Grace is the unmerited free gift of God to creation, to human nature; it is God’s free gift of himself, his self-communication, his overture to his seekers. Seeking is the response to the absolute mystery that is God, the response to the moment of the experience of the abyss, where one meets God, or its opposite. Seeking is the expression of supernatural existential, which is the religious and existential space open to receive grace (cf. K. Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith). A human being can die of thirst in the cool and fresh sea of grace, if, as the hearer of the message, the reader of the signature, he is closed off---deaf to the message, blind to the sign. The human creature must drink from this abundance of grace: grace must get inside; it must be transformed, translated. The limitless abundance of sufficient grace must be (re)created into amazing, efficacious grace in the human person.
I recently presented grace as both the signature of God and as predisposition of the human person to that signature. I also located God outside of creation and spoke of his radical absence, his ‘already been there.” The link between this absence and vanishing presence, and the negative capability of the human person to be imprinted by God’s self-communication is sacrament. Sacramentality is the living principle of Catholicism; it is the reality that creates grace, or at least transforms, or better, translates, grace to the human agent. Because sacrament is first and foremost a sign, the concept has the potential to speak to postmodern discourse inasmuch as structural linguistics is in dialogue with the postmodern and post-structural impulse. Despite the postmodern dilemma of the unfixed sign and the problem of the instability of meaning, we can nonetheless begin in the linguistic sign. Indeed, the comprehensibility of the sign, especially of our example of sacrament, forms the crux of the discussion. First a brief definition: the sign is composed of a signifier and a signified, that is, a sensory input and its evocation, in the case of language, the sound image and its associated concept. Saussure’s famous example in his Course in General Linguistics is that of the sign, or word, ‘tree’: the signifier is the sound ‘t-r-ee’ and the signified the mental picture/concept of the biological entity. The notion of sacrament is not much more elaborate, except, perhaps, in that it often involves more than language: physical matter, not merely the sounds of language. Still, the overall intelligibility or success of signification drives the sacramental experience.
At this point I will side-step the 7 Sacraments of the Catholic Church properly so-called, and address my final remarks to other sacraments or sacramentals that nonetheless mediate meaning in the world and perhaps comment on the meanings that mediate the world. In a word, how can God’s ‘radical absence’ be reconciled with his ‘hidden presence’? These dialectical oppositions resolve in the synthesis of sacramental presence. God’s signature, then, is the diacritic of his self-communication, and it graces nature with his sacramental presence. That presence is certainly a real presence whose reality is mediated by grace. This grace is a ‘created’ grace, for the uncreated grace of the divine circumincession can never be contained, or trapped, in nature, in space-time.
In the postmodern turn, signification creates the sensible world: there is no world that is not brought into practical existence by language. And as such, the world is an unstable place, created as it is by signifiers and signifieds which seem to be fleeing the signs that unite them, making meaning a thing in flux, tenuous and uncertain. Catholicism averts such instability because it admits of the Logos that brings the world into being from nothing by the fiat of the ‘word.’ It is in the word that belief meets the postmodern critique which is always looking to the sacrament through its hermeneutic of suspicion, ultimately seeking a hermeneutic of faith, looking to slake its thirst in a sea of grace, amazing grace.