When I first entered the community, I was drawn by the simplicity of the life and the simplicity of the surroundings: the church where we worship as a community is free of distracting decoration, for example. This spoke to me of a deep spirituality beyond words and symbols, without physical images that can replace the spiritual realities they indicate. But my understanding was still very one-sided. And I was surprised and confused by the devotionalism we still practiced as a community–practices like the blessing of throats. Weren’t we beyond that?
I had to learn from experience–and often only learn reluctantly–that as a human being we perceive, we understand, we relate through symbols and language; that we are embodied and the physical could be a vehicle for the spiritual. Intellectually, I accepted that sacraments are “outward signs instituted by Christ to communicate grace”; experientially, I wasn’t grasping that a faith built on the Incarnation posits that the embodiment itself is not only sanctified but was created with a capacity for sanctity. A capacity for grace which is the divine life communicated to us.
I wasn’t grasping this in the traditional devotions of the Church, such as blessings and sacramentals, even relics, which I had only seen as pedagogical tools for the “simple”. But in our living tradition, they are much more. Yes, they can degenerate into “idols”, replacing the realities they indicate. The Reformers and iconoclasts of the sixteenth century certainly saw them that way and obliterated, sincerely believing that they aspired to a more spiritual worship of the God of revelation. But they can also be transparent vehicles of grace; they can also indicate the sanctity of creation and matter; they can be the “down-payment” on God’s promise “to be all in all”.
At that time, I couldn’t recognize my innate snobbery and would never imagine that one day I’d be praying to become one of the “simple”.