Toward A Sacramental Poetics. Edited by Regina M. Schwartz and Patrick J. McGrath. South Bend: University of Notre Dame Press, 2021.
Commuting into the city on summer mornings via train and car poses a regular opportunity for reflection on modern life. After all, the train and the automobile uniquely emblematize modern life. My commute routinely put me in mind of the historian Henry Adams’ reflections in the early twentieth century on rapidly modernizing transportation. Adams writes that he
began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, …Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.
Somewhat prophetically, Adams saw that the increasing industrialization of the twentieth century would enshrine a new sort of techno-religious sentiment. Adams’ words hint at his belief that modernity traded an older sense of a transcendent order for a new order – one of the machine, the “huge wheel.”
A century or so later, any commuter waiting on a train platform – looking about at her fellows with their straight, monochrome suits and ever-present earbuds – can intuitively assent to Adam’s ideas. For Adam’s words reverberate today: we move as cogs in that huge wheel.
Life as a cog is, in part, what Toward a Sacramental Poetics strives against. In their introduction to the volume, editors Regina M. Schwartz and Patrick J. McGrath inquire how a sacred vision of the world might provide an alternative to the mechanical and secular vision we cannot avoid on train platforms or on social media platforms, in undergraduate classrooms or in our public discourse. “The secular vision largely gives us a world of dead objects. They can be assessed, measured, categorized, used, instrumentalized as sites of power or of play, but these dead objects are not redolent of meaning,” write Schwartz and McGrath.
The objects of our world, to the secular mind, “are acted upon, perhaps, but they do not interact with us. The sun is a burning sphere that planets move around; it is not the source of warmth and life, or renewal and rebirth.”
Contrary to such an instrumentalizing perspective, a mind that acknowledges the sacred beholds the interactive and living nature of the world. A “sacramental poetics” – that is, the literature, art, and worldview that emanate from such a sacred vision – celebrates with gratitude a universe aglow with transcendent beauty and order, wherein the sun is not merely a burning sphere but a sign, and people are not merely cogs in a huge wheel but participants in a living gift. In the sacred vision, signs – including words, objects, beings, artworks – reach beyond the instrumental. In the sacred vision, signs may still signify something beyond materiality. Signs point to something greater than mere material bodies.
In their introduction, Schwartz and McGrath trace how the sacred worldview of the medieval mind has progressed through the Reformation and into modernity. They maintain that man’s longing for mystical participation in God’s sacred order – manifested in the Church’s practices of the Eucharist and then, too, in Reformation-era poetics and perspectives on creation – continues even in our day, dominated though it is by Adams’ “huge wheel” and the seeming overbearing burden of our secular culture.
The essays collected in this book “grew out of responses given at the American Academy of Religion” to McGrath’s 2008 Sacramental Poetics: “The contributors demonstrate the endurance of sacramental poetics. Necessarily drawing upon two discourses, theological and literary… these essays prove that the broad range of sacramental significance can never be exhausted.”
The book’s first pair of essays surveys sacramentality and translation: Rowan Williams contends in “Cloven Tongues: Theology and the Translation of the Scriptures” that a text’s translator participates in the processes of God’s revelation. Though translation functions as a vessel through which sacred Scripture may be transmitted into a multiplicity of languages, translation is “provisional,” leaving untouched that which is untranslatable. But the imperfection of translation points not to failure but grace – in Williams’ words, not an “irremediable fragmentation of meaning but of the persistence of Word and Spirit.” Subha Mukherji, through Jonson, Shakespeare, and Herbert, considers participatory translation, as well, though in the broader sense of personal transformation. Like Williams, she maintains that transformation may not be total – but transformation, like translation, testifies to sacramental mystery even in its imperfections.
Two essays on sacramental aesthetics follow, ranging from Dante’s sacramental imagination to the compositional practices of the Christian poet. Two essays then examine the relation of sacramental poetics to political thinking: while John Milbank considers the integration of ecclesial and political communities in Richard Hooker’s thought, Hent de Vries considers how the Eucharist may or may not image the political body.
After aesthetics and politics, essays on metaphysics illuminate some of the fundamental ideas of the sacred mind. Jean-Luc Marion’s essay “Going Around Metaphysics” explores human love of the divine. Marion elucidates how an epistemology through love and relationship resolves the logical tensions of metaphysics. Love as a method of knowledge of God eases the metaphysical difficulties of knowledge as a prerequisite for love, as Marion’s essay implies. Likewise, Ingolf U. Dalferth’s examination of the “real presence” of the Eucharist explores divine love of humanity. God’s love – his presence in and with his creation – “confers a surplus of meaning” on humanity. That God would become incarnate in the world, both in the person of Jesus and through the sacrament of the Eucharist, reveals the importance of humanity in the cosmos.
In the book’s final sequence of essays, Lori Branch and Paul Mariani focus specifically on sacramental poetics in modernity. Branch explores Bram Stoker’s Dracula; Mariani looks to Hopkins and Merton as Franciscan exemplars; both explore transcendence in the midst of a new modernity. Mariani expresses how Hopkins, Merton, and other modern figures are still able to recognize “the dimension of the sacramental vision, the sense in which the divine is able to manifest itself in all of creation, no matter how grand or small or seemingly insignificant.” Understanding and recognizing this is essential to understanding Hopkins and Merton among other modern poets who retain that spirit of sacrality to their writings.
All of the essays in this volume valiantly gaze upon that “dimension of the sacramental vision” that Mariani highlights in Hopkins and Merton. From translation to politics, each consideration of sacramental poetics maintains, with Hopkins, that the grandeur of God cannot be shaken off from the world despite the hold of secularism and materialism. Some of the considerations – such as Marion’s and Dalferth’s in-depth discussions of love – may be more directly applicable to readers’ mental lives than some of the more specified, academic subjects, like sacramental politics. Every essay in this volume is rigorous in style and academic in nature and, as such, requires committed attention from the reader.
But such committed attention is worthwhile. If not for the rich literary and theological arguments set forth in Towards a Sacramental Poetics, readers will find that committed attention to this volume yields, in the very least, hope for the future. This volume blossoms from a hope for a renewed sense of transcendence in our day. Despite the force of Adams’ huge wheel, some, as this volume attests, remain rooted in and are moving towards a sacral view of poetics, aesthetics, and all of life. This is something we can all benefit from in recovering and Towards a Sacramental Poetics is a great place to begin that recovery.
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