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23.05.01 Schwartz/McGrath (eds.), Toward a Sacramental Poetics

23.05.01 Schwartz/McGrath (eds.), Toward a Sacramental Poetics

As a researcher on the sacraments in late medieval Christian theology and art, I jumped at the chance to review this important new collection. I was expecting a varied, socially engaged, and stimulating read. Spoiler alert: I have not been disappointed. The common focus of the ten articles is the Eucharist, as the essential sacrament discussed or adumbrated in a range of genres, mostly theology and literature.

This present book is an outgrowth of the seminal work by Regina M. Schwartz, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World. [1] Shortly after the book was published in 2008, first responses were delivered at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion. From that experience, with its “broadening and deepening” of the title concept, the idea for the present collection was born (10). Of the ten chapters, only one, on Dante and Eucharistic theology, is solely focused on a medieval author. Given its theme, however, the entire collection is a feast of commonalities to engage the medievalist, and I will take care to note the medieval intersections in this review.

By design, “sacramental poetics” has a double meaning, both of them referenced throughout the volume. The narrower meaning, set forth in Schwartz’s earlier book on the topic, is specific to the post-Reformation, Early Modern western tradition, especially in England. Per Schwartz’s foundational paradigm, when “the Mass no longer turned a wafer into the mystical body of God (4),” a spiritual hunger was created that could only be redirected into substitutes, by the practice of “sacramental poetics.” Employing “poetics” in the widest definition of the term, to encompass all forms of “poiēsis/making,” Schwartz explains this attempted re-creation of the Real Presence as especially embodied in poetry, but also in other areas of culture, including eucharistic theology and political theory. For Schwartz, not only was God lost to the world with the doctrine of transubstantiation, but also a vital form of human communion, “the sacramental system of sociality,” at the risk of giving way to “mere spectacles of state power” (5).

This narrower definition, if mechanically applied as a template dividing Catholic from Protestant, medieval from modern, would clearly be problematic. Happily, the editors and contributors to this volume intend no such thing. The concept of “sacramental poetics” encompasses a second, wider understanding, which works as a catalyst for insight on a “range of sacramental significance that can never be exhausted” (10). In this theory, “sacramental poetics” it is a form of sign-making that “says more than it shows, that creates more than it signs” (2), much like the words of the Mass as they transform the bread of the wafer into the body of Christ. This form of making conveys not only “transcendence,” but “efficacy,” the power to confer grace, effect communion, and “manifest a world” (6).

I will begin with a detailed review of Chapter 3, Stephen Little’s pellucid “How to Write Like God: Dante and Sacramental Poetics,” as it is foundational to the other nine articles in the volume. The author begins with a question: given the centrality of Eucharistic devotion in Dante’s lifetime, why does his entireComedy include no reference to the Eucharist or the ritual of the Mass (72)? From the earliest Christian writings, the Eucharist was defined as more than just a memorial or sacramentum/ sign, New Testament Greek mystērion, the visible sign of a sacred thing. In the words of the Vulgate, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, partakers of the wine and bread experience a communicatio with the blood and body of God, by which “we are all one flesh” through participatio (72-73). After centuries of debate on the exact nature of God’s real presence in the bread and wine, the doctrine of transubstantiation was codified at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and explained by Thomas Aquinas as a unity of both “sacramentum et res/sign and thing” in the consecrated bread and wine.

Moving on to Dante’s theory of signification, Little reviews the well-known four levels of meaning, one literal and three allegorical, as set forth in Dante’sConvivio. In the “allegory of the poets,” the literal level is fiction; only the Word of God is true in the letter as well as the spiritual significations (81-83). Focusing on the Inferno, cantos 1-3, Little argues that in his Comedy, Dante “wrote like God.” The story is polysemous but true on the literal level, as Dante-pilgrim tells of his personal conversion that figures both the Exodus from Egypt and the resurrection of Christ (81-85). Directed from the first line of theComedy at “nostra vita/our life,” that is, to all of us, the poem is meant to be ingested by the hearts of us readers and to realize in us our own conversion as well (86). Little concludes by explaining how Dante’s “poetics [in the Comedy is] modeled on the incarnation,” the Word made Flesh (89). When Love inspires the poet deep within himself, as he explains at Purgatorio 24.52-54, so “vo significando/I go signifying” (91). Figured by Christ as the Word, Dante’s poem becomes itself a sacrament, a sign with the power to “effect the divine union that it signifie[s]” through its union with the heart of the reader. To answer the question, Dante’s Comedy is not exactly about the Eucharist. Rather, it is a Eucharist.

The theme of “Sacramental Translation” is introduced in Chapter 1, Rowan Williams’ “Cloven Tongues: Theology and the Translation of the Scriptures,” on the translation theory that animated the English King James Bible (1611) and its contemporary theologians. Citing Calvin, Hooker, and Jewell, among others, Williams argues that in their Reformed theology, “scriptural translation...[is] in effect...the incarnation and the cross...a kind of sacramental act” (22). In the words of translator Miles Smith, in his preface to the 1611 English Bible, translation “putteth aside the curtaine” to the Holy of Holies so that all may see inside, just as occurred at the redemptive death of Jesus (21-23). The “apostles needed more than one language” to make the scriptures plain, as signified by the cloven tongues of fire at Pentecost (28). Will there be a final version, a perfect version, of a vernacular Bible? No, there will not (23). As the Eucharist is taken communally, so the Word of God can only be fully understood by Christians together, through “corporate discernment...[not by a] substantial body, but a body of interaction and common speech” (25, 34-35).

The Schwartzian paradigm is foundational to Chapter 2, Subha Mukherji’s “‘Those Are Pearls’: Transformation, Translation, Exchange,” which discusses “translation” as metamorphosis of character, to be found preeminently in Shakespeare’s plays. A context is set by Richard Hooker’s theology of the Eucharist as effecting “a kind of transubstantiation in us, a real change” (50). With its “material condition,” the drama was especially conducive to attempting the longed-for union of sign and reality, whereby transubstantiation could be “reimagine[d] rather than reject[ed] outright” (38). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when the play-actor Bottom is “translated” into an ass, the stage prop donkey’s head “not only signals but effects a transfiguration,” as the dimmest of characters now articulates the highest truth in the style of a holy fool (52-53). In this Protestant context, we are never allowed to forget that no change of substance has occurred in the actor or character. Rather, a spiritual change is effected in the soon-to-be-married couples of the play, by “their minds transfigured so together” (pp. 53-54, Dream 5.1.24), as well as in us, the audience assembled in “this hallowed house,” the theater (p. 54; Dream 5.1.390, choice of quotation mine).

In Chapter 4, “Sacramental Poetics and Quasi-Sacramentals,” the second of a duo on “Sacramental Aesthetics,” Kevin Hart engages with the Schwartzian paradigm as the catalyst for a partially dissenting point of view. First, he explains how most Reformed theologians did affirm a “real presence” of Jesus at communion, even as they mostly denied the doctrine of transubstantiation (100-02, 105). He proceeds to the larger and more timeless question of how the experience of poetry might satisfy the hunger for a real participation in the body of God. An answer may be found in the sacred semiotics of the “sacramentals” as established in theology by the time of Peter Lombard, meaning the rituals that “help prepare one to receive a sacrament,” such as the blessing of the water to be used in baptism (107). As poetry is oriented to the aesthetic pleasure of its readers, and not our transformation, it generally cannot be a sacrament (111). However, as a “quasi-sacramental,” it may lead the way to spiritual renewal, for example, in Simone Weil’s experience of Christ while reciting the Herbert poem “Love (III)” (112).

A duo on “Sacramental Politics” is introduced by Chapter 5, “The Sacramental Dilation of Richard Hooker” (1554-1600), which focuses on the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, especially Book 5 (121, 141). Noting that Hooker had “nothing to draw upon save the...European Catholic past” (121), John Milbank explores how Hooker achieved an essentially Eucharistic, “highly integral vision of the...ecclesiastical and political,” with a “simultaneous dilation of the heart upward to God and outward to this world” (121, 150). As the monarch of a Reformed Christian polity, in Hooker’s Thomistically-inflected view, the English king must always be subject to the law, that is, to the realm at large, the second of his “two bodies,” as well as to the church, which is ultimately subject to the communal discernment of the “body of Christ” as a whole (123). At the same time, as earlier preached by Langland, authority in both polities, church and state, must be reciprocal (138), with the king authorized to have the final word on religious matters of doubt, replacing the pope in Thomistic political theory (131-32), but with the bishops granted authority in some respects over the king (133). To express the mystery of the polity as uniting the human and divine, Hooker self-consciously deployed a mannered style of “cross and circulatory speeches,” as he described it (p. 121; Laws 5.53, qtd. at 141), much as did Herbert and other “metaphysical” poets of the era, as they sought to achieve a kind of transubstantiation through their art (149-51; 5).

In Chapter 6, “The Miracle of the Eucharist and the Mysticism of the Political Body,” Hent de Vries engages with modern philosophy and political theory to explore the question: how can the hunger for a “real presence,” which effects the transcendent experience of human “communion,” be satisfied in the secular political bodies of today (164-65)? As hypothesized by Wittgenstein in his “Lecture on Ethics,” it may “take nothing else but a miracle” to affirm “a value that is ‘absolute’” (166). Per Schwartz, once we take the “trans” out of “substance,” even the Eucharist is just about “identity,” not love (170). De Vries proposes an inclusive “tradition of miracle beliefs,” which goes beyond but does not negate the Eucharist, as a means to realizing “a radically open community in and of this world” (172).

The next two articles engage with sacramental poetics and “Metaphysics,” here defined as the branch of philosophy dealing with “being as being,” in modern philosophy the science of the object (177). In “Going around Metaphysics,” Jean-Luc Marion begins with the question, “How could we have access to the sacramentality of mere things, to the sacramentality of the world” (177)? We humans need a science of the possible, of objects knowable to Cartesian cogitation (183, 189), but in Christian terms, this is not enough, for with God nothing is impossible (185). A pathway must be sought for “going around” metaphysics, not negating it. In a complex argument drawing mainly on Early Modern to modern philosophers, Marion supports the solution articulated by Pascal’s Pensées as the doctrine of the three orders: from lowest to highest, first, the order of objects; second, the order of the [Cartesian] mind, which comprehends the object; and over both of these, the order of love, which alone can understand all things, including “divine things...[for] we must love them in order to know them” (187-88).

In “Verbum Efficax; The Theopoetics of Real Presence,” Ingolf U. Dalferth begins his intricate text with a related question: how can we humans make meaning, signify, with a verbum efficax, that is, “with a significance beyond what is signified,” reflecting the “surplus of meaning” or “intensity of presence” in the created world we are a part of (200)? First, we must remember with Augustine and Alan of Lille that creation itself is a “book,” a polyphony of “res/things” that are also “signa/signs” and a “speculum/mirror” reflecting God, who alone is the “res vera/true thing” (202-04). One way for us humans to practice such “theopoetics” is through enacting the Eucharist, by which we physically take in the elements, but “receive the res vera” (216), per the Reformed theology of Luther and Zwingli (217). Dalferth elaborates on Luther’s doctrine of the “real presence” at the Eucharist by explaining the “presence” as not corporeal, but as God present to us “as he really is for all humanity and all” (220). Human attempts to signify can only be efficax, be real, when they operate in “ caring about persons beyond all rules...Only love generates love” (228-29).

Rounding out the volume are two articles on sacramental poetics and the modern. In “Dracula’s Sacramental Prosaics and the Remains of Religion in Modernity,” Lori Branch describes how late Victorian anxiety over “encroaching secularism” (see Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”), was somewhat paradoxically expressed in the success of plays and novels such as Dracula, as they re-presented the Christian faith in its “ancient” and “physical” manifestations (238-39). While the consecrated wafer in Dracula is degraded to a mere object with magic powers (250), the sign of the cross retains its full sacramental import as a visibly rendered sign, as a sharing in the body of Christ, and as means to human communion. Per theologian Andreas Andreopoulos, the cross was signed with these understandings from the earliest Christian times (247). Finally, in “The Franciscan Hearts of Hopkins and Merton,” Paul Mariani identifies the medieval theologian Duns Scotus as the direct inspiration for Hopkins’ poetry of “haecceitas/thisness,” or every thing in creation as a sacred sign (263). Hopkins’ “eco-poetry” is paralleled by fellow Catholic convert Thomas Merton, for example, in Merton’s effusion on Easter morning as he spotted a woodchuck peeking upward from its long winter’s nap underground (262).

Throughout the collection, editors Schwartz and McGrath have performed their role with wide-ranging interest and a commendable freedom of inquiry, especially for the chapter authors who explicate Reformed Eucharistic theology as really, despite the onset of “secularism,” pretty satisfying. Overall, Toward a Sacramental Poetics is itself a verbum efficax, a text that not merely “signs,” but points beyond itself to a world of discoveries to come.



1. Regina M. Schwartz, Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008).