Sacramental Aesthetic: Part III

III. Knowing in the Sacraments

To understand how knowing occurs in the Catholic sacraments, one must first realize the basic and essential composition of a sacrament. Surely, however, a broad venture into sacramental theology here would over-shoot our aims and would call to mind many factors that have nothing to do with our primary investigation. For us, then, it is important to clarify only a few items, thus ensuring that we not overstep the orthodox bounds of what does, in fact, constitute a sacrament in the Catholic sense.

A satisfactory articulation of the Church’s position regarding the essential composition and function of the sacraments can be found in Thomas Aquinas’ discussion of the topic in the Summa Theologiae. Taking into account the Aristotelian rationale that man naturally tends toward knowledge and understanding, Thomas writes thatit is part of man’s nature to acquire knowledge of the intelligible from the sensible…Consequently, since the sacred things which are signified by the sacraments, are the spiritual and intelligible goods by means of which man is sanctified, it follows that the sacramental signs consist in sensible things…And hence it is that sensible things are required for the sacraments. This necessarily sensible and experiential character of the sacraments accordingly presumes that we might treat them as instances of meaningful and aesthetic encounter, as discussed above. Moreover, in the sacraments we find as well the transmission of an objective truth by means of subjective fact—the Person of Christ, who is Truth, positively transmits himself to his Church by way of an efficacious sign—again permitting us to treat the sacraments as meaningful and aesthetic experiences.

In addition to being simply signs of an intelligible reality, though, we must assert strongly that the Catholic sacraments are also avenues of grace, which function in a manner beyond simple ‘significance.’ For Thomas, the sacraments can be seen as fonts of grace in two ways: “First, as in its sign; for a sacrament is a sign of grace. Secondly, as in its cause; for…a sacrament…is an instrumental [efficient] cause of grace.” Here, it seems the diffusion of grace to the faithful completes what is begun in the diffusion of truth via the ‘meaningful experience.’ Both halves of the sacramental whole, as it were, function concurrently and necessarily in order to bring about the fullness of divine auto-communication proper to each sacrament in particular. One sacramental function cannot exist without the other.

If all this is true, what can we say then about the aesthetic quality of the sacramental experience? More precisely, how can we articulate the mode and manner of knowing, which must occur as part of an authentic experience of the sacraments? Initially, and certainly on the most fundamental level, it seems that we should treat the issue from the standpoint of Christ’s self-revelation, and with regard to his identity as “Truth” and “Logos.” Since that objective truth conveyed in the sacraments is not one subjugated to a higher truth, but is rather itself the ultimate Truth (existing in the divine person of Jesus Christ), the meaningful character of sacramental knowledge assumes an entirely unprecedented gravity vis-à-vis all other meaningful and aesthetic experiences in human reality. In fact, the involvement of the person of Christ, who is the truth conveyed as well as the possessor of divine life—a participation in which is conveyed as grace—raises sacramental meaning to an entirely new level of superiority. Nevertheless, despite this unique conveyance of absolute Truth on the part of the divine, the sacraments cannot be seen as conforming to the second (mis)understanding of “aesthetic” discussed above—i.e. one wherein the truth conveyed is meaningful and beautiful even prior to its being experienced by the human subject. While it must be admitted that God in se is both Truth and Beauty—even prior to his being experienced by the external subject—those properties are, by their very qualification, transcendental properties, and are not to be classified in the same manner as the reality of truth or beauty being conveyed through the sacraments. Thus, while God himself does possess an a priori meaningfulness, that reality is not the one encountered in sacramental experience. Rather, it is the self-gift of God to man which is understood in the sacraments, and to that phenomenon we can rightly apply all the criteria of our solid and most accurate definition of “aesthetic” as something neither completely subjective nor objective.

In fact, the means of sacramental knowing seems to exemplify perfectly the synthetic and proper understanding of “aesthetic,” and its ultimate application in the ‘aesthetic experience.’ Nowhere else, it seems, does such a pure form of the aesthetic encounter become manifest as in the sacraments of the Church. There is certainly a precondition for this transmission of knowledge, however, that has not yet been explicitly mentioned: that condition is that the one encountering the Lord in the sacraments must first believe that the God he is encountering is real, and that such a God has the power to efficaciously act within the human world of time and space, namely by way of the Incarnation. Moreover—and really as part in parcel of such a faith—the sacramental participant must be in communion with the Body of Christ in the Catholic Church; otherwise, true knowledge of the Jesus Christ who is found in the Church cannot be the object of such a sacramental encounter. Thereby, sacramental participation loses its genuine meaning from the subjective viewpoint, and its fullness of beauty in the more objective, cooperative sense. Coming to know God sacramentally is only possible if it is the exercise of an authentic fides quaerens intellectum; it is both the ultimate intellectum of the mind and essentificatio of the heart in coming to understand and realize the presence, power and love of the Almighty God for his human creation.

IV. Conclusion

“I shall know the fullness of joy when I see your face, O Lord.” These words from the responsorial of the Divine Office come to be understood most beautifully in the sacramental ministry of the Catholic Church. Although the Christian must always keep as his aim the beatific vision of God in heaven, and therefore a knowing that surpasses all experiential and earthly human knowing, he must nevertheless be willing to realize that such knowledge is indeed prefigured to a great degree through faithful participation in the sacraments. The primary vehicle for this active knowledge of the divine life is the aesthetic value inherent in the sacraments, when properly received; this ‘aesthetic’ reality is also a meaningful one, as we have seen, insofar as absolute truth is being conveyed to the finite subject by way of a factual yet ever-mysterious means. The coexistence of both fact and meaning is precisely the context for true beauty, which is neither completely objective nor subjective, but rather depends on the confluence of both in order to be fully manifested. As the image of God the Father, Jesus Christ, who himself is Truth, Beauty and Logos, appears most substantially to us in the sacraments of his Church; it is by means of the Church that he has chosen to be made present to the world, and by way of the Church that he desires to be actively known in his sacramental presence. Thus, we can see that the Catholic sacraments convey a real and sure knowledge of God that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world of human experience.