The Sacramental Text Reconsidered

It’s become popular for critics, historians, and artists to refer to artworks as sacramental, incarnational, and eucharistic. But such terms are traded and tested with little consensus or general reflection.

Is to read a poem sacramentally to imagine God’s incarnational presence by analogy or in some more literal or perhaps miraculous way? Does interpreting a medieval liturgical play “incarnationally” share any meaning with the 19th-century closet drama that is described with the same term?

This special issue of CAL is the first edited collection of essays devoted to both practicing and reflecting upon the notion of the sacramental text. Essays consider the question of the sacramental in the writings of Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens, Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson, Graham Greene, and Emily Dickinson, and they draw on the philosophical and theological work of Kathleen Norris, Jurgen Habermas, Rowan Williams, Derrida, Levinas, and St. Paul.


As Guest Editor of this special issue, I provided a critical Introduction that attempted to outline some of the broader questions and also to offer an argument of my own. What follows is an excerpt from my Introduction to the issue: “The Disincarnate Text: Ritual Poetics in Herbert, Paul, Williams, and Levinas”:

Literary studies of modern and contemporary periods have also begun to view the interpretive act itself as an occasion for sacred incarnation. Such studies, including several in this issue, often treat sacramentality as a model or even a heuristic for teasing out a particular aesthetic movement’s higher views of metaphor and embodied experience. As in medieval and early modern studies, in such scholarship modern texts are thought to incarnate the divine in surprising ways, exceeding or sometimes even deliberately eschewing the expected cause and effect of narrative action, and infusing stories with often baldly physical and weighted images that offer perspectives of sacramental embodiment that lie below character intentions. And at their best, such readings combine historical accounts of the social and personal efficacy of literature with attention to a particular theological moment. In one way or another, many of these studies work with the same concepts of metaphysical gap and expansion, need and excess, despite lacking the historical proximity to the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Sometimes they do this with reference to an author’s interest in Roman Catholic theology, as James Watson in this issue argues is the case in Hemingway’s fiction, and sometimes with direct reference to something like the nostalgic “medievalism” that Timothy Curran argues is present in Dickens’s Bleak House.

In a certain way, these strategies for sacramental reading present an alternative history to that of secularization and the Reformation’s unintended influences on deism and pluralism . . . . The possibility of texts and performances drawing audiences into relationships with the divine and with one another—relationships that bend or even transcend the contours of genre, metaphor, and materiality—might be viewed as cutting through what Charles Taylor has described as the “buffered self” that characterizes the onset of the secular. Maybe it is through art and literature that a sensibility beyond the immanent—that is, beyond those things that are presumed to be fully explained with exclusive reference to their appearance—continued to inform “the crucial meanings of things” that otherwise are “defined in my responses to them” merely (2009, 38)

And yet there is a sense in which applying ideas of sacramental presence and efficacy to non-ritual texts and events such as a play or a novel, perhaps ironically, contributes to a narrative of secularization. I first heard this suggestion made by Brian Cummings in a panel on Shakespeare and religion at the 2015 meeting of the Modern Language Association. The argument proposes that analogies like “sacramental poetics” or “incarnational drama,” especially when they are used to describe the filling of a felt gap in Post-Reformational religious culture, imply a deficiency in the effectiveness of the church and other prescribed devotional practices to bring believers into communion with God—eucharistic or otherwise. Is it possible that interpretive arguments for the power of tableaux vivants, metaphor, and narrative action to incarnate divine presence actually, though maybe unintentionally, convey a depleted spiritual landscape? Did Christians turn to art for deeper spiritual nourishment because the church’s cultural relevance had declined? Such questions not only bear on our understanding of the church’s effect in society but also on the potentially diminished specificity of sacrament itself. Rowan Williams has cautioned against the benumbing effect of applying terms like sacramentality too broadly: “to concentrate on the presence of Christ in this way in some near-total abstraction from the context of the eucharistic action” risks “the sort of theological immobilizing of a sacred object: the sign that is Christ and the signs of Christ equally are God in act” (2000, 206-07). In other words, whereas the eucharist properly exists in a divine act, to describe an event in a story as “eucharistic” because of certain imagery might present a problematically passive form of sacramentality: it is an inactive—and thus less-than-sacramental—presence by virtue precisely of the separateness implied in being compared to sacred incarnation. Is it possible, then, that as dramas, sermons, and poetics come to exploit sacramental power and desires, sacramentality itself loses its precision, becomes less meaningful? And perhaps this expanded sense of sacramentality in literary studies cannibalizes itself.

While I want to reinforce these criticisms to the extent that texts are treated as phenomenological replacements for a ritual sacrament, in practice few sacramental readings adopt this metaphysical gap view directly but, instead, demonstrate an awareness of the subtle differences between the sacramental analogies of “gap” and “capacity,” where gap describes a loss of sacramental access and capacity the potential for a surplus or augmentation of meaning. In other words, to say that a text or performance serves or imports a sacramental purpose crucially differs from saying that a text or performance delivers a sacramental presence. At the heart of this distinction is the nature—all too often left unqualified—of the relation a reading proposes to exploit between an aspect of textual presence and the notion of “real presence” that it locates beyond itself in the sacramental ritual. Are we stretching sacramentality from its ritual home to a literary text, or are we espousing the sacramental capacity of the text itself? Or, if such a distinction can be made, are the effectual elements of sacramentality that we sometimes discover in texts actually located in activities of reading and reception? Beckwith’s “Afterword” to this issue examines several possibilities for defining these relations. Is the literary presence an analogy, reenactment, or transformation of the sacramental presence, or, conversely, is the interpretive act, an exercise or hermeneutic participation in the kind of faith or sensory engagement that also and preeminently characterizes eucharistic communion?

. . . . . . . . . .

In partial response to these questions, in this introduction I argue that one of the most productive aspects of the sacramental lens is its recognition of the distinctly un-sacramental. To illustrate this point, consider that analogies to sacramentality in literary studies tend to congregate around certain authors and periods. A quick bibliographical search will yield multiple results on medieval mystery theater, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton; relatively few results will be on literature from the Romantic period, and even fewer on the long eighteenth century and Victorian periods; and then another constellation forms around modern writers like Joyce, Woolf, Eliot, O’Connor, and McCarthy. While we might be tempted to point to a particular author’s own religious beliefs or to the densely religious and liturgical structure of their society as reasons for some of these groupings, an additional element with which scholars characterize many of these authors is their tendency to render things as things, objects as mere object. Such writers tend to dwell in the phenomenology of appearance, or, in Richard Kearney’s words, to inhabit “a singularly sacramental imagination which celebrates the bread and wine of the everyday” (Kearney, “Sacramental Imaginations” 2010). Arguably, these authors—and especially those writing for predominantly Christian audiences—initiate reflection on the spiritual not by foregrounding the transcendent but by asserting “the very disanalogous and non-anthropic relation” of literary objects and events to divine presence bespeaking through this same materiality an act of withholding revelation potentially to come (Cefalu 2016).

In saying that a sacramental methodology looks to texts that may serve certain purposes of deferred metaphysical revelation, I want to stress the point that such readings tend to view textual features as initially unattended or unhaunted by divine presence. They are notable for their representations of physicality and human perspective in ways that appear evacuated of any explanation beyond them, and it is in this antecedent appearance of evacuation, insulation, or dis-incarnation that their potential for incarnation manifests. Termed this way, a disincarnate poetics does not exclude a poetics of incarnation. Just the opposite, the relation is chronological, and for many eucharistic theologies, also causal: representational disincarnation precedes sacramental incarnation and, particularly in ritual contexts, is part of a sacramental process.


IMAGE: Picasso, “Blind Man’s Meal”