Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Matter and Form

Years ago the now-retired cardinal archbishop of Philadelphia was moved to demand, "Why is that woman [me] studying theology?" More annoyingly, I'm sure, at his seminary! To his credit it's hard when you have a ringer in the crowd, and I doubt he was expecting a theologically trained chemist to be on his pastoral visit to my campus. So why do I study theology? What does it have to do with quantum mechanics?

I've decided to submit a paper to a conference in the fall on the legacy of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit scientist and theologian who drew strongly links between science (in his case paleontology) and religion. My basic premise is that de Chardin's theology can bring a new perspective to sacramental theology, particularly when viewed through an Augustinian lense.

De Chardin speaks passionately of the tangible encounter with God:

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us and moulds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. In eo vivimus. As Jacob said, awakening from his dream, the world, this palpable world, which we were wont to treat with the boredom and disrespect with which we habitually regard places with no sacred association for us, is in truth a holy place, and we did not know it. Venite, adoremus!

That vivid image of being assailed by the divine, in everything we touch and that touches us, drives me back to Augustine who saw sacraments as the visible signs of invisible grace. I want to treat of things "sacramental" rather than of the Sacraments (the seven of which the Baltimore catechism -- and the Council of Trent -- say: an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace). Sacraments, with both a small "s" and a big "s", work. They are, as theologians are wont to say, efficacious. De Chardin's sees the universe as inescapably sacramental. The grace pounds at us. Augustine implies a similar outlook, that God and his grace seeps through the physical visible signs.

Each sacrament has its proper matter and form (res et verba). Baptism's water and invocation, "I baptize you in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." are both necessary to bring about the grace of the sacrament. Sacramentals too have may have matter and form, such as the blessed water we use to make the sign of the cross as we enter or exit a church. Would we see matter and form differently from de Chardin's perspective?

At the cemetery, as we stood around my mother's grave, her pastor blessed her one last time, sprinkling water over the casket (as the rite demands). Sprinkle does not do justice to Fr. Ray's blessing. The water poured over her casket, sparkling in the sun like our tears, washing the dust off the top. It was not just grace brought forth, but abundant grace. Full and overflowing.

Sometimes I think we are chintzy with the matter of the sacraments, as if we must somehow horde the grace, or there won't be enough. De Chardin pushes us to consider the abundance of the created world, and to use that created reality to mould ourselves into image and likeness of our creator.

I've got two days to polish this thesis into a 200 word abstract. In search of grace....


  1. My name is Derek John Thomas. I have an M.A. in Liturgical Studies. When I read your post, I was struck by the clarity with which you pointed at one of the basic problems for me in our (Roman Catholic) liturgical performance. I was fortunate enough to have professors who understood the physical as well as the spiritual aspects of symbols. I came away from my graduate work with an understanding of God's abundant grace and how that abundance could either be expressed in the symbolic elements of liturgy or, on the other hand, how we can also convey a sense of sparing quantities of grace or grace grudgingly given through our use of symbols. I would urge you to also look at the use of bread and wine in the mass. Also, the laying on of hands. How fully we touch is also a sign and symbol. Look at the use of oils. Are we worried about running out, or if the receiver will feel uncomfortable if they actually have to feel the oil? Our liturgy is rich with symbol and selecting from the vast range must be a challenge. I hope that your writing goes well.

  2. Oops, I just noticed how old your original post was. I'm sure the writing went swimmingly.

  3. Thanks for the comment! Yes, the writing went well, the paper was well received and I've gone on to write a bit more about this in a less academic form (in columns for my local Catholic paper)....

    I, too, was blessed with professors who felt that abundance in matter(s) of grace was required.

  4. SO, so many times have I come back and re read this.