Defining Mystery: What Do We Mean When We Say “Sacramental”?

In any course of academic inquiry, the definition of common terms is essential. In sharing a similar vocabulary, we are able to skip ahead from technical discourse into more theoretical or practical applications. In theology and the arts, we are still in the early stages of reaching consensus on our terms, perhaps chief among them the word sacramental.

What do we mean when we say something is sacramental? I am unconvinced that any of us are working with the same functional definition.

For instance, in his book Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry, Hans Boersma argues that we need to return to a pre-Aquinian sacramental understanding of the world and God’s presence within it. Boersma notes that the rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages marked a shift away from Plato, bringing with it the need and the means to define the agents and causes at work in sacramental acts. The Eucharist being an obvious example, the when and the how became central questions that Aquinas was able to answer through the explanation of transubstantiation.

Boersma suggests this approach has demystified sacramentality too much, stripping the earthly sphere of the charge of God’s grandeur that is made uniquely known in the Eucharistic feast, but is not particularly special to it. Before Aquinas, before the rediscovery of Aristotle, the world was enchanted simply by having been created by God, and this was what was meant by saying sacramental. The Eucharist was a full expression of that enchanted creation, called Body and Blood, but not belaboured in regard to the what of that claim.

But this is only Boersma’s approach. Susan Harvey contends in Scenting Salvation that St. Augustine was resistant to speaking of God by physical sense and much preferred an abstracted spiritual sense, that the sacramental was still other and not with us in a Platonic approach to the real. The soul reached out and “felt” God in the world as one reaches out with a hand to touch, but these actions are distinct. Augustine does not seem troubled by a Eucharistic account that needs to give explanation to Body and Blood but rather leaves it in the mists just beyond physical perception. “Uneasy is the heart until it rests in Thee,” he is famous for writing; note the physical image that is nonetheless entirely spiritual in nature.

Further complicate the conversation by bringing in Barth and Tillich, the Reformed tradition as a whole, and Eastern mysticism, and you are left with a further diverse and splintered understanding of Sacrament, let alone sacramental. (Can you have sacramental things if you do not have Sacraments?)

We use the word sacramental with apparent liberality, though rarely with an accompanying disclaimer about its meanings, its limitations, and its proper use, let alone our intended purpose in applying it within the context of the argument we are making. I call art sacramental and the Eucharist Sacrament, and in that statement alone you see reflected part of the problem. What exactly is meant by those terms? Am I of Boersma or Augustine? Barth or Tillich? Or any number of other thinkers?

At the root, a definition of sacramental would speak to the participation of God in the world. What comes after that is largely at the mercy of the contextual tradition of the definer. This is increasingly important for the dialogue that faith and the arts desires to have with a lay community. If we are unable to speak into local congregations why art matters and how it is we propose it to matter in a participatory, spiritual way, then the dialogue becomes an entirely academic, jargon-loaded endeavour.

Preston Yancey is a PhD candidate in Divinity at at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is currently writing his first book, a spiritual memoir of God’s silence, Tables in the Wilderness (Zondervan, 2014). 


  • Preston Yancey earned his undergraduate degree in Great Texts of the Western Tradition with a focus in medieval monasticism, literature, and theology from Baylor University. He went on to complete his Master of Letters in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at the University of St. Andrews. His first book, Tables in the Wilderness:A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again, is due out with Zondervan September 2014.

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1 Comment

  1. says: bruce herman

    Thanks Preston – for raising this. As a painter who has spent the better part of four decades trying to see if traditionally “sacred” subject matter still has meaning in contemporary art, I do not consider art sacramental. My own use of that term is either confined to liturgical meanings or else the whole world is sacrament. (In which case art is sacramental but no more so than ordinary food.) The confusion comes, I feel, when art is put on a pedestal and surrounding by a manufactured mystique. This harms art and artist and raises expectations that art should be utterly unique and numinous. If theology is to come to grips with the proper “use” of art, it will need to confront this issue. To clarify: either we confine the sacramental to specific liturgical purposes (like the elements of the Eucharist) or we extend it to include all things offered up to God (our dress, our sleep, our sex, our eating, our work, etc.). If we opt for saying that all things are holy when offered up to God, all things are sacramental, then I think we can say that art is sacramental. If not, then I think only icons in the Eastern tradition can be call sacramental art. Even the “religious” paintings of the Latin church tradition are mostly illustration, not sacrament. Obviously this is a rich and multi-layered discussion, but this is where I’ve come to as a painter over many years of practice and thinking about the topic. Cheers, Bruce Herman

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