More “Real” Than Real

We live in a culture that is ultimately material. By that I mean that what is considered most “real” is that which can be experienced with our five physical senses. What we can see, hear, taste, smell and feel is what is real to us. Essentially, that means that what we observe in the natural world and what we have feelings and impulses toward are the only things that exist. Of course those things are real, and yes we experience them in the natural world. But where does that leave us with the question of the supernatural, the order of things not apparent to our physical senses, the truth and reality that is actually happening in the everyday life of the Spirit?

We say that we believe in God and the supernatural world; but unfortunately, many Christians today behave as mere materialists, interpreting their faith and the spiritual life solely within the dimension of the natural, material world. However, there is an ultimate reality — something more real than the reality known to our physical senses — in which we can participate, and I believe that the sacraments of the church are the daily means by which we live in that reality. In fact, the sacraments reveal that ultimate reality to us, as if lifting the veil to expose the full picture of God’s love and redemption story for all of creation.

What reality is revealed?

A sacrament is “the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation,” and the Church’s Catechism explains how God has gifted us with signs observable to our senses that allow us to participate in a reality that exists beyond those physical senses:

“The seven sacraments are the signs and instruments by which the Holy Spirit spreads the grace of Christ the head throughout the Church which is his Body. The Church, then, both contains and communicates the invisible grace she signifies. It is in this analogical sense, that the Church is called a ‘sacrament.'” (CCC 774)

So within a sacrament something is actually happening in the spiritual life. This revelation certainly contributed to me becoming Catholic, and it daily awakens me to what is most real. I will give you a couple of examples of this deeper level of reality, what is actually happening, when we participate in the sacraments. I have been pondering the reality of three sacraments in particular recently: Baptism, Marriage, and the Eucharist.

Baptism — For some people Baptism, First Communion, and Confirmation have become merely symbolic “events” worthy of photo shoots and parties afterward. Have we lost sight of what is really happening? Through the anointing oil, prayer of exorcism, and the cleansing holy waters poured on the child, the stain of original sin is being wiped away. This soul is entering into the life of the Church and beginning a pilgrimage in which those witnessing souls are also participating. Remember those Oxi Clean commercials? It’s like spiritual Oxi Clean for the soul! The dirt of original sin is literally removed to reveal a whiter than white fresh soul ready to begin that spiritual journey. But if you are only looking with your eyes you won’t see what is actually taking place right there in that moment in our time.

Marriage — Why is being married in the Church and according to her canon law so important? Because what is actually taking place when it is a sacramental marriage is nothing like a contractual agreement that may at some point in time be dissolved. When the two become one flesh something very real has happened in the spiritual lives of both of those people that impacts completely their physical lives and reality from that point forward. They are suddenly knit together, responsible for helping each other journey to heaven. In fact, the vocation of their marriage is the way God is choosing to sanctify them and make them holy. My husband is not just my companion, my partner in life, my lover — at that altar and in that sacrament he (with all of his flaws and charisms) became the person in this life that will participate in the sanctification of my soul. Mind-blowing. Awesome. Overwhelming.

The Eucharist — Maybe this one is both the most obvious and the hardest to comprehend at the same time. To my physical sense I am eating bread and drinking wine. If I approach that bread and wine as a symbol, I’m not acknowledging that something transformational is taking place. I must realize that I am taking the real presence of Christ into my own body, and that phenomenon radically changes me and spiritually sustains me with graces. That moment of consecration on the altar is not just some ritual; the most ultimate and supernatural reality is taking place before our eyes in every mass! Christ is offering himself for us, to sustain us on our earthly journey. When we enter into that reality — when we get that — we will only be able to participate with total reverence and awe, and our daily living will be sustained like never before.

How do we “sense” this ultimate reality?

If this is the realness that we can live in, then how do we then experience this ultimate reality that is always present with us? As human beings created in the image of God, we have been gifted with a sixth sense — the religious sense.  The Catechism describes this religious sense in several places as the “supernatural sense of faith” (CCC 91-93, 889). Faith is one of the three theological virtues (faith, hope & love). Through the eyes of faith we are able to see our lives, the lives of others, and the world in which we live in a supernatural dimension — we are able to perceive what is most real, the ultimate reality available to us in the spiritual life. We access these eyes of faith, this religious sense, through grace; as with everything in the spiritual life, it is a gift.

But human agency is always a factor. Are we living in a way that opens ourselves up to that gift of faith? Are we taking part in the gift of the sacraments? Have we let patterns of behavior and distractions blur our vision and numb our religious sense? If so, we may find that we are merely living material lives day in and day out. But this will not satisfy. This is not the abundant life that Jesus speaks of in John 10:10. We must foster the religious sense if we want to live in the ultimate reality and be fully alive.


Copyright 2018 Jessica Ptomey

Don’t Stifle the Good

Right now I’m going through a phase that involves making some changes and finding new rhythms…spiritually and otherwise. (Hmmm…funny that it happens to be the middle of Lent.) Changes can be hard for those of us who struggle with perfectionism or are naturally high-achievers (Ahem…). It’s hard, not because we don’t welcome the change and betterment, but because we don’t tend toward moderation. For some strange reason we tend to only think of improvement on a large scale, missing the opportunity to make a one small and gradual change at a time. We like hitting the metaphorical “overhaul” button.

It’s probably an issue of pride. I’m finding that just about every fault seems to be rooted in pride. Perhaps we are actually lacking in the virtues of patience or temperance too; I’m not exactly sure. But what we are effectively doing is setting ourselves up for failure. We are stifling the good that could begin to take root with the passionate desire for complete transformation. I’m reminded of Voltaire’s aphorism:

“The better is the enemy of the good.”

One interpretation of his meaning is that when our mindset is “perfection or bust” we bust; and we miss the chance to accomplish a more moderate good. In trying for unrealistic goals, we often never get going or don’t make it very far. Had we tried instead for a more attainable end, we would have been successful in cultivating a lasting good, which we could then build upon later. 

I think that we need to embody G. K. Chesterton’s famous phrase: “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” The thing of it is that we actually become the people that we want to be by practicing who we want to be. That means that we are going to start off doing a poor job of things and learn, by doing, how to make things better. Remember, practice makes perfect; we don’t get to perfection without a lot of practice.

This goes for both the secular and the sacred. We don’t decide to become healthy and instantly have no cravings for sugar and lots and lots of bread. We don’t decide to start practicing mental prayer and immediately (or ever) become St. Catherine of Siena, experiencing ecstatic visions with Christ. Change takes time, and the joy of important changes is only experienced over time. I’m learning this (slowly), and I’m trying to embrace the pace of implementing grace-filled incremental changes so that I don’t stifle the good that God wants to cultivate in my life.

The Circle of Christian Life

Our 7-week-old Stella Maris was baptized on Saturday. It was so beautiful. It was a small gathering of our family and Stella’s godparents in our church’s chapel on the hill that was built in the 1700s.

Attending a baptism is always a powerful and moving thing. There is no question that something “other-worldly” is happening as the stain of original sin is removed from this little soul and she enters into the eternal life of the church. This realization is certainly intensified when the child is your own, when you are personally responsible for guiding her journey here on earth.

I tried to take it all in with fresh eyes, as her forehead was marked with the sign of the cross, her chest and head anointed, and the cleansing waters blessed and poured over her. Finally, her baptismal candle was lit from the Easter candle, signifying the transfer of the light of Christ that has now come into her life and given it new birth. She now carries that light with her on her journey — however long that journey may be.

We had to exit the chapel fairly quickly, because a funeral was taking place right after. As I took Stella’s gown off and packed her up in her car seat, people began filing in and the Easter candle was moved in front of the altar in preparation for the Mass. I was suddenly struck by the circle of the Christian life that was playing out before my eyes with these sacred and sacramental events in close succession. Continue reading “The Circle of Christian Life”