A Tale of Two Sisters
The Sacred World of the Christian
By Mary Anthony Wagner
Publisher: The Liturgical Press
Review Author: Ralph St. Louis
Sister Mary Anthony Wagner’s discussion of the sacred focuses on sacramentals, arguing that rituals and sacred objects are essentially symbols of human attitudes. Priestly blessings, for example, do not make objects “bearers of some extrinsic supernatural power”; they are merely meant for “the renewal of persons.” Sister realizes that many if not most Catholics believe otherwise. In their view, a blessing invokes God’s power on the person or object blessed, and in some sense that power continues to inhere in the person or object. This popular view predicates the existence of two realms, the sacred and the profane, while Sister would have one world, all of it sacred.
Belief in two realms inevitably carries with it the notion of the sacred as sanctuary: a fortress against the power of evil or misfortune, and a shelter on the day God’s justice lays waste the works of the devil. Pope Leo XIII’s prayer of exorcism to St. Michael, ever more popular in these confusing times, is an obvious example of two-realm thinking; a blessed medal inscribed with an image of the archangel Michael is an accompanying sacramental. Sister’s one world, on the other hand, seems to have little room for this. The sweat of human desperation does not stain these pages, nor is a raw need for refuge in the holy ever much in evidence. Her book is seemingly meant for those who anticipate only the normal ups and downs of middle-class life. Sacred rituals and sacramentals, she contends, get Christians through the boredom of the commonplace. “Faith in our myth,” she states, “does not add a new dimension to our ordinary lives.”
If we need sanctuary at all, Sister seems to believe, it is from our own narrowness. We must not “eschew our innate ability to reach self actualization.” Do the topics for discussion at the end of each chapter indicate the kind of self-awakening Sister has in mind? Some are jejune: “Have you experienced receiving a blessing from a parent or a friend? What might it express about your relationship to that person?” Other questions invite remote and unproductive abstraction: “What does Rahner mean when he says, ‘if man is forbidden to belittle himself, because to do so would be to belittle God, and if this God remains an insoluble mystery, man is forever the articulate mystery of God’?”
Sister’s notion of self-actualization may be better revealed by the social paradigm she examines. Relying in part on popular treatments like Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, she extols the green and golden world of the American Indian. “In all of recorded history,” Sister remarks, “probably no race on earth was as religious as the primitive Americans, for whom everything done and thought, day or night, was influenced by their beliefs.” To support this view, Sister examines a number of Indian rituals, including the Aztec New Fire Ceremony. “At sunset a new fire would be kindled in the breast of a freshly slain victim, from which all new fires were then rekindled in temples and homes,” she observes. “With the renovation of temples, the refurnishing of homes, feasting on special food, bloodletting, and human sacrifice, the world would once more be made safe for fifty-two years.” The destruction of these societies, Sister tells us, came with the “arrival of the white race, for whom religion occupies merely a niche reserved for the unreal, the other world in their lives — a kind of reference point reached only after death.”
But Indian rituals and racial guilt have limited appeal to those looking for a usable guide to sacramentals. Catholics are unlikely to assume that going outside Christianity for an understanding of ritual, devotion, and sacred objects is either necessary or prudent. However, Sister’s multicultural approach reflects a growing trend. Certain members of Sister’s own order have for years been grappling with the Enneagram, a personality classification system rooted in Sufic spirituality. Soon Shibashi workshops may be among their consciousness-raising activities. Shibashi is a meditative movement derived from the Taoist Tai Chi. At an early summer meeting of the Federation of St. Gertrude, 59 prioresses and delegates representing 24 monasteries in North, Central, and South America heard their keynote speaker extol the merits of Shibashi.
In the past, women religious ministered more directly to those who sought God’s help in their lives. An incident in the life of Sister Engleberta Fuchs, a Benedictine, now 92 years old, who lives at the large Monastery of the Immaculate Conception in southern Indiana, is a case in point. According to a recent news report in my local paper, Sister Fuchs came to the monastery in 1923. Over the years she befriended a woman whose son-in-law, Roman Ritzert, was chief hull inspector at the Evansville Shipyards. This facility on the nearby Ohio River produced over 150 ships during World War II. When the first ship built there, LST 157, became Ritzert’s obsession, Sisters Fuchs not only prayed for him but gave him a Rosary blessed by Pope Pius XII and encouraged him to use it. “I carried that rosary so I wouldn’t make a mistake,” Ritzert said. “I worried night and day. I carried that rosary for spiritual help.”
In the sense that it lessened Ritzert’s apprehension, Sister Fuch’s sacramental was “useful.” But its effectiveness may not have ended there. Before LST 157 was launched on the Ohio in October 1942, Ritzert went down to the keel and hid the Rosary in a pocket between steel support beams. The ship was not sunk in the course of the war. Off North Africa it was the target of an air raid, and it destroyed an attacking plane. Near the Sicilian coast, because of misread signals, a sister ship — LST 158 — went into shore in the place of LST 157. A few minutes later a German dive bomber attacked and sank the sister ship with heavy casualties. In the following months LST 157 survived a near miss by a bomber off the Italian mainland, air raids between Tunisia and Sicily, air raids while on convoy duty to England, and an explosion and fire that destroyed six other LSTs at Pearl Harbor in May 1944.
Was LST 157 simply a lucky ship? Or in fact did the Rosary buried in its hull and the prayers said for the safety of ship and crew keep it from harm’s way? There is no proof either way. But Christians live by a faith that invites and anticipates the intervention of the supernatural in their lives, even to the suspension of natural laws.
Everyone knows that any ritual, devotion, or religious object can be misused. But occasional abuse is no argument for neglect. The persistence of sacramentals, at times even in the face of a clerical disdain, is remarkable. Such endurance powerfully witnesses to the tenacity of ordinary people in conveying from generation to generation their sense of the holy. It also suggests that their sacramentals have been efficacious, that they do indeed invoke God’s power, sometimes in unmistakable fashion.
A traditional sacramental like the Rosary rests most easily in work-worn hands, and in the hands of those who can identify with the faith of common people. The use of these sacramentals typically reflects a grim wisdom about life. That the darkness will finally close in, the sirens eventually sound, is not doubted, for human life never takes another course. Given these decisive moments, a Miraculous Medal that has been prayerfully worn will surely prove more trustworthy than any amount of skepticism about its value. A family that has prayed consistently before a picture or statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus will be unlikely to regret the time they have spent expressing their confidence in His mercy.
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