Thursday, May 26, 2016

Are the Sacraments Magic?: Thoughts on Corpus Christi

Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi; indeed, not only is today given over to the celebration of the most holy Body and Blood of Our Lord, but the next seven days as well, after which we shall be presented with the holy mystery of Our Lord's Sacred Heart (to which my family is consecrated.)

To receive a Sacrament is to be initiated into the power and energeia, the activity, of God. I know that I too often think of the Sacraments, even the Blessed Sacrament, occasionalistically--that is, I think of my reception of the Sacrament just as an occasion for God to act upon me, rather than thinking of the Sacrmanet as really having the causal power to bring about God's power and activity in me. But God's action upon us is nearly always mediated by creaturely causality. And in the Sacraments God does not just act upon us in the way He does in all natural events, moving creaturely causes to their natural activities as the primary cause of all creaturely events. Rather, He brings about supernatural events through new powers given to creatures, including to His ministers.

When a man moves through the ranks of the minor orders, he is gradually being initiated into divine causal powers. When he speaks the words of blessing, or the words of exorcism, or reads the words of the Epistle, he does so by the divine power that has been given to him. When the right words are spoken, and the right matter is there, God in His power is made present. God has given this power to make Himself sacramentally present on our altars to men.

Dicies: But that sounds like magic!

Respondeo: Yes, good magic!

Dicies: You are a blasphemer.

Respondeo: Not in the slightest.

Dicies: Magic is clearly condemned by the Church. Worse, it's just ridiculous. To speak of the Sacraments as magic is to make a laughing stock of the Church; it will lead unbelievers to scoff--nay, it will lead believers to scoff! You are merely trying to be clever, and failing.

Respondeo: The magic condemned by the Church is extrinsic magic, the magic by which one attempts to bring the demons under one's control and use them to control others. Or it's the magic that attributes occult powers to physical things qua physical--which they obviously don't have. But the Sacraments aren't like either of these sorts of magic. The Sacraments instead reveal to us the underlying magical structure of the whole cosmos--that is, the interconnections and correspondences that bind this cosmos together.

To receive a Sacrament properly is, in part, to have one perception transformed. It is to come to see by faith the Lord present substantially in the Sacrament--faith is a seeing. This transformation is not brought about extrinsically, though purely physical things acting upon me inasmuch as they are physical. Nor is it brought about through the obsessive force of a demon's will, or even another human will. No, it is brought about by God acting upon through the powers He has given to men and physical things--and not to their mere externals, but in the interior way He has transformed them. By the utterance of the priest, animated by belief and by His supernatural powers, which is one with His exterior speech, bread and wine become Our Lord. Why should I not call that good magic?

Dicies: Because it adds nothing to our understanding of the Sacrament, and is embarrassing. It's utterly irrational. It's childish.

Respondeo: But again, that's just because you (and all you moderns and post-moderns) have an atrophied sense of rationality. Perception itself is laden with rationality, and so is feeling, with a rationality of their own, a logique du coeur. To see the world as it is, is to see the world as full of interconnected powers, hierarchies of intelligences: the spiritual made present in the sensible, the sensible making the spiritual present. The Sacraments today are all that is left to remind us of that. Power and energeia flow forth from God, and are divided into many powers inhering in many things--yes, there is, as Proclus and the Liber de Causis taught us, in all formed things a divine power: the power to cause, to make things be! In an age that has forgotten real causality, that has replaced causality with mathematically describable events, the Sacraments remind us of what it is to exist, and how we, creatures though we are, have a share in making things to be. God became man, and left us this Memorial of Himself, so that we could become gods (as today's Matins reminded us), but also to remind us that we are already gods by nature--that is, causes, makers of real existence, and in the Sacraments, makers of God coming to be with us.

God makes Himself, as it were, obedient to creatures. And in doing so, He raises up what is natural. The things with which we nourish ourselves, that assuage our uttermost poverty: these are now made God, just as we are to be made God. To make Sacraments is to be Marian: utterly receptive to God, yet utterly active (by an activity, an energeia, that He gives over to us) in making Him present, mediating Him as our Mediatrix does, holding back and appeasing His anger as She does. This is not abstraction or occult irrationality, but the basic Christian life. I want to see it that way, always.

And besides, magic itself is a more complex thing that you let on, dear lecteur. St. Albert the Great and the Jesuit commentators on Aristotle at Coimbra were perfectly willing to allow that there might be a natural magic, hidden powers in physical things, which we might learn to use (and that is the traditionary basis for a Christian acceptance of modern fantasy magic). "Only Christian men guard even heathen things." The first time I went to the ancient Mass of the Church, the summer after my senior year of high school, I thought, "This must be what it was like to go to an ancient Greek sacrifice or mystery." All things are fulfilled in the Church. The signs of the sacramentals--our relics, scapulars, and so forth--both fulfill nature and nature's natural sacramentality, natural indication of and correspondence to spiritual things in the heavenly places, and elevates that sacramentality to new correspondences. The whole world is laden with powers, there to sweep us up the hierarchy to divinization.


  1. "And all that valley of Adur was a great and solemn sight to see as we went forward upon our adventure that led nowhere and away. To us four men, no one of whom could know the other, and who had met by I could not tell what chance, and would part very soon for ever, these things were given. All four of us together received the sacrament of that wide and silent beauty, and we ourselves went in silence to receive it" (The Four Men, Belloc, p. 105). It is only in the sacramental understanding and vision of things that beauty is rightly seen.

    1. Thanks, Mike. Keep reminding me of this.