The late Pope Benedict XVI never tired of reminding us that liturgy is a place of encounter with the real Jesus Christ. Our worship is marked by the constant presence of Christ, visible under many different guises, but it is sometimes difficult to gain glimpses of this constant presence outside of the rituals of the Church, especially as we busy ourselves with the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives. How often do we take the physical world—and all that it is plainly revealing—for granted? To address this problem, Father Harrison Ayre’s book, Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental Worldview, comes to our aid. From his remarkable vantage point at the Western World’s western edge (Father Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria on Canada’s Vancouver Island), he helps lighten the darkness to allow us to see this sacramental vision or “sacramental worldview” as the author prefers to call it. Written during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we all were reassessing our collective and individual complacencies, this book is akin to a visit to the optometrist, not for our eyes—but for our souls.
This short and accessible book makes for splendid spiritual reading for those jaded by modern society’s unceasing cynicism. (It is also an ideal subject for parish or college study groups, coming complete with a reading guide to help direct discussion on each chapter.) Ayre arranges his work into three parts, first explaining the term “sacramental worldview,” then elucidating on the Church’s role in this worldview and, lastly, showing how we can take steps to live this worldview, manifesting our Christly encounter through the sacraments.
The Sacramental Worldview
“Mysterion” is the word used by the Early Church Fathers to describe those sacraments through which we enter into a share of the divine life. The sacraments conceal as much as they reveal, insofar as our human nature can merely comprehend material things though our senses, and faith alone is our sight to the spiritual realities contained within these sacred mysteries. The mysterious element of the sacraments is Christianity’s worst kept secret: Jesus Christ, present and active! Nevertheless, the concealment is a large part of the sacraments’ attractiveness. Our mortal curiosity is piqued by the sense of awe created by ritual; the sacred mysteries—the sure and certain access of our salvation—depend on symbol and language to dispense to the faithful the sacraments’ efficacious reality, a reality which provides us with an opportunity to encounter Christ.
If Jesus is the sacrament of the Father, then our participation in the sacraments is our choosing to live “in Christ” since that grace which is made available to us through the sacraments is that very same divine life, or what Benedictine Father Virgil Michel beautifully called: “Christ-life.” Our living “in Christ” then allows us a deeper understanding of the divine mind; it transforms our response to beauty in the material world, it helps our mind to ponder the relationship of time and eternity, and it forms us into theologians so that we can consider God more fully and with a clearer perspective. Therefore, the sacramental worldview is necessarily a participation in Christ’s life, seeing through Christ’s eyes, as much as possible.
Ayre warns the readers that an all-pervading “modernism” is the principal villain in stopping us from achieving a clearer sacramental worldview. Modernism invites and encourages cynicism, the denial of recognizing God at work thorough the natural world. To deny God his rightful status of Creator is to be sacramentally blind. “Modernism undermines mediation [the communication of God through material things] in the most fundamental way because it argues that God and creation can’t interact with each other, that the physical and the spiritual are completely incompatible” (Ayre, 37). This position also damages truth, reducing it to the whim of human rationalism. Modernism is thus aided and abetted by the insidious sin of acedia. If the former urges us to disavow God in earthly things, then the latter tries to avoid the very things in which God is present. However, modernism forgets an essential fact: as Imago Dei, human persons are natural mediators. That is, we mediate God to the world, and the more we live “in Christ” the clearer that is manifested.
Acedia attempts to close the door and thwart our encounter with Christ. The Church, on the other hand, holds the door open, and brings about that same encounter which will transform the world; for, as Christ is the sacrament of the Father, so the Church is the sacrament of the Son. To extend our ophthalmic analogy further, the Church is our sacramental telescopic lens, allowing us access to the cosmic breadth and depth of the divine life.
The Church as Mediator
It is the Church that allows us to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is through the Church, the very Mystical Body of Christ into which we are baptized, that we have an individual relationship with Jesus. Because we as Catholics also have a relationship with our brothers and sisters in faith, the “I” is enveloped in the “we” of the Church in a shared membership of Christ’s body, in a shared profession of belief in him. The Church is Christ’s body here on earth, mystically present and manifested to the world. It is the sacrament of Christ. For Ayre, the theological virtue of faith is the Church’s very act of being, since it is faith that is sought at baptism. Therefore, the Church herself is the “principal place where Christ acts in the life of Christians” (Ayre, 62) and the mediator between God the Father and mankind.
In his famous Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote, St. Thomas Aquinas states that when trying to understand the gift of the Eucharist, our human senses fail us—all, except our hearing: “the ear alone most safely is believed,” as Oratorian Father Edward Caswall’s 19th-century translation puts it. The ear possesses this capacity because we can hear our faith being taught in the Holy Scriptures and the teaching of the Magisterium, which confirm for us that the Church is the place in which we truly encounter the living God. For this reason, Ayre says, the eyes also play a role in our belief. “Faith, then, is more of a way of seeing than a simple assent of the mind to the truths of God…. [F]aith is Christ living in me—Christ acting, thinking, seeing, feeling in me” (Ayre, 64), Ayre asserts, citing Galatians 2:20: “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” So, by opening ourselves to the work of God’s grace in our lives, and recognizing it at work in and through us, we are lifted up into Christ’s life, and become living icons of the Savior at work in the world.
The Church is beautiful, even in its imperfect human rendering, because it epitomizes harmony and proportion, manifested in beautiful art (church architecture, art, music, etc.), its hierarchical structure of clerical and lay members working to build up the kingdom of God here on earth through the corporal works of mercy and charity. This outpouring of charity is itself an imperfect rendering of the harmonic relationship of love par excellence: the Blessed Trinity. All of these truths are taken into consideration as Ayre uses the middle portion of his book to explain the Church’s role within the sacramental worldview, reminding us that as a hierarchical communion, the Church is a sacrament of the one who founded it: the Mystical Bride reflecting the glory of her beloved Bridegroom. Moreover, like all sacraments, the Church is an efficacious one. The Church effects what it signifies, namely Christ. She permits an authentic, loving encounter with our Redeemer, making visible the source of salvation. Nevertheless, to share in this love is to also share in the means by which this love won our redemption, namely, the Paschal Mystery.
Vision relies on clarity, and so sharpening an image is necessary to reveal fully what is before us. At the foot of the Cross, all human diversity is brought together, washed in the blood of the Lamb, pouring from his side as he hangs on the cross. This unity of God’s holy people creates for the world a sharper image of the Church and, therefore, of Christ. Our unity as expressed in and by the Creed creates a laser-sharp beam to penetrate the modernist world and its darkness and doubt. Speaking to the importance of this unity in the sacramental worldview, Ayre says that “the Church is a communion: it’s a communion of loving service between all members in the various orders and states of life to serve the common good” (Ayre, 76). The Church is the dispenser of the principal means of grace, the very glue by which we adhere to the life of Christ. At each natural stage of our life, we are filled with supernatural life to sustain our soul on its pilgrim journey through the reception of the sacraments. “Each sacrament,” writes Ayre, “[has the] primary effect…to unite us in a unique way to Christ, thus building up the unity of his body, the Church” (Ayre, 77). In other words, the sacraments offer us an abundant share in his priestly, prophetic, and kingly munera, or gifts.
Baptism opens all this up to us; Confirmation matures us in the Holy Spirit; the Eucharist draws us closer and sustains us on this journey of faith. Confession heals the wounds caused by sin, re-aligning us on the path to heaven. Marriage shines out to the world as a beacon of God’s unending love for his Church, and Holy Orders shows clearly the call to service, worship and teaching over the Christian people. Lastly, at the end of the earthly path, the Anointing of the Sick tethers us to Christ’s suffering in his passion and shows the world the generosity of his love. By living these sacraments and living the graces received through them, we create a colorful and intricate mosaic of Christ for the world to admire and to emulate. The Church, simply put, is the visible work of Christ in the here and now, as Ayre encapsulates nicely: “Through [the members of the Mystical Body], Christ’s redemption is made visible for the world to see, thus fulfilling the Church’s role as the sacrament of salvation” (Ayre, 81).
In the Blessed Virgin Mary we see the perfection of the Church. Ayre elucidates on her title “Mother of the Church,” for she bore the Church in her womb; thus, she has a personal, maternal relationship with each of us. Her fiat allows us access to the divine life, and we must emulate her receptivity, her divine femininity, and her ability to contemplate the goodness and generosity of God in her life. Mary teaches us how to be fully human. “When receptivity and contemplation go hand in hand as in Mary, then liturgy very much becomes about what God does in us rather than about what we do for God” (Ayre, 90).
We are called to something greater. Even inanimate objects find their ultimate telos in the liturgy: the marble slab from the quarry becomes the altar’s mensa, the grapes crushed out for altar wine, the fine threads of gold woven into precious fabrics for beautiful vestments—even sap from trees is burned as incense. The liturgy also forms and transforms us, as Pope Francis reminds us in Desiderio Desideravi. The Holy Father asks how “we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action” (27)? How do we allow our rheumy eyes to see again, through the symbols of the liturgy, the reality beyond? If our lives become intertwined with Christ’s, then we carry out his salvific work in the hodie of the Church’s liturgy. The liturgy makes us radiant with the spiritual realities of heaven. It is those realities we carry with us over the threshold of the church door and out into the world. We respond to the call—our mission is clear.
The vibrancy of our radiant clarity as Christians is kept bright through the habitual celebration of the liturgy flowing with the rhythms of the liturgical year and the hours of each day marked by prayer. Human time and God’s eternity connect, marking a constant stream of praise from earth to heaven in response to the endless torrent of blessings from heaven to earth. God has given us the gift of the Sabbath, now Christianized in the Lord’s Day, to worship him, and to contemplate him. Our celebrations of fasts and feasts, being each an opportunity for leisure in the true, classical sense, help us discern our purpose and galvanize us for the mission.
Ayre prescribes a good liturgical life, necessary for our increasing deification. We pray in imitation of Christ to the Father and, by so doing, we mirror the dynamism of love found in the Most Blessed Trinity. In every element of the liturgy, God speaks to us in a sacramental fashion. Our humanity is not overwhelmed with the awesomeness of God; rather, his voice is heard in ways sensible to our limited understanding. We must constantly persevere in our prayer life—during periods of distracted prayer as well as in times of good contemplative prayer—to hear that voice.
Ayre equates a sacramental life to discipleship. This discipleship justifies our daily life, by showing forth the Christian virtues to the world. In recognizing our need for continual metanoia and reconciliation, and by turning any suffering we endure in this life over to Christ, we make his Passion and Death present in the world, showing our redemption was necessarily worked through that same Passion. When we hear the Passiontide hymn Vexilla regis (“The royal standard goes forward”)—is it we who are the standard-bearer, or are we hiding in the back row? It is time to adjust the varifocals of our souls, to see God in all things, to recognize him in the everyday in order to authentically encounter him in the sacred. We can once more see with 20:20 spiritual clarity, and Mysterion: The Revelatory Power of the Sacramental World View is an ideal first step to remedy our spiritual cataracts.
Roderick Bryce is Director of Music at St Joseph’s Cathedral-Basilica in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is also on the faculty of Newman Theological College, teaching the Way of Beauty class. He and his wife have two daughters. He holds a Master of Arts in Liturgy from the Liturgical Institute at University of St. Mary of the Lake at Mundelein, Illinois.