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HomeChurchTouch, the sacraments and the power of the imagination

Touch, the sacraments and the power of the imagination

As Holy Week begins, Catholics are doing what they can to access Mass online and are rediscovering the official prayers of the Church and the tradition of family prayers. Despite this, the hunger for the Sacraments has resulted in great spiritual suffering. Annemarie Paulin-Campbell queries whether in these times, it might be possible to create exceptions where priests could use technology to administer the sacraments or allow the laity to become mediators of the sacramental graces. She adds that the Ignatian practice of imaginative contemplation can be used to enter into a real unity of communion with Christ in the Eucharist.

As Catholics our experience of faith is centered on the Sacraments which are an experience mediated through the senses. The feel of water at Baptism or, for example, the taste and feel of the Eucharist as we eat and drink. We hear the words of absolution sometimes accompanied by touch in the laying on of hands. We experience the touch of God in being anointed with holy oils at Confirmation and during the Sacrament of the Sick. Even our experience of church with images, candles and incense is one which is sensory and which has an impact on us. Our whole way of connecting with God is tangible and physical. It takes the incarnation very seriously. 

I suspect, given this, that we as Catholics have been harder hit in this pandemic, than many other Christian denominations with regard to how we express our faith. Other Christian traditions not centered on sacraments are, I suspect, doing better in this time as live-streamed gatherings can offer music, good preaching and a sense of community. While these also feed us, and we are beginning to use other treasures in our tradition like family prayer and the prayers of the Divine Office more widely, many still feel bereft of the tangible sensual experience of the Sacraments.

As human beings we are profoundly tactile and sensory. Research has shown that babies, whose every other need for nutrition and care is met, fail to thrive when they are not touched. Not only are we not able to participate fully in the sacraments but many people are alone at home and those who are together are encouraged to observe social distancing. We have never been so deprived of the physical connection.

Many [people] feel bereft of the tangible sensual experience of the Sacraments.

The necessity of staying at home and not participating in the Sacraments during this time of the pandemic to avoid infecting others is a huge challenge for us. It challenges us profoundly on many levels including our ecclesiology and our sacramental theology and raises significant questions.

Sacraments and presence

Masses via live-streaming or zoom in which one is not able to physically receive the Eucharist leave us hungry for the Eucharist and mean that while the priests receive the people do not. What does this mean in terms of further separating clergy and laity? The intentions are good and perhaps we simply do not know what else to do right now. Certainly, there is a feeding that happens through the Word and the gathering of the community – and the entering into a spiritual communion of desire. We are trying to do the very best we can in an unprecedented situation but it remains deeply problematic in terms of the message it offers. Should we all be fasting from the Eucharist for now? Is there another viable option via virtual means that we have not yet explored?

As things stand, sacraments can only function with a validly ordained minister performing them and both parties must be physically present.

Are we truly dependent on ordained clergy for a sacrament to be valid? In such circumstances can nurses, doctors or parents not be ministers of sacraments such as the Sacrament of the Sick? As things stand, sacraments can only function with a validly ordained minister performing them and both parties must be physically present. Our Canon Law was written a long time before the kinds of technology we have now were available. It did not envisage the kind of situation we now find ourselves in. In many ways it renders us pastorally impotent in this pandemic.

Could the sacraments be mediated in exceptional circumstances?

Let’s try a thought experiment. If a priest had the intention of administering a sacrament via virtual means could it work? Let’s take the case of someone dying of COVID-19 who desires to receive the Sacrament of the Sick. It is impossible for a priest to be physically present because of the risk of contagion or the decisions made by medical authorities in the best interests of all. If the priest were connected via skype or zoom and someone present (a gloved nurse or doctor) anointed them as the priest spoke the words with the intention of administering the Sacrament could God not work in that moment?

What about the Sacrament of Reconciliation? Could this be offered by virtual means? Yes, there is a greater risk of the seal being broken, which is a large part of why Canon Law currently insists on the physical presence of both parties, but perhaps the person wants to receive the Sacrament far more than they are concerned about the risk of the seal being compromised. This is currently strictly forbidden but is it something we might need to give further thought to.

Could non-ordained people not hear one another’s confessions as it encourages us in the letter of James and offer an assurance of God’s forgiveness? Are we straitjacketing and limiting God’s grace? Is our legalism making life unnecessarily difficult?

Surely the Sacraments are intended to be a means of grace? If we stick too rigidly to the current requirements of Canon Law – not designed for the situation of a pandemic such as this – are we unnecessarily depriving people of a strengthening encounter they desperately long for at this time? How much do we believe in the power of God to act. How much do we really want God’s people to feel God’s presence and consolation?

If we stick too rigidly to the current requirements of Canon Law … are we unnecessarily depriving people of a strengthening encounter they desperately long for at this time?

I am aware that I am raising questions that will be unsettling, even disturbing to many. I suspect we fear that making changes would allow the whole edifice of our sacramental system to be vulnerable or become compromsied. And indeed these are huge questions with significant ramifications. But we need to be engaging them because the reality is that our familiar, comforting ways of encountering God in the Sacraments are not available to us in a time when many people feel a particularly strong need for them.

I think we are naïve if we think that this is going to be an issue for only a few months. This pandemic may last 12-18 months – and however long it lasts – the world will be changed in significant ways and the Church is not immune to the impact of change.

Sacramental presence through contemplative imagination

In addition to engaging honestly and courageously with the questions of ecclesiology and sacramental practice that the pandemic forces us to face, I think we have another great gift in our tradition which we should draw on. It is evoked in the traditional phrase, “The Sacramental Imagination.” Theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert says that the “sacramental imagination emphasises the presence of God who is self-communicating love, the creation of human beings in the image of God … the mystery of the incarnation.”

I want to suggest two ways in which we might nurture and expand the idea of sacramental imagination in this time.

The first is to actively look out for ‘sacramental moments’ in our daily experience. Moments when we encounter the holy and to recognise them as sacraments. For example, seeing God in the beauty of a shared family supper; in intentionally tucking our children into bed; in consoling a bereaved friend. We need more than ever to have eyes to see the holy in the ordinary. To be aware of what we experience in and through our senses and to see it as a point of access for an encounter with God.

The second is to use the gift of the imagination and to believe that when we ask God to encounter us in faith in and through our imagination something can happen. We often dismiss imagination as being ‘not real’ – as something for children that we outgrow. On the contrary it is one of the most powerful ways that God can meet us – something St Ignatius of Loyola teaches us in the use of imaginative contemplation. The imagination gives us access to all our senses. We can see, hear, touch, taste and smell.

Neuroscience has shown that the brain does not differentiate on a visceral level what is experienced physically from what is experienced through intentional engagement of the imagination. This is why top athletes at a certain point in their training gain as much from imaginal practice sessions as from actual training.

This Holy Week and Easter, as we are unable to celebrate the Sacraments in traditional ways, perhaps we are being invited into the sacramental imagination.

The Holy Spirit will, if I desire it, allow me, through my imagination, to actually experience the touch of anointing Jesus with fragrant oil as Mary did as if I were physically present. I will take time to read that text and then to allow my imagination to open the door of a tactile, sensual encounter. I enter the scene allowing myself to see and hear and touch and feel. I will smell the fragrance of the oil and feel it on my hands. As I experience myself anointing Jesus it is happening. I can, in that moment, experience touching and being touched by the one who loves me.

I want to experience a different Eucharist. The experience of Eucharist foregrounded in the Gospel of John, of Jesus washing my feet. To feel my feet held in his strong hands and to allow myself and my sadness to be tended in that way.

Jesus longs to encounter us anew in the experience we are living in now. We may experience him breaking through the locked doors of my home in this lockdown-time to speak a word of comfort and peace and assurance. In and through my imagination, in faith, I can touch him and he can touch me. Those I love – who I am separated from right now – may be part of that scene too.  In that space of the sacramental imagination, I can be present to them and they to me as powerfully as if they were in the room.

In and through my imagination, in faith, I can touch him and he can touch me.

As deeply painful as this time is, there is gift and possibility if we trust that God is present and wants to encounter us and bring us the peace of his consoling presence this Easter.

As much as our theology is challenged, we need not fear engaging and asking the difficult questions. We must expand our theological framework to meet the pastoral challenges presented by this moment in history, trusting that the Holy Spirit remains with us.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.