Posts Tagged ‘Sacraments’

Stone_CircleAfter part two of this series, which dealt with the ancient Celtic belief in the overlapping of the natural and the supernatural, this might seem redundant.  But I think of it as follows:

Man is a composite creature, made of both spirit and matter, soul and body.  Most religious systems will, in some way or other, attempt to appeal to both aspects of human nature.  Wednesday’s topic pertained more to the spiritual side of man’s religiosity, whereas this one pertains more to the material side.

It’s also necessary to mention that Celtic culture was by no means unique in what we are going to be talking about.  In fact, the ancient Romans coined the phrase genius loci, referring in a nutshell to a particular locality — be it a village, a hill, a tree, a very small geographic area, etc. — that was associated with a particular god or spirit that made its residence there and/or presided over it as guardian or protector.  From North America to China, from the barbarous lands of Northern Europe to the sun-kissed wilds of Africa, the ancient world abounded with similar notions.

But what we will call “inspirited places” are no less an important part of Celtic culture for their universality — just as cake, as a celebratory item, belongs to birthdays and other celebrations just as much as to weddings, but is not therefore any less of a wedding fixture.

Bru_na_BoinneFirst, let us note the great earthen mounds scattered throughout Ireland.  Known as sídhe, these were believed to conceal the underground abodes of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a fabled race of gods or fairies that inhabited the island before the Celts came along.OwenagcatRelatedly, certain places — such as this cave in County Roscommon — were believed to be passageways to otherworld.  Had to mention that, as I feel it gives us an interesting connection to the previous post.

Like the otherworldly beliefs of the Celts, this stood in need of some correction.  But I would venture to say that what it communicated, deep down, was the desire — and perhaps Divinely inspired, subconscious preparation for — a robust spirituality in which the material world was incorporated, thereby becoming a means of access to the Divine. What would this have been preparing people for, specifically?  In brief, the sacramental life of the Church. Seven SacramentsLet’s look very briefly at just what a sacrament is:

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. (T)he visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131 (bold mine)

The Church’s sacraments are seven in number.  Divine grace is dispensed mainly through human words, signs, and actions in these sacraments; but material elements like water, wine, bread, and oil are used as the very material of these sacraments and as conduits of grace.

From the sacramental life of the Church comes a deeply embodied spirituality that announces itself through everything from votive candles to icons, stained-glass windows, statues of the saints, crucifixes, incense, shrines, Rosary beads, the distinctive garb of priests and religious, Gregorian chant, customary devotions and rituals, etc.


And yes, this embodied spirituality includes places.  Granted, we do not hold to the belief in genius loci; but there are places that God chooses as privileged meeting places between Him and believers, or as places specially suited to the gift of graces to those who are properly disposed.   In some cases, places are hallowed by the relics of saints who devoted their lives to God, as well as by the prayers and presence of saints and the blessings of bishops. Many of these places have been destinations for Christian pilgrims over the years, and their pilgrimages have almost always involved certain practices aimed at spiritual renewal and transformation.

In the wake of St. Patrick’s work, Ireland has certainly had its share of such places, many of which are associated with St. Patrick.  Here are a few:


Lough Derg (Ulster)


The Struell Wells (County Down)

Croagh_PatrickCroagh Patrick (County Mayo — which, incidentally, is where my great-grandfather was born)

EucharistI’ll just say one more thing, and then I’ll shut up.  The foundation of the Catholic sacramental view of the world is the Incarnation of the Son of God; His Incarnational Presence is perpetually available to us in the Eucharist, which is the greatest and most sublime of all sacraments.  Once the priest speaks the words of consecration over the bread and wine, these latter literally become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, retaining only the sensory qualities of bread and wine.

In this, we see the whole purpose not only of human existence, but of the material world, which is in many ways ordered and drawn toward the Eucharist.  In offering the bread and wine to God at Mass, we are offering the whole of God’s creation back to Him; these are then given back to us with immeasurably greater worth…again, as the very Body and Blood of Christ, the Second Person of the Blessèd Trinity.  In this, we see our mission in relation to the created world, which we are called to order toward the worship of God.  He can thereby graciously hallow it, just as He hallowed creation by “resting” on the Seventh Day (see Genesis 2: 2-3).

Images from Wikipedia

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I was recently involved in a conversation about infant baptism.  A lot of people question the practice, and there are some who outright object to it.  To be fair, it’s not easy for people of our age and culture to understand.  But I’d like to take a moment to try and explain it a little, for anyone who would like to read it.

The objection goes something like this: “A baby is not capable of making a spiritual commitment or of putting his/her faith in Christ.  Therefore, to baptize an infant really doesn’t make sense.”

Let’s give the other side their due: Infants are certainly not capable of a leap of faith.  But it is equally true to say that infants are incapable of feeding themselves.  Are we, for that reason, going to refrain from feeding them?  Should we not, according to the aforementioned logic, be saying, “It would make no sense to feed them now; let’s wait until they get old enough to decide for themselves what they like to eat”?

Spiritual nourishment is no less important than physical nourishment, and Christian parents have understood that from the earliest centuries.  I understand why people today have a different idea, since our modern Western culture tends more toward an emphasis on personal autonomy and responsibility (that, too, has an indispensable place in the spiritual life — that would be more what the sacrament of Confirmation is all about).  But there’s one key thing we have to remember about the spiritual life of any person.

Here it is…

God must act first.

Apart from grace, we cannot live the spiritual life.

“Yes,” my fellow debater will reply, “but God already did that through Jesus Christ on the Cross.”

You will get no argument from me there.  But one of the greatest and most exciting things about God’s work in the world is that He does not despise space, time, and matter.  Indeed, He acts in and through material things, which become the means of our contact with Him.  That’s what the sacramental life is all about.

Far from adding to or taking away from the Sacrifice of Christ, Baptism is how that saving Sacrifice becomes applied to the individual particularly.  It is the door to the spiritual life, to the divine life that God wants to share with us not just hereafter, but here and now.

There are a lot of issues to address when it comes to infant baptism, and there’s a lot more I could say about it.  But I think this post is long enough.  Maybe I’ll return to this topic another time.  Thanks for reading.

Image from Wikipedia

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