Sep 15, 2001

The Sacrament of Salt

Online Edition – Vol. VII, No. 6: September 2001

The Sacrament of Salt

by Sean Kinsella

"You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men".

Matt. 5:13 (RSV)

The sacrament of Holy Orders is a sacrament of salt. Salt meant three things to the contemporaries of Jesus. First, salt was a measure of worth. The word "salary" is derived from the Latin salarium, "salt-money", which was the wage paid according to how much salt could be purchased with it. Second, before the advent of refrigeration, salt was used as a preservative against corruption and decay by preventing food from spoiling. And, third, salt was a precipitator of thirst.

Salt, then, was a measure of value ("You are the light of the world", Matthew 5:14); it was a preservative against decay ("Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life", John 6:27); and salt made one thirsty ("If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink", John 7:37). The last passage calls to mind the words of Jalal al-Din Rumi, the thirteenth century Sufi mystic, who asked, "What is love? Perfect thirst". (William C. Chittick. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York, 1983, 195)

Holy Orders as a sacramental sign exemplifies and declares the meaning of salt. The sacrament of Holy Orders is salt, not just for the immediate, proximate Church, but for the whole world: "[This] is a covenant of salt for ever before the LORD, for you and for your offspring with you". (Num. 18: 19) Holy Orders is a visible and audible, as well as subtle and silent, presence in the world, which works for its preservation against corruption; which makes people thirst for the Word of God and the person of Christ; and which stands as a measure of value in a world that has lost its sense of proportion and worth.

The measure of value is not an easy thing to declare nor is it an easy thing to bear in oneself as a sign, as a sacramentum, a seal that marks and identifies. Holy Orders is a sign to the world of Him Who seals, Him Who signs, Him Who saves. This is a great responsibility and a challenging witness; a witness that epitomizes the apostolic charism of Holy Orders: "Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another". (Mark 9:50)

Poverty, chastity, and obedience represent the three senses of the meaning of salt. Poverty is a measure of value (in that God gives abundantly and freely, with no consideration for human measures of wealth). Saint Francis of Assisi well understood this sense of poverty when he exhorted his brothers to "hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves so that He who gives Himself totally to you may receive you totally". (A Letter to the Entire Order, 29; in Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, trans. Francis and Clare: The Complete Works. New York: Paulist Press, 1982, 58).

Chastity is preservation against corruption in that it stands against the grasping violence of lust and appropriation. As it is expressed with eloquence and brevity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "Chastity is a promise of immortality". (Second Edition. Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1997, 563, No. 2347)

Obedience is the thirst of both master ("Jesus said to her, ‘Give me something to drink’". John 4:7) and servant ("’Sir,’ said the woman, ‘give me this water, that I may not thirst’", John 4:15). The one vowed to Holy Orders is both master and servant; both the one who speaks and the one who listens: "Speak, for thy servant hears". (I Samuel 3.10)

The paradigm of the listening servant is Mary, the Mother of God and the first hearer of the Word. The vows, which are three-fold, proclaim the answer of the servant in poverty, chastity, and obedience (from oboedio, "listen to", "obey"; and related to audio, "to hear", and audientia, "to give attention"; and which suggests a common origin in the Greek word aisthanesthai, "to understand", or "to perceive").

These are the attributes of Mary, the model of the fullest response to God’s call in both sacraments of commitment. In both Matrimony and Holy Orders, Mary is the model and exemplar of commitment and response: a commitment that is indissoluble and a response that is whole-hearted.


Sean Kinsella received a BA in history from Cornell University and an MA in Franciscan Studies from the Franciscan Institute, Saint Bonaventure University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in historical theology at Saint Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. This is his first contribution to the Adoremus Bulletin.



The Editors