A Sacred Look: The Sacramental Imagination
With Sr. Nancy Usselmann on June 20, 2016

Each month throughout 2016, we are proud to feature regular articles from two of the most spiritually aware and keen thinkers in the discipline of theology and film we know – Sr. Nancy Usselmann and Avril Speaks. We have commissioned both of them to write new series considering particular questions pertinent to those of us who are interested in how Christians can contribute positively to the world of cinema. In the third and fourth weeks of each month of this year, we will feature the next article in each of their series. These articles will remain on our website throughout 2016, but at the end of the year, we will remove them and publish a reworked, edited version of their series in a pair of books available thereafter for purchase.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is the newly appointed director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA, a position formerly held by Sr. Rose Pacatte. Believing Christians of all catechisms can learn from each other, we're excited to feature Sr. Nancy's distinctly Catholic vision for how we can all become more spiritually aware movie-goers and how we can share that experience with the world. You can find her entire series archived here. - Editor


One of my favorite pastimes is to wander around art museums. I am always fascinated by the artists’ use of symbols to convey some profound meaning of human existence. Rembrandt’s use of light shining on a face, illuminating the subject from within shows reflective thought and intelligence, such as in his Old Man in Military Costume, as well as awareness and righteousness in Daniel and Cyrus before the Idol Bel. The light hues are contrasted with the intensely dark backgrounds that symbolize the power of light to pierce the darkness—physically but also spiritually. Viewing digital media arts requires the same reflection and attention to detail. Symbols in contemporary film and television shows offer the observer a rich viewing experience when these symbols are understood, grasped, and contemplated.

Human beings, as transcendent beings, are oriented to mystery, to the supernatural.  We were born in mystery and directed to mystery. Karl Rahner says that the human person, “is the question to which there is no answer.”[1] This, however, does not mean that all of human existence is wrapped in uncertainty, but rather that the answers we attempt to make about our fundamental existential questions leave us only with more questions. We are ultimately striving for communion with the supernatural, the other, who is God. Yet, this God we are ultimately oriented to is incomprehensible. Rahner explains:

The human person is the unanswerable question. His fulfillment and happiness are the loving and worshiping acceptance of his incomprehensibility, in the love of God’s incomprehensibility with which we can learn to “cope” only by the practice of love and not by the theory of the desire to understand.[2]

Love is that which allows us to surrender our controlling drive to understand the fulfillment of the human person and everything else to the incomprehensibility of God who is Love Itself. Mystery is not about that which we cannot know but rather about what we cannot transcend or exhaust. It is endlessly intelligible.[3]

Liturgy and Sacraments

Since the spiritual is wrapped in mystery, there is need for us finite beings to see the expression of God’s presence in the created world through tangible and material substances. The Church’s sacraments and liturgy are concrete communal expressions of the presence of God in creation.[4] Liturgical worship is the embodiment of created reality offering an act of worship of its Creator. Sacraments, through liturgical ritual, make grace perceptible. A sacrament is often defined in St. Augustine’s terms as a “visible sign of invisible grace” or a “sacred sign” that makes the sacred visible. This concept of sacrament can be understood in a much wider context than the connotation of the Seven Sacraments of the Church. It can also be understood as meaning that all that is visible holds the potential to be a sign of the sacred – all human experience can be the place where God is present.[5]

The purpose of sacraments is to not simply mediate grace, but to transform human existence. Richard McBrien states, “A sacramental perspective is one that ‘sees’ the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical.”[6] The broader understanding of sacrament, then, encompasses all of human experience that reaches for transcendence or the more. Rahner says that nothing is finished or fully created until it becomes a sacrament—a coming together of the natural with the supernatural. Christ effected a change in humanity, he says, and his humanity is the very visibility of God.[7] Christ is the perfect sacrament and through Christ the entire created order is made sacramental. Henri de Lubac calls it a, “sensible bond between two worlds”—the world of visibility and the world of God coming together in a sacrament. He says the, “Sacramental reality is not just any sign, which is provisional and can be changed at will…. It is always through it that we reach what it signifies; it can never be superseded, and its bounds cannot be broken.”[8]

Sacraments employ symbols and signs that convey a depth of meaning. A sign specifically points to something beyond itself and communicates a sense that is deeper than the concrete object that it is. A symbol is a type of sign that often has numerous connotations and reaches beyond the sign itself to touch the imagination and emotions as a way of communicating feelings and ideas.[9] Symbols can take us to the depths of things and so can be experienced through contemplation and reflection. For this reason, art employs symbols that reach beyond the tangible realities to deeper truths of human existence and into the realm of the supernatural. We transcend the limits of our finite existence into the realm of the Divine. We reach over our present experience to touch the Divine Reality, God who is Creator of all that is, the ultimate desire of all human longings. This anthropological view is the very human basis for what is call sacramentality.[10]


When we enter into the realm of mystery, and of God, the incomprehensible, we seek symbols and signs to give expression to our experiences, our emotions, and our awareness. These expressions are sacramental since they make the invisible God visible. Yet, it requires a certain awareness to recognize God present in human experience. This is a “sacramental awareness”[11] and is often the way of artists, poets and musicians, since it requires an acceptance of mystery while seeking to convey this through emotions and human expressions.

Sacramentality involves images as symbols and signs that need our contemplation, not necessarily our decoding. We look at art and ask what it is that it desires of us, not what it means.[12] This is the same of sacraments and sacramentality. We discover not what they mean but what they convey—the presence, the gift, the grace. By employing theological aesthetics we go deeper into the sacraments’ effects beyond their surface meaning. This divine life we receive in the sacraments is that more that we seek, that desire in the human consciousness for what is beyond our material reach. The symbols in liturgical rituals bring us beyond the surface of the materiality to the greater depth of its supernaturality. As it says in Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” This is the very sacramentality of creation.

The core of sacramentality is the use of symbols and signs to covey deeper realities. Signs point to something beyond themselves. Symbols are more complex signs that convey a series of meanings and point to the very depths of things. They allow us to see beyond, to feel deeply, and to contemplate.[13] Artists often think symbolically and have a peculiar sacramental awareness that many people do not possess. Artists tend to reach toward mystery, the unexplainable, the existential. They extend toward feeling, sensitivity, reflective cognition that enters into the mystery while reflecting on human experience. John Shea explains, “Sacramental consciousness does not desert the concrete, historical world but turns it into a symbol.”[14]

Poets do this with language. Gerard Manley Hopkins sees the beauty present in nature and exclaims, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” He observes God’s presence that shines forth with brilliancy more than natural light can convey. He sees the sacramentality present in creation, in the light flickering off the leaves of trees, in nature’s wondrous beauty. His is a sacramental awareness. Rainer Maria Rilke has this same sense when he writes in Love Song:

Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin's bow,
which draws *one* voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?

He sees beyond these words to the sacramentality of marriage, when, “the two will become one flesh.”[15]

The sacramental awareness is ingrained in such master artists as DaVinci, Carravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, Matisse, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keefe as well as in contemporary artists such as Jay DeFeo and Jasper Johns. It is also present in filmmakers such as Lasse Hallstrom, in his rich depictions of human experience and relationships in Chocolat, The Hundred-Foot Journey, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and the works of Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Terrance Malick, to name only a few. It is through symbol that deeper meaning is conveyed. It is through nature that grace is made visible. It is in our sacramental imaginations that God’s presence is touched in human experience.

Sacramental Imagination

Sacramentality is seeing the presence of God in the world and in all human experience. It takes our imagination to move beyond the signs and symbols to the deeper meaning they convey—to the point that everyday experiences, situations, objects, and persons are, “revelations of grace.”[16] The sacraments give actual grace. Popular culture’s artifacts, such as film, music, and graphic art, can provide grace-filled moments. Robert Johnston says, “We are…provided with an occasion for encountering our Lord afresh, as God transforms the stuff of life into a sacramental that reveals briefly, yet indelibly, something of his glory and grace."[17] Today cultural artifacts can be a channel of God’s self-communication and engage our sacramental imagination.[18]

What then do we mean by sacramental imagination? In the action of the form of the sacrament is the sacramentality and it is God who takes the first action. For it is God’s covenantal faithfulness that is, “the motivating force of sacramentality that overcomes any ministerial deficiency.”[19] That which allows us to participate in this divine life of God is our very sacramental imagination. This is the way of viewing reality through the lens of faith where the finite mediates the infinite, and all of creation can be a mediation of grace.[20]

Our human faculty of imagination is the ability to form mental images in our minds of things we have not experienced through our senses. A sacramental imagination means that we can experience creation as a manifestation of God[21], allowing us to see beyond the physical to the supernatural. All of reality reveals the presence of God. It is seeing the tangible realities as conveying something of deeper meaning and purpose. It is an incarnational perspective of the world and human experience. 

These are sacramental moments in human experience and God’s grace is active in the world through the many longings and desires of humanity. Sacramental imagination refers to the everyday events, persons, situations, and experiences that are moments of God’s self-communication—moments that reveal God’s grace. These sacramentals make God’s presence known, not just an idea of God, and so are revelations of grace at work in the world. They make God present in our midst, this God who created all things. His presence permeates all of creation and communicates the beauty and goodness of God.

The cultural art of cinema provides numerous examples of sacramental imagination at work. Culinary feasts deliver a wealth of symbolism representative of the Eucharist liturgy, such as in The Hundred-Foot Journey. The rich symbolism of food is the catalyst for understanding and acceptance amid cultural clashes. An Indian family moves from Mumbai to a small town in France to open a restaurant directly across the street from a renowned Michelin-star winning restaurant, owned by Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren). After fierce competition for acceptance, it is the tastes and sights of rich cuisine that provide the opportunity for compassion, reconciliation and collaboration.

The perseverance of married love, one that does not give up on one another despite severe trials, is aptly symbolized in the repetition of rituals in The Painted Veil. This third adaptation of the 1925 novel by W. Somerset Maugham has bacteriologist Walter Fane (Edward Norton) marry Kitty Garstin (Naomi Watts) and move to Shanghai where he studies infectious diseases. She marries only to get as far away as possible from her overbearing mother finding herself unsuited to Walter and involving herself with Charles Townsend (Liev Schreiber) in a passionate relationship. When Walter learns of the affair he takes Kitty to a remote mountainous village in China to treat victims of cholera. While there, Kitty volunteers at an orphanage run by French nuns. Slowly through the innocence of the children she serves, her own “innocence” returns and she begins to appreciate her husband—the beauty of her marriage vows and his selflessness in his work. The gift of marriage is shown through self-gift and its lack when selfishness supersedes.

The sci-fi crime thriller Inception is the story of Dominick Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a professional thief who commits espionage by entering the subconscious of the targets so as to extract valuable information for a heist. He is a master at infiltrating his victim’s dreams in order to manipulate information. Cobb then is offered a chance to erase all his past criminal activity as payment for inception, the implanting of ideas into another person’s subconscious. The film shows how twisted one’s conscience becomes when warped by criminal activity, yet there is the yearning in Cobb for happiness and release from being trapped in the dream world. The spinning of the totem, a consistent symbol throughout the film, shows the continuance of time regardless of the actions of a dream world. The totem is a test of reality. It spins indefinitely in the dream world, but falters and stops in reality. Time, as this life, has an end. Eternity lasts forever. And that cannot be controlled or manipulated like dreams. Authentic love of family and hope beyond what this world can offer symbolize eternal life, as is shown when Cobb finally sees his children again. 

What the sacramental imagination expresses is that sacramentality revolves around mediation. The non-material is mediated through the material. The sacraments are mediated through symbols. Transcendence is mediated through immanence. God the Father is mediated through the Incarnate Son. Christ Jesus not only mediates the presence of God but also is God’s very self-communication. He is grace. He is salvation. He is justification. Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrament that transmits actual grace upon believers, the gift of himself. Sacramental imagination is grounded in a creation-incarnation-resurrection paradigm of practical theology. It is through the natural created world that God’s grace is mediated. It is in the person of Jesus, God’s Son who is God’s life to humanity, and it is in his resurrection that all is confirmed by the greatest act of divine intervention in creation. For, “The saving grace that God makes available to us in and through creation is the gift of divine love that exceeds even our wildest hope.”[22] It is precisely this view of the structure of creation where we think differently about the material and finite, seeing them as access points to experience the infinite beauty and goodness of God mediated through the finite.[23] This is what makes a sacramental imagination.

Effective cultural mystics are those who can interpret the common human experience in the light of the great mysteries of faith using the symbols present in the natural world to illuminate our spiritual experiences. It is precisely these common everyday symbols that point to, or reveal, deeper realities that can be means of grace. Popular culture’s use of these symbols and signs provide an understanding of our human experience and purpose. Signs convey meaning which guide us to the mystery. They engage our imaginations to reflect upon the spiritual realm, the supernatural existential. Concrete objects and embodied rituals contain invisible dimensions that are not immediately sensible to human experience. There are layers of meaning. When we bring this sacramental/liturgical imagination to the artifacts of popular culture we break open this symbolism and reach through the perhaps not so transparent layers to discover the hungers of humanity and the desire for the supernatural.

[1] Rahner, Karl, The Content of Faith, (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 2000), 73.
[2] Ibid., 80.
[3] O’Donovan, Leo, Ed., A World of Grace: An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner’s Theology, (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1995), 40.
[4] Eggemeier, Matthew, T., A Sacramental-Prophetic Vision: Christian Spirituality in a Suffering World, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014), 9.
[5] Brian Gleeson, CP, “Symbols and Sacraments: Their Human Foundations,” Australian eJournal of Theology 2 (February 2004), 1.
[6] McBrien, Richard, Catholicism, revised and updated edition, (North Blackburn: Collins Dove, 1994), 9-10.
[7] Cf. Rahner, Karl, The Church and the Sacraments, (London: Burns & Oates, 1974).
[8] de Lubac, Henri, The Splendor of the Church, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 203-204.
[9] Gleeson, Symbols and Sacraments, 2
[10] Ibid., 2.
[11] Ibid., 9.
[12] Ibid., 15.
[13] Ibid., 2.
[14] John Shea, Stories of God: An Unauthorized Biography, (Chicago: Thomas More Press, 1978), 21.
[15] Mark 10:8
[16] Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 1.
[17] Robert Johnston, “Visual Christianity,” in The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century, ed. Todd E. Johnson, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2002), 181.
[18] Ibid., 1.
[19] Ibid., 16.
[20] Ibid., 16.
[21] Ibid., 8.
[22] Shea, Stories of God, 24.
[23] Ibid., 24.

Sr. Nancy Usselmann is a Daughter of St. Paul and the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, CA. She has over twenty-five years experience leading retreats, teaching workshops, and giving presentations helping spiritually-minded media creators and consumers understand media relative to their faith and vice versa. You can follow her on Twitter and read her regular musings on media on her website.

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