Catholic Cosmological Theology: Sacramentals

Sacramentals are the second aspect of Catholic cosmological theology. Where sacramentality is universal and abstracted, sacramentals are more personal and specific. Sacramentality is meant for man in the universal sense. Sacramentals are meant for persons in the specific sense. Sacramentals, then, is the realization of sacramentality for individuals.

Like sacramentality there is also a very specific Christian nature to sacramentals. Sacramentals, in Christianity, are the personal and specified ways God uses corporeal matter to bestow his grace. Sacramental Christianity, which is found mostly in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, but also among Anglicans and High Church Lutherans, points to Jesus healing the blind man with mud (matter) as evidence for sacramentals (Jn. 9:1-12). One might also look to Jesus healing the blind man at Bethesda with spit (Mk. 8:22-26). Jesus did not snap his fingers to heal the blind men in either story. Jesus used specific material substances to heal the blind men.

Sacramentals are understood in this way. Sacramentals are specific material substances God uses to bestow grace into the world. The most famous sacramental in Christianity is probably holy water.

But like with sacramentality, I wish to explore the broader understanding of sacraments apart from the instituted practices of the Church which will be more the focus of the third part of this essay series.

Where sacramentality, as stated, is universal and abstracted, sacramentals are personal and specific. Sacramentals to relate to specific persons. In this sense sacramentals serve as the logic consequence of the sacramented worldview. Sacramentals are the specific things in your life that make you see God or experience God. In this way sacramentals are deeply personal because humans are not homogenous bland constructions of sameness but very specific creatures with unique desires and experiences and histories.

To highlight an example, Amy might see God in animals but not in trees. For various reasons pertaining to Amy her sacramentals are animals. John, meanwhile, doesn’t see God in animals but sees God in trees. For reasons pertaining to John his sacramentals are trees.

Perhaps you had a grandparent who smoked, and your grandparent also happened to be a very holy and religious person. When you encounter cigarettes in your life, for whatever reason, you think of God through the cigarette because you are reminded of God through your grandparent whose sacramental sign is the cigarette. In this way sacramentals can also be people. Really holy people are images of God in the way they live. This is not to fall into idolatry and worship the sacramentals as God—like what the Israelites did in leaving Egypt with the Golden Calf—but this is to say people, or specific things, are signs, signifiers, pointing you to God.

Sacramentality logically entails sacramentals. For sacramentals are the personal, specific, relatable things in the world that signify God in your life. If all creation exists as a thing and sign, then it stands that certain things become the signs in your life. Sacramentals relate to persons. To return to the oft-cited example used by Christians for the theology of sacramentals, the blind man healed by mud has a very specific, personal, relatable, sacramental. This was to him and him alone. Likewise, the other story of Jesus healing a different blind man has a different sacramental. Jesus put spit on his eyes to heal him. Different person. Different matter. Different sacramental.

Sacramentals, then, are the specific things in the world that remind you, personally, or signify to you, personally, of God. Sacramentals serve as the movement toward a more concrete realization of enchantment. And this movement to a more concrete realization of enchantment is where Catholic cosmological theology ends: The Sacraments, then, are the most concrete and particular conduits which signify God to people. (In the case of Christian specificity, God may use sacramentals to bestow his grace to people, as was the case with the blind men.)


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