I learned a new phrase recently and, since it’s not a phrase I can casually drop into conversation at the dog park to let everyone know how smart I am, I’ve decided to write an article about it instead. The phrase is “sacramental imagination” and it refers to our ability to see signs of God’s grace in the created world.
Most readers of this column are likely aware that the seven sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” This doesn’t mean these seven are the only way grace can come to us; it just means they are particularly good at getting the job done. They open our hearts to receive what God is pouring out in abundance all around us.
Which brings us to the sacramental imagination. This phrase draws attention to the human capacity to grow in our understanding of our infinite God through an appreciation of the finite world we live in, or, as St. Ignatius put it, “to seek God our Lord in all things.” Although we are all able to do this, it seems to me that the creative members of our community are particularly good at it. Whether they are world renowned or just hanging their work on the refrigerator, our visual artists, authors, musicians, architects and (hopefully) our liturgists open our eyes to see God in creation.
And this is where my real motivation lies for writing this article. When I first started exploring the sacramental imagination, I suddenly realized that just knowing this phrase changed the way I think about art. Well, OK, maybe it didn’t change the way I think about it, but it gave me a whole new way of expressing my thoughts.
Unfortunately, the best way of explaining this is to focus on some negative things first. I have found I have a difficult time expressing why I despise certain “works of art.” It’s not just that these works don’t move me. Rather, I actually feel that they are overrated and should never have been created (or at the very least they should have stayed locked away somewhere).
For example, consider HBO’s epic adventure Game of Thrones. Now, you’d think that a sci-fi and fantasy geek such as myself could get behind a series about swords and dragons, but after watching the first season and reading the first three books, I never want to touch the series again. I could handle the sloppy storytelling, but something much worse was ebbing away at me, and I can finally say it was the lack of sacramental imagination in this work.
Many people would disagree with me, and they might even claim that I’m just not catching on to the fact that Game of Thrones is being realistic when it portrays human beings at their worst through scenes of violence, rape, incest and greed. But I would like to point out it is not ugliness or violence that I find repellent; it is the way these negative things have been completely divorced from beauty, goodness and truth.
As a contrast, consider for a moment one of the most moving photographs of the 20th century: Nick Ut’s “Napalm girl,” of a young girl running down a road naked and in visible agony from a napalm attack. This picture is horrendous. It is ugly. It is terrifying. But it still shows the sacramental imagination at work because in its ugliness it moves us closer to God.
When I see this picture I want to run into the scene and help that girl. I want to be a better human being. I want to bring God’s love to her in a way that cuts through the war and violence of this world.
This is what real art does. It’s not just an excuse to be ugly for ugliness’s sake like so many of today’s more popular works of art. Even negative things can bring us closer to God, and if a work of art doesn’t do that for me, particularly as I become more stodgy in my old age, I am very likely to slander it whenever possible (I’m looking at you, Fifty Shades of Grey).
What is perhaps most unfortunate is that the art that brings us away from God is far easier to mass produce than what I would consider true works of art. Our mass consumption of poor art might not be so bad, except this junk food of the soul stops us from seeking out and being nourished by true art.
Fortunately, however, true works of art have a longer lasting effect. From the pillars of Gaudi’s cathedral to a get-well-soon card from a child, there are some works of art that can touch our souls and move us toward our Creator. They remind us of God’s infinite mercy by showing us our own limitations. Through their beauty, they open us to receive the grace of God.
Deutscher holds an MA in Public Ethics from St. Paul University in Ottawa. She recently attained a PhD in public policy at the University of Saskatchewan.