My friend Enuma spent time in Paris this summer, writing and reading and drinking bitter coffee in cafes that got famous for making bitter coffee for writers. She wrote an absolutely lovely piece on her blog about explaining God to someone who knew nothing of him. She tells her new friend about the insane story of Abraham and Isaac, about the angel and the ram. “I can’t believe how the telling felt like sacrament I couldn’t fully hold,” she says, “a channel of God’s showing up, reminding me of the absurdity of faith.” She whispers to herself reminders of God’s faithfulness.
I’ve mentioned before that when I was eighteen, my mom took me to her cousin’s tattoo parlor in San Pedro and I got the Hebrew word for ‘mystery’ inked just under my right ankle. It didn’t hurt as much as I thought it would and, when it was done, we went to Angel’s Gate Park and I imagined that I could float over the basketball courts and the Korean Friendship Bell, just above the Pacific, all the way to Catalina.
The churches I grew up in weren’t churches that indulged much in the sacraments. Communion was served once a month at the midweek service for more serious Christians, and we celebrated baptism once a year in the man-made lake out front. Things like Confirmation and Last Rites were reserved for the Catholics who went to Holy Family, who had to stand up and sit down and kneel and sit down at different times during the service, a sort of religious plyometric session every Sunday. Our communion was passed down person to person; plastic cups full of grape juice in silver trays that I would slug back on my own and a pile of bread that I would hold onto in my palm until it was sweaty and flat and we would all pop it in our mouths at the same time. I was thirteen when I first took communion mostly, I think, because my parents thought I was old enough to make a good decision for myself.
The idea of a Sacrament is a strange one. Quakers famously do not ‘practice’ Sacraments, believing all that we do to be holy. Most Protestant traditions use the term to refer only to baptism and communion. Some Lutherans add Confession and Absolution to this list, and other traditions would elevate foot-washing and the hearing of the gospel to the level of Sacrament. In the Catholic Church, the Sacraments are sevenfold, comprising Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession as well as Matrimony, Confirmation, Last Rites, and Holy Orders. A Sacrament is any kind of activity in which God is uniquely active (cf. Hexam’s Concise Dictionary of Religion). There may be two Sacraments, or seven, or seventy billion. I would, at the very least, add an eighth (a third?) to this list.
“I whisper to myself that God is faithful,” Enuma writes at the end of her piece. She whispers to herself. We all do this, really. We say different things to ourselves at different times of our life or different times of the day. But what of this kind of whisper? What do we make of the kind of grace that allows us to tell ourselves a story we may not fully believe? When we need to be reminded of the truth that is at the bedrock of our souls, when there is no one whose words can soothe us or shock us into belief, when we don’t so much say the words but the words say us, like running our fingers over braille–Isn’t this also an activity in which God is uniquely active?
The Eastern Orthodox Church has another name for what we call Sacraments: Sacred Mysteries. The more I’ve learned about the Orthodox Church’s approach to these activities, the wider my lens on the matter has become. There are not only seven Sacred Mysteries, although the Church recognizes that list. There is a special grace that undergirds these activities because they are ordained by God, but they do not make the rest of life less holy. They are wrought with mystery, which is a difficult thing for a person like me to understand.
That is why I whisper to myself. I say the words I need most to hear, the words I am in danger of losing and the story I am in danger of forgetting. And when a whisper isn’t enough, I will ink the word onto my skin before I will let it go.