Editor’s note: The following article is the introduction from the upcoming anthology Archbishop Sheen’s Book of Sacraments. In these strange and uncertain times, Venerable Fulton J. Sheen’s beautiful prose invites us to the sacraments with a renewed sense of joy. You can find other articles by Ven. Sheen here on CE.
A Divine Sense of Humor
No one can ever understand the sacraments unless he has what might be called a “divine sense of humor.” A person is said to have a sense of humor if he can “see through” things; one lacks a sense of humor if he cannot “see through” things. No one has ever laughed at a pun who did not see in the one word a twofold meaning. To materialists this world is opaque like a curtain; nothing can be seen through it. A mountain is just a mountain, a sunset just a sunset; but to poets, artists, and saints, the world is transparent like a windowpane; it tells of something beyond; for example, a mountain tells of the power of God, the sunset of His Beauty, and the snowflake of His Purity.
When the Lord Incarnate walked this earth, He brought to it what might be called a “divine sense of humor.” There is only one thing that He took seriously, and that was the soul. He said: “What exchange shall a man give for his soul?” Everything else was a tell-tale of something else. Sheep and goats, wine bottles and patches on clothing, camels and eyes of needles, the lightning flash and the red of the sunset sky, the fisherman’s nets and Caesar’s coin, chalices and rich men’s gates — all of these were turned into parables and made to tell the story of the Kingdom of God.
Our Lord had a divine sense of humor, because He revealed that the universe was sacramental. A sacrament, in a very broad sense of the term, combines two elements: one visible, the other invisible — one that can be seen, or tasted, or touched, or heard; the other unseen to the eyes of the flesh. There is, however, some kind of relation or significance between the two. A spoken word is a kind of sacrament, because there is something material or audible about it; there is also something spiritual about it, namely, its meaning. A horse can hear a funny story just as well as a man. It is conceivable that the horse may hear the words better than the man and at the end of the story the man may laugh, but the horse will never give a horse laugh. The reason is that the horse gets only the material side of the “sacrament,” namely, the sound; but the man gets the invisible or the spiritual side, namely, the meaning.
A handshake is a kind of sacrament, because there is something seen and felt, namely, the clasping of hands; but there is something mysterious and unseen, namely, the communication of friendship. A kiss is a kind of sacrament: the physical side of it is present if one kisses one’s own hand, but the spiritual side of it is missing because there is no sign of affection for another. One of the reasons why a stolen kiss is often resented is that it is not sacramental; it has the carnal side without a spiritual side; that is, the willingness to exchange a mark of esteem or affection.
This book on the sacraments is written because men live in a world that has become entirely too serious. Gold is gold, nuclear warfare is nuclear warfare, dust is dust, money is money. No significance or meaning is seen in the things that make a sound to the ear, or a sight to the eye. In a world without a divine sense of humor, architecture loses decoration and people lose courtesy in their relationships with one another.
A Happier Philosophy
When civilization was permeated with a happier philosophy, when things were seen as signs of outward expression of the unseen, architecture was enhanced with a thousand decorations: a pelican feeding her young from her own veins symbolized the sacrifice of Christ; the gargoyle peering from behind a pillar in a cathedral reminded us that temptations are to be found even in the most holy places. Our Lord, on the occasion of His planned entrance into Jerusalem, said that if men withheld their praise of Him, “the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40), which they did as, later, they burst into Gothic cathedrals.
Now the stones are silent, for modern man no longer believes in another world; they have no story to tell, no meaning to convey, no truth to illustrate. When faith in the spiritual is lost, architecture has nothing to symbolize; similarly, when men lose the conviction of the immortal soul, there is a decline in the respect for the human. Man without a soul is a thing; something to be used, not something to be reverenced. He becomes “functional” like a building, or a monkey wrench, or a wheel. The courtesies, the amenities, the urbanities, the gentility that one mortal ought to have for another are neglected once man is no longer seen as bearing within himself the divine image. Courtesy is not a condescension of a superior to an inferior, or a patronizing interest in another’s affairs; it is the homage of the heart to the sacredness of human worth. Courtesy is born of holiness, as ornamentation is born of the sense of the holy. Let us see if ornamentation returns to architecture, if courtesy also returns to human manners; for by one and the same stroke, men will have lost their dull seriousness, and will begin to live in a sacramental universe with a divine sense of humor.
Life is a vertical dimension expressed in the soaring spire, or in the leaping fountain, both of which suggest that earth, history, and nature must be left behind to seek union with the Eternal. Opposite to this is an error which substitutes the horizontal for the vertical, the prostrate form of death for the upright stature of life. It is the disease of secularity and of naturalism. It insists on the ultimacy of the seen and the temporal, and the meaninglessness of the spiritual and the invisible.
Two errors can mar our understanding of the natural world: one is to cut off entirely from Almighty God; the other is to confound it substantially with Him. In the first instance, we have the clock without the clock maker, the painting without the artist, the verse without the poet. In the second instance, we have the forger and the forged rolled into one, the melting and the fusing of the murderer and the victim, the boiling of the cook and his dinner. Atheism cuts off creation from its Creator; pantheism identifies nature with God. The true notion is that the material universe is a sign or an indication of what God is. We look at the purity of the snowflake and we see something of the goodness of God. The world is full of poetry: it is sin which turns it into prose.
The Power and Efficacy of the Sacraments
The sacraments derive their power and efficacy from the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of our Lord. Why was a blood sacrifice required to bring us the seven-fold sanctification? For several reasons: life is in the blood, but so also is sin. The sins of the alcoholic, the libertine, and the pervert are often written on their faces; their excesses are recorded in every cell of their body and every drop of their blood.
If, therefore, sin is to be done away with, there should be some shedding of blood, as if to symbolize the emptying of sin. It is often the death of soldiers that brings freedom to a nation; it is the giving of one’s blood to another which heals him of anemia. The blood bank from which others may draw healing is hint of another blood bank from which souls may be healed of the ravages of sin.
Furthermore, blood is the best symbol of sacrifice, because blood is the life of man: when man gives up his blood, he gives up his life. Hence, St. Peter writes:
What was the ransom that freed you from the vain observances of ancestral tradition? You know well enough that it was not paid in earthly currency, silver or gold; it was paid in the precious Blood of Christ; no lamb was ever so pure, so spotless a victim. (1 Pet. 1:18–19)
The blood of Christ had infinite value because He is a divine person. The life of a lamb is more precious than that of a fly, and the life of a man is more precious than the life of a beast, and the life of the God-Man is more precious than the life of any human being.
Our mind, our will, and our conscience become completely sanctified through the application of the merits of Christ:
Shall not the Blood of Christ, who offered Himself, through the Holy Spirit, as a victim unblemished in God’s sight, purify our consciences, and set them free from lifeless observances, to serve the Living God? (Heb. 9:14)
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt adapted from the upcoming anthology Archbishop Sheen’s Book of Sacraments. It is scheduled to be released in July 2021 and is available to preorder from your favorite bookseller or online through Sophia Institute Press.
We also recommend the articles “How Bishop Sheen Helped Me to Reconcile With the Blessed Mother” and “Ten Reasons to Make a Holy Hour According to Fulton J. Sheen.”
Also, check out our interview with Al Smith, the editor of the Fulton Sheen Anthologies from Sophia Institute Press as well as the founder and director of the Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen Mission Society of Canada. Listen below or find Catholic Exchange on Apple, Google, Spotify or on your favorite podcasting app.