No one recognizes the power of a symbol like the Catholic Church. Catholic theology itself is imbued with the law that the physical order is a reflection of the spiritual order. It is a theology that is deeply tied to the Philosophy of the Human Person which understands man as a composite of body and soul. The Church rejects the degradation of man to a mere animal just as She rejects the elevation of man to the level of an angel, spirit, or mind. As poor theology often stems from bad philosophy, it is important to recognize that the theology of the symbol – the physical as a reflection of the spiritual – is the logical fruit of a realistic vision of the human person as a composite of body and soul. Theology builds on reason, otherwise, God would be contradicting that which He created.
The Power of a Symbol
The power of a symbol is most powerfully expressed in the Church’s Sacramental Theology. “Sacrament” in the absolute most general sense possible, really has to do with any material action or element that represents a spiritual truth. A “sacrament” broadly speaking, combines two related elements: material and spiritual. In this general sense, even a handshake can be considered as a “sacrament,” as the physical grasping of two hands represents the spiritual truth of friendship. Venerable Fulton Sheen, along with this line of reasoning, also notes that
A spoken word is a kind of sacrament, because there is something material or audible about it; there is also something spiritual about it, namely, its meaning” (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, These are the Sacraments, page 5).
If one can’t see the value of symbolism in everyday life, then they certainly won’t understand what the Church means by “sacrament” in the strict theological sense. In theology, a sacrament is a “signum sacro sanctum efficax gratiae” – “a sacred sign producing grace.” The difference between the symbolism of a theological sacrament and the symbolism of everyday life is that the symbolic elements are efficacious in the Seven Sacraments. A stop sign symbolizes the need to stop, but, as we have all seen, it certainly doesn’t make people stop in and of itself! The Seven Sacraments, however, are efficacious in and of themselves, and so if celebrated in accordance with the norms of the Church will bring about that which they symbolize.
The Seven Sacraments
The Seven Sacraments are “efficacious signs” – they bring about that which they symbolize. One of the reasons why I the love the Catholic Church so much is because She is eminently realistic. Having a body, the human person naturally understands through the physical order. For this reason, the Seven Sacraments use physical elements to bring about that which they symbolize.
The essential material element used in Baptism, for example, is water. We commonly use water to clean, and so this is the effect that water has on the soul in the Sacrament of Baptism. Just as water is also necessary for physical living, the waters of Baptism are necessary for life in the spiritual order. There is never anything meaningless in the liturgical and sacramental rituals of the Church, take some time to understanding the physical elements used and actions performed, and, in doing so, you’ll better understand the spiritual significance of the sacraments themselves. One of the major problems in the modern world is the failure to have a “sacramental outlook.”
The physical order is a reflection of the spiritual order, but the world has eliminated the spiritual order altogether and so the physical order is a reflection of, at best, ourselves, and, at worse, nothing. Modern man has become quite boring, he is like the person who never understands any jokes because he cannot penetrate the meaning of the joke. It takes a sacramental outlook to see the beauty that lies hidden in a mountaintop, an ocean, a great work of art, or another person.
Through the natural world, God is teaching the human person how to recognize the essential spiritual and metaphysical goodness, beauty, and truth that lies hidden in creation. God does this as a pedagogical tool so that when one tries to understand the theology of the Seven Sacraments, they won’t be surprised, because they already have seen how creation radiates with spiritual truth.
The “Sacramental Outlook”
The modern world doesn’t radiate God, it radiates nothing, literally. If the modern world has destroyed the spiritual order, then there is nothing to symbolize, and, if there is nothing to symbolize, then what’s the point of making anything beautiful? Have you noticed the absence of decorations in modern buildings? Have you noticed the lack of beauty in modern art? If there is no spiritual order to symbolize, then there is no need for physical objects. The modern world is sterile because it has forgotten how to have a “sacramental outlook.”
St. Augustine defined sin as “a word, deed, or desire in opposition to the eternal law,” but, in the context of the sacraments, I think sin can be understood as an action that separates the physical act from its spiritual and heavenly significance. Again, from These are the Sacraments, Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes,
One of the reasons why a stolen kiss is often resented is that it is not sacramental; it has the carnal side without the spiritual side; that is, the willingness to exchange a mark of esteem or affection.
Remember that it is the physical that reflects the spiritual, to use the physical world in the wrong way would be to lie about that which the physical is supposed to symbolize by nature. Like using a spoon to cut steak and a steak knife to scoop ice cream, when physical elements aren’t used in accordance with their loftier purpose and significance, they fail to live up to their nature.
Let us continue to foster a “sacramental outlook” that we might continue to value the power of the symbol, and so learn the true meaning of a world imbued by God to reflect His goodness, truth, and beauty.