Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World

Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World

Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World

Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World

Synopsis

Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism asks what happened when the world was shaken by challenges to the sacred order as people had known it, an order that regulated both their actions and beliefs. When Reformers gave up the doctrine of transubstantiation (even as they held onto revised forms of the Eucharist), they lost a doctrine that infuses all materiality, spirituality, and signification with the presence of God. That presence guaranteed the cleansing of human fault, the establishment of justice, the success of communication, the possibility of union with God and another, and love. These longings were not lost but displaced, Schwartz argues, onto other cultural forms in a movement from ritual to the arts, from the sacrament to the sacramental. Investigating the relationship of the arts to the sacred, Schwartz returns to the primary meaning of "sacramental" as "sign making," noting that because the sign always points beyond itself, it participates in transcendence, and this evocation of transcendence, of mystery, is the work of a sacramental poetics.

Excerpt

The Eucharist has always been mysterious to me. As a Jewish child, nothing in my tradition could prepare me for such a ritual. The separation between the Creator and his Creation is the fundamental tenet of Judaism. God may have spoken, but in disembodied words. God may have molded man, but man could not mold God. The divine was utterly unimaginable and to create any image was the ultimate idolatry. Maimonides, among others, inveighed against naive readings of the Bible that took anthropomorphism literally. As for God, “He gives orders without appearing” as a contemporary philosopher wryly observed. Certainly God does not manifest himself in bread, does not give himself to man to be materially ingested.

And yet, I also knew that the Eucharist was the heart of Christianity: it was taking communion that made my Christian friends Christian, and taking communion that even created the Church itself. How did that happen? I wanted to understand how a wafer could become God. Passover offered little help, for the matzoh we ate to commemorate the Exodus was neither God, nor Moses or Elijah—it was only bread that was flat because the ancient Israelites had to flee before it had time to rise. Flat bread becoming God, and for that matter, God becoming man—this was completely different.

My fascination prompted me to attend Mass now and then, but when it came to communion, I would leave church inconspicuously (or so I imagined). And then one wet Sunday in London, alone and free of obligations, I seized the opportunity to attend services at St Giles at Cripplegate, the church John Milton attended (when he attended) and his burial place. Doubtless, I thought I would be communing with the soul of the poet who has engaged so much of my imaginative life. I encountered . . .

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