A Commonplace for Fostering the Sacramental Imagination

Christ Pantokrator

The Christian life is the sacramental life. This truth, although it is so straightforward as to verge on the tautological, nonetheless determines the shape and course of the Christian’s life and being. His entire orientation toward, and rootedness in, the world takes on these sacramental dimensions, shaping his thought, his imagination, and his emotions. A greater conformity to the sacramental life will enable the Christian to “be…transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:2) that he may live into the exhortation of Philippians 2:5: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.” This conviction is the fundamental thesis of this present undertaking (along, of course, with its various theological, metaphysical, anthropological, and epistemological corollaries).

But what, exactly, is this present undertaking? It is intended, in part, to be a commonplace “book” of sources–readings, art, music, etc.–that seek to inculcate and nurture a sacramental imagination. The commonplace book (from the Latin locus communis and without the pejorative connotations with which we typically use the term commonplace today) is an ancient discipline of thought that seeks to compile and arrange extracts of other texts in such a way that they may serve as a reference, a source of wisdom and inspiration, a “stay against confusion.” Sometimes termed a florilegium (literally, a “gathering of flowers”), the commonplace book sought to bring order from the chaos of published knowledge, to dispose of bits and pieces of text in such a way that their serendipitous confluence in the book might serve as a spur to insight and imaginative rumination (in the earthier, more cud-chewing sense).

Austen, Thomas, Rev., compiler. Occasional Meditations: Compiled from Various Authors as They Accidentally Came to Hand / by Me T. Austen of Rochester, April 15th, 1770: Manuscript, 1770–1782. MS Eng 613. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As information proliferated and codices became more widely available as the cost of printing decreased, commonplaces became more, well, commonplace; today, however, they have mostly subsided as a practice among the literate classes. This is unfortunate, since the advent of hypertext as a medium enlarges the capacities of the commonplace book. While the old commonplace books were necessarily limited to the confines of text (and perhaps simple drawings or transcriptions of music) the blog permits the introduction and collation of a much wider array of media and allows these media to be categorized and sorted in more dynamic ways.

But what is the relationship between a commonplace and the formation of the imagination–in particular, a sacramental one? The medievalist Mary Carruthers has written extensively on the classical/medieval ars memoriae and its creative potential within monastic communities.1 She suggests that the various mnemonic practices (what she terms “locational memory”) served an essential devotional purpose: the collocation of texts in the memory spurred the composition of prayer. Carruthers discusses the ways in which poetic composition was likened to the construction of a building, in which the author laid a schematic foundation upon which the actual structure of words was constructed and then ornamented. The various locational schemes of medieval memory practice2 allowed its practitioners a dynamic access to the stored passages. Carruthers, citing Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalion, elaborates upon the constructive purposes of the memorial arts:

A student is to use the mental building he has laid out on the foundation of his “historical” knowledge of the Bible-that is, of its “stories” and phrases-as an ordered structure of background scenes in which to gather all the bits of his subsequent learning. The real power of the mnemonic structure is not as a device for repetition (rote), but as a collecting and recollecting mechanism with which to construct one’s own education, and “be able to build onto his structure whatever he afterwards finds” in the “great sea of books and . . . the manifold intricacies of opinions” that one will encounter throughout one’s life. (“The Poet as Master-Builder” 888)

Carruthers describes these various frameworks of memory as “meditational machines” (895) that generate new systems and ways of knowing through their fortuitous interactions. The role that memory plays here is preeminently creative; recollection engenders recombination. The implications here are not merely conceptual and ratiocinative but ethical, too: “Making the scheme is a creative task. When the master builder raises his tropes on the foundation-stones of an actual text (and here we can see clearly the close kinship of trope and tropology) he must smooth, scrape, chip off, and in other ways shape the dicta et facta memorabilia he is using as his materials….The edifice of one’s life (so to speak), though created of stories available to all citizens, is also a personal creation” (Carruthers, 899).

The user of these schemes both shapes and is shaped by the texts that inhabit her memory (and particularly the text of the Sacra Pagina, mediated primarily through the Church’s sacred liturgy, which is the native context for this text). They impose conceptual horizons (to borrow an idea from Bernard Lonergan) that define and shape the moral, intellectual, and epistemological limits of her knowing and living. Even if the narratives she relies upon are narratives that are “available to all citizens,” her life becomes a gloss upon those narratives; she participates in them in an integral way such that they become hers in a way that does not detract from their simultaneous availability to all other rational subjects. The inexhaustibility of the Text (in an ultimate sense of the Logos) enables an endless succession of appropriations and glossings, in which the individual Christian life becomes a counterpoint on the cantus firmus of the life, ministry, and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

The Plan of St. Gall (Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, Ms 1092)

The Plan of St. Gall (Stiftsbibliothek Sankt Gallen, Ms 1092) is an early-9th-century blueprint of a monastery that was never intended to be realized. Instead, it reflects an idealized monastic arrangement whose virtual spaces were intended to serve as sites and repositories of memory that would fructify in devotional and compositional invention.

This form of retelling that conduces to a re-living is essential to the sacramental life. To obey Our Lord’s command to follow Him (Mt. 4:19, 16:24, et al.) is to involve ourselves in the imaginative incorporation of the life of Jesus Christ into our own being to such an extent that our existence becomes a type of sacrament–the anamnesis, the re-presenting and re-membering of Christ’s life in our own. (This, of course, is only possible insofar as we are engrafted into Christ’s Body, Holy Mother Church, for Holy Baptism enables us to participate in Christ’s life in a unique–and uniquely efficacious–way.) The Christian with a robust sacramental imagination becomes a poet (in the broadest sense of poesis–making, even building) of Christian experience, and his life becomes the recapitulation of the Ur-Text of Christ’s life and ministry.

Every “small-t” text he encounters becomes subject to this broader project of glossing upon the ultimate Text, and all the varieties of knowing, doing, and being are brought into relationship with, and reconciled to, the “still point of the turning world,” Who is Christ. And this variety of texts does not merely apply to those of explicitly Christian theological purport. For St. Augustine, all truth belongs by right to the Church, and he compares it to the gold the Israelites liberated from Egypt: “if those who are called philosophers…have said anything that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it” (De Doctrina Christiana, 2.40.60). Thus the Christian ought to be catholic (viz., universal) in his approach to the world, seeking always those truths which may draw him toward the fons et origo of all Truth.

A fully-formed sacramental imagination will permit him to synthesize and connect the multitudinous variety of his experiences and submit them to the regula Fidei in all things. He will build and construct these texts (in the broadest sense) into edifices that will, indeed, edify. These texts form the materials by which he will construct the temple of his life that St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:10-17:

10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.

11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;

13 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.

14 If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.

15 If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

Obviously the building conceit that St. Paul employs here refers specifically to the conduct of the Christian’s life; however, as I have noted, the horizons within which the Christian lives his life depend upon his imagination. The inward vision precedes outward action, in the same way that the external and visible sign manifests the inward and spiritual grace of the sacrament3. To be sure, the outward action determines the trajectory of the Christian’s life, but the inward vision must be well-ordered if the actions are to withstand the trying fire. Hence the sacramental imagination is a moral and ethical force within the Christian’s life, the basis upon which his being in the world is founded and wrought. How we create or imagine texts depends upon the underlying virtues of our temple, but so do the virtues of our temple depend upon how we create or imagine texts–the relationship is fundamentally symbiotic.

We shall have more to say regarding the imaginative capacity as this project unfolds. For the moment, we must be content merely to advert to its importance. Malcolm Guite, in his fabulous book Faith, Hope, and Poetry: Theology and the Poetic Imagination, describes the role that imagination must play in any reflection on the Christian life: “If part of the Imago Dei is itself our creative imagination then we should expect the action of the Word, indwelling and redeeming fallen humanity, to begin in, and work outward through, the human imagination. If this is so then we should be able to discern the presence of that Word in the works of art which are the fruit of our imagination” (14). That creative, that shaping and synthesizing power is the Image of God in us (along, of course, with our rational intellect). Guite’s point here echoes the argument of Dorothy Sayers’s The Mind of the Maker, which asserts the Trinitarian dimension of all human creative acts. Human creation analogously and sacramentally participates in the act of divine Creation.

We may say, then, that the sacramental imagination describes the cognitive life of the Christian whose habits of mind have been erected in light of the Truth of the Church, shaped in the sacred liturgy. The Christian is attentive to the various data of his experience, and he submits them rigorously and intentionally to the evaluative framework of the regula Fidei. His knowing, doing, shaping, creating, judging, and being are conformed to and participate in the eternal life of Christ. The sacramental imagination is what we mean by sentire cum Ecclesia–even, we might say, sentire per Ecclesiam. The Body of Christ becomes our hermeneutic, our way of knowing and being.

An important note: I have touched on the relationship of the liturgy to forming this sacramental imagination in a mostly incidental way in the course of this essay. This is not to diminish its importance–quite the opposite. I take participation in the liturgy to be so basic a foundation to everything else I have discussed that I have considered it to be a given. The Holy Mass is the “fount and apex of the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11), and the sacred liturgy more generally (meaning both the Mass and the Divine Office) governs the entire life of the Christian, including his imaginative life. There can be no sacramental imagination without the Most Holy Sacrament, whose Beauty surpasses all other beauty (indeed, all other beauty is beautiful chiefly because it participates in this transcendent beauty) and whose Truth is the ground of all truth. A so-called sacramental imagination without a sacramental life lived out in the liturgy of the Church is no imagination at all but a farce.

With this rationale in mind, this commonplace is intended to offer a variety of texts–passages, images, music, even film–that aim to inspire and foster sacramental imagining. It is necessarily personal in its choice of texts, but those texts will, I hope, be of a more expansive appeal and will enable meaning-making and poesis for their readers. From time to time, these texts will issue forth in my own compositions. These, too, I hope will be of some use, though the texts themselves are the primary end of this endeavor.

Next time: What’s the “ninth part of speech,” anyway?


1.) For a brief introduction to some of her thinking, see Carruthers’s article “The Poet as Master Builder: Composition and Locational Memory in the Middle Ages,” New Literary History 24.4 (Autumn 1993): 881-904. And see also her books The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200 (Cambridge UP, 2000) and The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge UP, 2008).

2.) This system, originating primarily in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, involves constructing within one’s mind a mental structure in which one “places” various items to be remembered so that one may recall them by moving through the virtual space of the mental structure. Carruthers notes that monastics primarily drew their versions of mental structures from biblical sources; the New Jerusalem of St. John’s Apocalypse, Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple, and the hortus conclusus of the Song of Songs figured prominently in these exercises. However, the verses of the Psalms also formed a textual basis for such loci memoriae.

3.) Both inward and outward are essential to the sacramental operation, but the external sign points to the inward and serves as its tangible channel. For instance, the spiritual effect of Baptism is the remission of original and actual sin and incorporation into the Body of Christ, but the matter of the sacrament is water. Material water is indisseverable from the mechanism of the sacrament; there is no gnostic workaround by which the spiritual effect of the sacrament may be achieved without recourse to the physical. (I leave aside, of course, the categories of Baptism of Desire and Baptism of Blood, which are particular limit cases that do not bear upon the typical operation of the sacrament.)



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