Allow me to begin with a story. Some insights of our human heart are so deep that only a story can help us bring them home to ourselves and share them with others. The basic sense of what we call in abstract terms, “sacramental life,” is one of those deep insights. The story I have chosen comes out of the Biblical tradition. Yet, the basic insight expressed in it belongs to the common treasure of all religions and will be found in stories from many different traditions in the East as well as in the West.
Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the Mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here I am. And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place where on thou standest is holy ground. Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. (Exodus 3: 1-6)
Has this story become too familiar to make us still awestruck? Or can we recover the power of this vision? A bush ablaze, yet unharmed! It is one of the images that left a lasting impression on the religious mind throughout the ages, lasting because reinforced by daily fresh experience. In its immediate context, the blazing flame amidst the desert bramble stands for the divine Presence among God’s people; it stands for “the Holy One of Israel.” But in a more general sense the thornbush burning, yet unburnt, is a daily sight — daily, yet ever amazing — for a heart that sees all things aflame with divine fire.
How staggering is the paradox that shines from the Burning Bush becomes clear only when later prophets translate that image into the formula, “the Holy One in the midst of you.” We must remember that holiness here does not mean moral perfection so much as God’s unimaginable otherness. The paradox bursts upon us when we encounter that unimaginably other One in the midst of what is most familiar to us.
Two attitudes are apt to blind us to that encounter: worldliness and otherworldliness. Worldliness sees merely the bramble; otherworldliness sees merely the fire. But to see, with the eyes of the heart, one in the midst of the other, that is the secret of sacramentality. We shall never understand that secret as long as we look for it in someone else’s report, no matter how exalted the experience reported. That is why I must appeal to your own unique personal encounter with the “Burning Bush.” Psychology calls those moments of private vision in which reality appears transfigured “peak experiences.” We all have had these experiences, though some people are more alert to them than others, or more ready to admit them. Peak experiences are always a gift, a surprise. In a flash the things at hand are seen in a new light that slakes the thirst of our heart for ultimate meaning.
Although I repeat that you will have to remember a peak experience of your own in order to understand sacramentality let me prime the pump by quoting an account by a friend of mine, Don Johnson:
“I walked out onto a dock in the Gulf of Mexico, I ceased to exist. I experienced being a part of the sea breeze, the movement of the water and the fish, the light rays cast by the sun, the colors of the palms and tropical flowers. I had no sense past or future. It was not a particularly blissful experience: it was terrifying. It was the kind of ecstatic experience I’d invested a lot of energy in avoiding. I did not experience myself as the same as the water, the wind, and the light, but as participating with them in the same system of movement. We were all dancing together!” (note 1).
“Together” is the key word here. A peak experience is a moment when we “get it all together” as is commonly said. All those rifts and cracks of separation, polarity, alienation, which we ordinarily experience are healed in one glance. “Like a saint ‘s vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things as they seem drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second you see… For a second there is meaning” (note 2). This is the secret of which you catch sight: everything has meaning. And one glimpse of that secret makes everything whole. The secret is the secret of sacramentality, the mystery that God’s life is communicated through all things, just as meaning is communicated through words. The two belong together, meaning and word, God and the world. The two belong together, without confusion, and inseparable: meaning and word, God and the world.
Unless Moses had been taking care of the sheep, he never would have come upon the Burning Bush.
“He dwells (all of Him dwells) within the seed of the smallest flower and is not cramped: Deep Heaven is inside Him who is inside the seed and does not distend Him. Blessed be He!” (note 3). ”For a second you see — and seeing the secret, are the secret!” (note 4). You are the secret because you are seeing it with the eyes of your heart. No other eyes can see it. But being centered in our heart means being together — with ourselves; together with God, who is always closer to me than I am to myself, together in community with all.
For this reason sacramental life always unfolds in community, together. It is never a private affair, though it is deeply personal. Sacramentality is the secret that in our great Earth Household all communicate to all, in a myriad different ways, the life of the Holy One in the midst of us. The many communities, churches, communes, are merely pointers toward that one great family of God, more or less successful models and partial realizations of it. Their celebrations of life are somehow sacraments, because life itself is sacramental.
Rightly understood the sacraments of the Christian churches are not self-contained boxes conveying divine grace. They are focal points of that divine fire which makes all life sacramental. It is hard to imagine someone truly understanding the Lord’s Supper, for instance, without having learned to look with the eyes of the heart at the robin gulping down an earthworm to feed her young in the nest. The universal law that life must give its life to feed new life simply mirrors the surpassing mystery that through God’s love we have life — God’s life — by the very death of God. This mystery of the Eucharist comes into focus whenever a community shares a meal mindfully, gratefully.
Biblical tradition (Jewish, Christian, Islamic) sees with particular clarity that sacramental life is realized in time, in history. This is how the Rabbis put it: unless Moses had been taking care of the sheep, he never would have come upon the Burning Bush. Unless we serve life, in the give and take which this involves on all levels, we shall never discover its sacramental power. That togetherness in which sacramental life is rooted includes the dimensions of time, of history, of struggle, of suffering, of service. Moses not only came upon the Burning Bush in the midst of his daily work as a shepherd, but this vision compelled him to struggle for the liberation of his people.
There is only one condition for seeing life sacramentally: “Take off your shoes!” Realize that the ground on which we stand is holy ground. The act of taking off our shoes is a gesture of thanksgiving and it is through thanksgiving that we enter into sacramental life.
Going barefoot actually helps! There is no more immediate way of getting in touch with reality than direct physical contact. To feel the difference between walking on sand, on grass, on smooth granite warmed by the sun, on the forest floor; to let the pebbles hurt us for a while; to squeeze the mud between our toes. There are so many ways of gratefully touching God’s healing power through the earth. Whenever we take off the dullness of being-used-to it, of taking things for granted, life in all its freshness touches us and we see that all life is sacramental. If we could measure our aliveness, surely it is the degree to which we are in touch with the Holy One as the inexhaustible fire in the midst of all things.
— Br. David Steindl-Rast
1. Don Johnson, The Protean Body, A Rolfer’s View of Human Flexibility (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), p.129
2. Eugene O’ Neil, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Act 4.
3. C.. S. Lewis, Perelandra (New York; Macmillan 1947), p. 230.
4. O’Neil, op.cit.
Reprinted from Warm Wind: The Chinook Learning Community Journal (Volume II, 1979, Number 1).