Absurd acts

November 2, 2011

Monks and poets both value image and symbol over utilitarian purpose or the bottom line; they recognize the transformative power hiding in the simplest things, and it leads them to commit absurd acts: the poem! the prayer! What nonsense! … Maybe monks and poets know, as Jesus did when a friend, in an extravagant, loving gesture, bathed his feet in nard, an expensive, fragrant oil, and wiped them with her hair, that the symbolic act matters.

-Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk

The symbolic act matters. I don’t know if I would have agreed with that statement 2 or 3 years ago. But more and more, I am learning that I need the symbolic act—the kneeling in worship, the eating of the bread and drinking of the wine—to help me see. My heart sometimes needs some nudging from my knees or my hands, and it is this connection between body and mind that I didn’t really used to buy. Maybe I thought I was beyond it? That these symbols—so tangible and obvious—were too blatant, or maybe too simple and child-like?

But now, I love these symbols—the Eucharist, the laying of hands and anointing with oil—and I need them. I know myself more…I know that I am easily distracted, that I need to be reminded, that I don’t understand yet. Sacraments are, in a sense, “extensions of the Incarnation into the present.” God communicates His invisible grace through visible symbols…grace  I receive regardless of how I feel, because I receive the bread with my hands, and the wine with my lips.

And when I learn to cherish the sacraments, to receive them with the wonder of a child, I start to see the world around me differently. I start to notice other visible signs of invisible grace, imperfect but still whispering Christ’s presence. And I know one reason Kathleen Norris compares the poet with the monk: both see life steeped in metaphor. If, as G.K. Chesterton suggests, “everything is stooping and hiding a face,” then metaphor is necessary.

This week in Inquirer’s class, Father Scarlett reminded us that, in the world to come, there will not be sacraments because the whole creation will, once again, be a perfect sacrament…including me.

When I am quiet enough to see well, I remember that, even now, “each Christian is a sacramental person, a sign of Christ’s presence and a mediator of grace.” If I let it, this can change my interactions with my housemates, my boyfriend, my teachers. I can recognize and receive grace from them, and pray that moments of frustration  become opportunities for me to give grace.

Of course, this hasn’t proved easy—its not one of those things that I can learn simply by praying one of those sweeping prayers in the morning (is anything?). It’s a moment by moment learning, a too-rushed prayer, and I choose anger more than I want to.

Transformation is a slow process and grace is hard to learn, but the sacraments are offered week after week, and grace is promised each moment.