeed, Pieper notes that “sacred action” requires “celebration”.12 The sacramental rites are celebrated as a “social function, the ‘sacred action’ … is furthermore a physical event, manifested in visible forms, in audible language of call and response, in bodily movements and symbolic gestures .…”13 According to Aquinas, this allows us to express “honest” worship in concrete images which is difficult for the mind to grasp in the abstract.14
Desacralization gains traction when it is purely human performance. In that sense, the rituals of the Church could be considered modern examples of the pharisees and their empty gestures. Or, if we are pursuing Jesus by living our best Christian life, the sacramental rites will be efficacious instruments helping us to transcend this world and encounter God in precisely the way Jesus intended to dispense divine life to us.
Ratzinger reminds us that we were created by God and to God. “Man is known and loved by God in another way than all the other beings below him – known in order to know in return, loved in order to love in return.”15 The rites are a sacramental bridge that connect us to the divine through a mechanism which God created for us to be in harmony with Himself. The sacraments therefore allow us to enter into the salvation history which Christ created for us on the Cross. In this way, we get a foretaste of our eternal future and unity with God. Ratzinger puts it this way, “the chain of the horizontal that binds man has become in Christ the guide rope of salvation that pulls us to the shore of God’s eternity.”16
Must I encounter God within the rites of the Church? No. As Christians we trust in God’s loving revelation and tender mercies to meet us in every corner of our lives.17 Nevertheless, the sacraments are the primary means by which the Church brings the grace of God to His faithful. Therefore, we participate in the sacraments to publicly proclaim that we believe God has made a place for us – for me, specifically – to encounter Him. The sacrifice of the Mass and the other rites of the Church continually open up a space for me to be united with His eternal love. This we can trust. It is promised to us. Indeed, “the holy signs of the sacraments [provide a] guarantee of a divine answer in which the open question of being human arrives at its goal and comes to its fulfillment.”18
- Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy: The Sacramental Foundation of Christian Existence (2014), p. 167. ↩︎
- Catechism of the Catholic Church (“CCC”) 69. ↩︎
- CCC 65; Heb. 1:1-2. ↩︎
- CCC 1131. ↩︎
- Id. at 158. ↩︎
- 2 Kings 3:4-27. ↩︎
- God is who He say He is. The open question is, do we believe? ↩︎
- Matt. 6:33. ↩︎
- As an aside, this is also why we pray the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught us to pray “like this”. (Matt 6:9) So, we can either rattle through the Our Father as an empty ritual, or we can hang on every word knowing that there is eternal power and infinite meaning in what Jesus taught. ↩︎
- Josef Pieper, In Search of the Sacred (1969), p. 21. ↩︎
- Id. at 25. ↩︎
- Id. at 26. ↩︎
- Id. ↩︎
- Id. at 27. ↩︎
- See J.Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy at 162. ↩︎
- Id. at 164. ↩︎
- G.K. Chesterton famously said that God could be found at the brothel door. ↩︎
- Id. at 168. ↩︎