The principle that enchanted everyday life for the medievals (including the arts and sciences)

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci

In my last post, I asked, “What separates Protestants from Catholics on the matter of the arts? Why have Protestants done so poorly compared with Catholics?” I hinted that the answer lies in a certain aspect of the medieval heritage – which rightly belongs to all Western Christians today, but which the Catholics have retained and Protestants largely discarded.

What, then, did the medieval church have, theologically, that the Reformation church seems to have lost? What was the bridge from the material to the spiritual world that avoided both Gnosticism and materialism—and fostered the arts as well?

This missing links turns out to be one of the most central theological ideas of the Middle Ages:  the idea of sacramentality. Sacramentality is the concept that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual. Physical matters and actions can become transparent vehicles of divine activity and presence. In short, sacraments can be God’s love made visible.

Or to turn it around, sacramentality is the belief that transcendent spiritual reality manifests itself in and through created material reality, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator, that God is present in and through the world. A correlative of this is that religion is not separated from, or compartmentalized from, the rest of life. It’s not something left for Sunday morning. God can and does manifest himself in and through the creation that he’s made.

Why believe this? First and most importantly, because God incarnated himself in Christ. The transcendent God dug down and took on human flesh. The purely spiritual became human, two natures in one person. In late medieval Christianity, far from the Incarnation being seen as a kind of one-time, bizarre aberration, with no connection to the rest of salvation history, it’s the paradigm, the model, for everything that follows. Lewis saw this, and embedded in his great Creation tale, Perelandra: “with the incarnation of Christ as man on the earth, the universe has turned a corner.”[1]

The Incarnation was the linchpin of medieval theology, and sacramentality was the extension of that doctrine – expressing God’s mysterious presence in and through the created world. He is at the same time transcendent—that is, above our cultural and material world, and immanent—that is, dwelling and working in our cultural and material world.

Just below the surface of life, then, there hovers the constant presence of the holy, sacramentality. This is more than simply the seven sacraments of the Church (baptism, penance (confession), Eucharist (communion), confirmation, marriage, Holy Orders (ordination), Last Rites). Sacramentality is a much broader category.

What the idea of sacramentality teaches is that the material world contains in it much meaning that is not obvious “to the naked eye,” so to speak. It points to the mystery of its origins and its sustenance in God. “The reason for the mysterious character of the world — on the understanding of the Great Tradition, at least — is that it participates in some greater reality, from which it derives its being and its value.”[2] The world “participates” in the greater reality of God the Creator, even as it points to God. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). “The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:2). The church subsides in Christ, who is “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Eph. 1:23).

Not only is this the real, actual nature of creation – that it is sustained constantly by God and participates in his Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, despite the damaging effects of the Fall. But our own inner terrain – our yearnings – point us back to the Source to whom the sacramental nature of reality points: “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”[3]

Progress of sacramentalism in the early medieval period

The sacramental attitude toward creation was essentially platonic, or in particular, a thoroughly Christian appropriation of Neoplatonism. But until the 12th century, although sacramentalism provided a space for the affirmation that the material world can help us get to God, this affirmation could get dragged down by the Platonic suspicion of the natural world as inherently incapable of communicating truth – indeed, as a distraction from contemplating the divine. Though it laid the groundwork for a true body-spirit holism, that promise did not come to full fruit until the 12th-century renaissance of men like Anselm and Abelard, and the scholastic movement birthed in that renaissance.

However, a couple of things helped Christian theology along the “Affirmative Way”—that is, the “kataphatic” path that looks to images and natural phenomena as conduits to theological truth, as opposed to the “apophatic” (“negative”) path that requires us to strip away all images and metaphors en route to a direct mystical apprehension of the divine.

The end of the ancient and beginning of the medieval era – usually dated to between 450 and 500 AD – was a time of “de-secularization” or “sacralization” of society.[4] Ancient Christianity had grown up within the late Roman city, with all its civic and Pagan political mechanisms and educational institutions. Medieval Christianity, on the other hand, grew up in the wake of the dissolution of Old Roman culture, out in the countryside, under the ministrations of the clergy class and in the cloisters of the monks and nuns.[5] During 400 – 800 AD, Christianity soaked into every nook and cranny of Western culture: “the interpenetration of matter and spirit was part of a general shift by which the sacred and the secular, the objective and the subjective (in our terms), the religious and the profane all came together into what Andre Vauchez has termed an ‘undifferentiated sacrality.’”[6] This created a “pervasive and concrete” sense of God’s presence in every area of daily life: Saints, visions, miracles, trial by ordeal, relics, pilgrimage – every square inch of the landscape was at least potentially inhabited by the spiritual.


One catalyst moving Western society from the more body-suspicious, platonic attitudes of the ancient period to the sacramentalism of the medieval period was the monk-pope Gregory the Great (540 – 604). It is hard to overstate Gregory’s influence on medieval faith, since throughout that period he was the most read of all the Western fathers.[7] If Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) was the father of medieval theology, then Gregory was the father of medieval spirituality.[8]

This is important, because Gregory’s spirituality differed from Augustine’s at just this point of attitudes toward the created world. Both shared “the late antique universe populated by Principalities, Thrones, and Powers,” with “an energetic traffic of visitors” across the boundary between our visible world and the invisible world.[9] Yet Gregory’s world differs subtly from the late antique world of Augustine, for in Augustine’s time, “one is still cautious of crossing these boundaries, still conscious of how the dull life differs from the shimmering brilliance of the other side.”[10] Augustine had separated “the transcendent world of the spirit and the visible world of daily experience” in ways that Gregory does not, because the omnipotent God is often hidden to us: “Of necessity signs are ambiguous because God’s mysterious majesty remains inscrutable.”[11]

Those same signs, for Gregory, become more translucent (though not quite transparent). The things of this earth, in other words, are sacramental, revealing spiritual truth, at least to those with discerning eyes to see and ears to hear.[12]

It is easy to see why Gregory so vigorously promoted saints’ lives, relics, and miracle stories. For the monk-pope, “the . . . boundaries of late antiquity have all but vanished. The supernatural is mingled with the world of ordinary experience, and in surprising ways. Visible and invisible, natural and supernatural, human and divine, carnal and spiritual are often directly and causally connected.” A storm is not just a storm, but a herald of God’s wrath or a trial sent to man; indigestion might be caused by cabbage, or by “the devil lurking in its leaves.” Thus does the invisible reality sustain and determine the visible—so that visible things can help us read divine meanings. Nor are we left to struggle through the ups and downs of our material fortunes, guessing wildly at truth. Fortune is not, as in the classical understanding, blind. Rather, God uses a person’s worldly trials and blessings to shake or soothe them. Carole Straw is spot-on when she recognizes that Gregory “anticipates the physicality so characteristic of the later Middle Ages in figures as diverse as Anselm and St. Francis.” [13]

Straw recognizes that by promoting this more “physical” spiritual understanding of the created world, Gregory provided “an intellectual framework to integrate all aspects of life with Christianity.” He “christened” the world, so that “no part of life remains untouched by the sacred, no part of life need necessarily be excluded from the Christian.”[14]

[1] “All which is not itself the Great Dance was made in order that He might come down into it. In the Fallen World He prepared for Himself a body and was united with the Dust and made it glorious for ever. This is the end and final cause of all creating, and the sin whereby it came is called Fortunate and the world where this was enacted is the centre of worlds. Blessed be He!” (Perelandra).

[2] Boersma, Heavenly Participation, get page number.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” in Weight of Glory, 42.

[4] [Robert Markus]

[5] [McGinn, Growth, 17]

[6] McGinn, Growth, 18

[7] Gregory the Great, for all his repetition of Augustine, was ‘the most widely read of the Western church fathers’. Jaroslav Pelikan, citing Harnack (1931): Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300). The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 3 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 16.

[8] See for example Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God. Leclercq calls Gregory “the doctor of desire.”

[9] Cf. Lewis, Discarded Image, on the longaevi, intermediate spiritual beings who move along the borders of the material and spiritual worlds.

[10] Carole Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection, 8.

[11] Straw, 9.

[12] Straw, 18, n. 67.

[13] Straw, 9-10, 12.

[14] Straw, 22, 25-6.

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