A former professor once commented to me that she thought she really only learned something well when she had to teach it. I understood what she meant when I taught my own course on the Middle Ages. One of the key ideas in which I was interested was that of “worldview”: how did people of the past see the world and how did their world-view differ from the modern one? What did the world mean to them as opposed to the moderns. I knew about some aspects of this going into the class, but one that struck me part of the way through the class was the concept of “sacrament” in the medieval mindset.
The seven sacraments familiar to Catholics today were clearly summarized and discussed by the twelfth-century theologian Peter Lombard, whose discussion became the textbook to which all later medieval theologians would refer and which was never really disputed. The sacraments also became the object of so much popular enthusiasm that in some places crowds would rush from one Church to another in order to see the key moment when the priest raised the host and proclaimed “hoc est corpus domini.”
Much of the reason Peter Lombard’s discussion of the sacraments was never really challenged until the Protestant Reformation, and much of the reason for this popular acceptance is that the notion of sacrament must have simply seemed natural to medieval people given their world-view. To them the material world was the sign or symbol of a higher spiritual one. The material world was thus a meaningful place, a place that had its meaning written into it by its maker. Matter concealed a higher spiritual meaning. One example in this lay in how people read scripture.
Medieval Catholics considered several different senses of scripture. Scripture had its literal sense- the plain meaning of the words, but it also had three symbolic senses. The literal sense hid below it a more spiritual meaning; the literal became a sign of the spiritual. Hence, the story of Jonah was not merely the story of a man swallowed by a whale, regurgitated by said whale on a beach, and who then successfully (and unsurprisingly) called the people of the local city to penance. Rather, the literal sense was the sign of, or pointed to, a higher spiritual one: that is, the death of Christ, His lying in a tomb for three days, and His subsequent Resurrection.
To a medieval this was natural: scripture, though written by human authors, was inspired by God, so it made sense that a higher spiritual meaning should be concealed by the literal words. The same was true of the world. The world was made by the hand of God, so it was not surprising that matter might conceal a higher spiritual reality. The Incarnation must have seemed perfectly proper to men with such a view.
Also unsurprising would have been the notion of sacrament. To them, a sacrament was a material sign with a hidden spiritual reality; it looked back to Christ’s Passion and conferred grace. To a medieval, with the view of the world having its meaning written into it by God, it would have been perfectly normal that matter should conceal sanctity, that unleavened bread might conceal (below its accidents) divinity. This view would have been natural to them, not in the sense that they probably consciously thought about it much, but in the sense that they swam in it like a fish in water. This was why they ran from church to church, in a rush to see matter become divine.
Not so in the modern world. In a world that is “disenchanted,” in belief if not in fact, there is little room for sacrament. Matter cannot be a sign of higher realities if there are no higher realities. Even many Catholics struggle to appreciate it; where the medievals were fish in water, the modern Catholic is more like a land animal learning to swim. Even if his conscious beliefs are different, the background he swims in is too often that of the secular worldview with which he is continually bombarded. If sacrament is to make sense to a modern world, then something of the older medieval world-view must be recaptured and the culture changed.