Think for a moment of something stunningly beautiful that has ever taken you completely out of yourself. Perhaps it was a newborn baby or a thunderstorm, a breaching whale or a magnificent symphony. Try to remember how it made you feel in the moment when you stopped thinking and just let yourself be lifted up and carried away.
When this happens to me, I feel limitless and radiant, as if God’s bright hand had touched me and given me a glimpse of my truest, holiest purpose. Though the experience may be fleeting, I long to act on the glorious sense of discovery that is rising inside me, to hold on to it and make it a part of my life, forever. As John O’Donohue says in his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, “When we experience beauty, we feel called. The Beautiful stirs passion and urgency in us and calls us forth from aloneness into the warmth and wonder of an eternal embrace...in an instant it can awaken under the layers of the heart a forgotten brightness.”
The beauty of nature is just one way that God calls us to virtue and self-donation, displaying his incomparable artistry for our edification. He calls us to follow his example as best we can, relying on his grace to buoy and inspire us, to use ourselves for the good of others by expressing our own lives beautifully and generously. The loveliness all around us has a genuine sacramentality, which means that in a very real and intentional way, beauty speaks to us of God’s presence. Sacramentality and sacraments, however, are two very different things.
Sacraments are efficacious signs of spiritual realities. The ritual of the sacrament actually accomplishes what it represents, because in each sacrament, Jesus personally effects a spiritual change through the ritual actions of a priest or deacon. For example, through flowing water and the invocation of the Trinity, baptism irrevocably marks our souls as Catholic, cleansing our souls of original sin, bringing us into the family of God, and preparing us to receive the Gospel.
In the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are cleansed and healed, forgiven by God through the words of absolution spoken by a priest, who stands in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). Through bread and wine consecrated in the hands of the priest, Holy Communion plunges us into the one-time sacrifice of the cross, nourishing our souls with the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. Each of the seven sacraments was instituted by Jesus Christ, and each of them is a gift that helps us to point our lives homeward, to heaven.
To make the distinction clearer, while sacraments actually cause the spiritual effects that they signify, “sacramentality” is the quality inherent in creation that has the power to open our hearts to the presence of God. Like a beacon shining in the night, the sacramentality of the created world breaks through our wordly preconceptions and reminds us that God is infinitely beautiful, creative, and complex; that we are loved boundlessly; and that we ourselves are called to love without limits.