Mystery and the Sacramental Life/ Brian Odom
“May we become what we receive.” This prayer precedes Holy Communion at the Society of St. John the Evangelist, an Episcopal monastery on the Charles River in Harvard Square. Given that it is spoken when we are about to take in the body and blood of Jesus, the prayer packs a wallop, with at least a few powerful angles.
This is not at all an original thought, but my experience engaging with the Anglican tradition over the past year encourages me to consider a strong connection between sacrament and mystery. When I talk with Anglicans about what they have to offer the world, one of the first answers is that they present an experience of the sacramental life. A sacrament can be defined as a rite in which God is uniquely present; in the Anglican tradition there are two Sacraments of the Gospel—communion and baptism. A few times since I’ve begun exploring the Episcopal community (tutorial note: you can approximately think of Episcopals as Anglicans in America), people have eagerly asked me about my experience of the sacraments during the services. I felt like I didn’t understand what was behind the question—what were they hoping for in my answer?
After a recent gathering including the Deans of St James Cathedral in Chicago, I now have a better idea. In that discussion, someone said of his recent visit to a non-charismatic evangelical church, that he felt a little sad for the people there, because of what they had to settle for as “worship.” Not to knock it—it must be working for that congregation—but it seemed to be missing something crucial. The Dean replied, “Well, yes, when we talk with evangelical pastors, they often tell us that people leave their churches for liturgical traditions, because we offer mystery.”
The elements of “Blue Ocean “ faith which have become so essential for me could be summarized as a high-faith experiential interaction with God in a world viewed as complex and untamable. Shifting the language a bit, I think it could also be said that a central benefit I got from the Cambridge Vineyard was a sacramental experience of God which led me into mystery.
There’s plenty to discuss. Have I misappropriated the term “sacrament”? Maybe a little off-topic, but what’s the connection between sacraments and spiritual disciplines, and how do the latter interact with mystery? More on topic, do we agree that people don’t generally get mystery without regular sacramental experiences? If so, why?