The theological term for this vibrant medieval understanding of the material world, as Lewis well knew, is sacramentalism. This is a linked set of beliefs, first, that the outward and visible can convey the inward and spiritual; second, that all creation is in some sense a reflection of the creator; and third, that God is present in and through every square inch of his world. While these beliefs are linked with the more limited, liturgical sense of the word “sacrament,” they amount to an understanding of the whole material world.
The world-sacramentalism of medieval Christians was rooted in a lively engagement with the doctrine of Creation — through an even livelier engagement with the doctrine of the incarnation. The incarnation was the central preoccupation of medieval Christians. Art, theology, church life, and private devotion all focused on the incarnation. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ bodily life and death became the medieval “canon within the canon”; the puzzle of why he had to come and die was the great theological obsession.
And in the midst of it all came the insight that, as Christ raised humanity by taking on humanity, he also in some mysterious sense, by taking on created form in his own creation, also raised up the whole world toward its new-creation destiny — such that even the rocks cry out and creation groans as it awaits that fulfilment.
In light of that cosmic redemption, and quite contrary to modern stereotypes of barbarism and otherworldliness, medieval Christians affirmed the material and social dimensions of our created human lives (our eating, drinking, working, marrying, getting sick, being healed, and eventually dying) as transcendentally important.
The church, therefore, could and did speak to every nook and moment of human life, certainly including the experiences of work and vocation. In an age so full of incarnational, creational, sacramental awareness, faith and everyday life could never be separate. God was met at every turn.
A key early example of how this sacramental worldview impacted medieval views of work and vocation was Gregory the Great, who insisted that while pastors or laypeople are engaged in the active life, working on behalf of their neighbor in the material world, everything in their experience of that world became a potential instrument of God’s direct, special communication to them. Where his predecessor Augustine had emphasized God’s hiddenness, Gregory believed God is always speaking to us, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see. He is always sustaining the sacramental presence of spiritual truths in the things of this world.
This sacramental sense of God at work in the material world and in our own embodied, material, social, and cultural experience became part of the orthodox Christian understanding of the world for the whole period from Gregory to the Reformation — and, in many circles, continuing long after this period.
Again, a Christian age that saw the world through sacramental lenses could not also separate their faith from their work. Having bought modern Enlightenment portraits of medieval stupidity and superstition, we have missed the powerful cultural generativity of their world-sacramentalism: Medieval Christians invented the hospital, created the breathtaking artistry of the Gothic cathedrals, laid the groundwork for modern law and politics, and pioneered modern Western science through a new institution: the university. These are four huge modern work sectors — health care, the arts, the civic and political arenas, and higher education — each underwritten by this same lively, creational, and incarnational sacramentalism.
The Protestant stereotype tells us that all medieval people felt only monks and nuns had “vocations.” But that simply wasn’t so. Read, for example, the late 13th- and 14th-century German Dominican friars Meister Eckhart and Johann Tauler. Along with other Christian mystics of their day, Eckhart and Tauler affirmed a non-monastic call of God — just as the hugely influential Gregory the Great had done centuries before them. For these friars, not just monks and nuns but also ordinary working folk could achieve the highest title of traditional monasticism, “friend of God.”
“We are brought forth into time,” wrote Eckhart, “in order that our sensible worldly occupations may lead us nearer and make us like unto God.” Thus “one can gather nettles and still stand in union with God.”
Tauler criticized those who believed the work of the businessperson who “knows all the secrets of commerce” to be a spiritual obstacle: “It is certainly not God who has put this obstacle,” he insisted. Rather, the working life of active service is simply a different way of serving and knowing God. The person who obeys God in their work “with singleness of purpose” is truly on the way to God.
More could be said. But what might it look like if you and I brought this idea of world-sacramentalism to our lives and work?
Continued in part IV
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