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Sacraments are a window into God’s imagination

Our Faith

I am a professor of theology, but I cannot tell you what sacraments are. The sacraments, you see, are not things that can be explained but acts that engage us in a very special kind of imagination, an imagination that flows from the origins of things. The sacramental imagination is like a child’s repeated “why?” If we kept answering the child’s question, we would soon find ourselves unable to keep on. Sooner or later we reach a moment where explanation loses its force and the “why?” takes over. We have, in effect, reached the origin of things.

From that moment on, only a special kind of imagination can carry us further. This is why it is so difficult to explain what sacraments are. If explanation could take us to the origins of our being, then reason and reflection could, in principle, satisfy us. The nature of the origins of our being, however, is not to be found in the mind but in the imagination of the Creator.

At the origins, there is only a special imagination, a primal imagination that can “imagine” us into being. This is the sacramental imagination that has the capacity to change our lives. The sacramental imagination operates where there is no “is” yet, where insurmountable problems of being have yet to be solved.

As such, I cannot tell you what sacraments are, but I can tell you why we must enter that primal imagination to be recreated, reimagined anew. But the only way to do this is not through reason or philosophical reflection, but with stories of my own experience with the sacramental imagination, my own trip to the source of all things.


The elements of the sacraments—bread, wine, oil, and water—are pathways to the imagination, building blocks of a new creation.


As it happens, bread is, literally, food for our imagination. Bread contains vitamin B, which, when slightly altered, becomes the hallucinogenic drug LCD. Some scholars believe that the infamous mass hallucinations at the Convent of Loudon in the 16th century were due to such an alteration. A virus infected the wheat that grew around the convent and began to make LSD out of its vitamin B. When the good sisters baked their bread with this infected wheat, they began to hallucinate.

It is not LSD, however, that makes bread an element of the sacramental imagination. It is the people who eat the bread.

Eva was schizophrenic. She suffered hallucinations caused by the slight alteration of a vitamin-like molecule inside the brain. Eva was also our Eucharistic minister. This was a concern for many of us; Eva also suffered violent seizures that involved superhuman strength. During one of her hallucinogenic seizures, Eva picked up a heavy oak table and threw it across a room. Many of us were afraid that Eva might injure someone if she started to hallucinate during Mass.


Nonetheless, Eva portrayed a certain innocence that captured our imagination. Eva showed no favoritism about who she approached for a conversation. She felt equally comfortable carrying on a conversation with a 5-year-old child as she did a 90-year-old adult. Moreover, Eva had no guile. She could ask Mrs. Rodriguez where she had bought her wig without any sense of impropriety.

Eva also seemed blissfully unaware that she had a disability. One could find Eva in the soup kitchen of our church, serving the poor as if she had driven from some comfortable household to help out those more needy than herself.

Most endearing, however, was Eva’s clear and direct vision. She had no concept of the little white lie. When the liturgy committee made excuses why she should not become a Eucharistic minister, Eva simply asked them if they were afraid of her schizophrenia. Eva’s innocence was her charm, yet we all knew that innocence could explode into hallucination at any moment.

And so it did. Apparently Eva forgot to take her medication one Sunday. During Mass, her hands began to tremble slightly. When it was time for Communion, that tremble became a visible shaking. Suddenly Eva rushed to the altar, grabbed the bread, and threw it into the air. Little pieces of wheat rained down on everybody.

With a tremendous shout, Eva grabbed the chair in front of her and threw it at the door of our chapel. The chair hit the glass window and shattered the glass. Three strong men finally got hold of Eva and held her to the floor until her seizure was over. The medics arrived, and Eva was rushed to the local hospital.

The church was peaceful yet again. Yet something was missing from our Mass.

Bread, in Eva’s hands, revealed that life, at its most elementary, is filled with innocence and danger—the innocence of our first parents before the Fall mixed with the danger of a hostile world after the Fall. The bread we eat at Mass is bread offered for us by an innocent One who placed himself in danger and was taken to an anguished crucifixion.

Eva’s hallucinations allowed us to step into the sacramental imagination and revealed a startling comparison. The sacramental imagination is akin to a hallucination: bread becomes flesh and a man becomes a Lamb.

The hallucinatory nature of the sacramental imagination snaps up out of the complacency of our everyday lives and reveals to us the very real danger of this world and the need for innocence.

Eva had shown us all that. When she left the hospital, it was unanimously decided that she should return as our Eucharistic minister. We had missed her.

The bread we ate from her hand would now take us to the origins of our own lives, to reimagine the new world the Eucharist was proclaiming. We all knew by then that it would look a lot like Eva.


Ferment is all that separates wine from grape juice, yet it makes all the difference in the world. I was surprised when I took the cup at a Mass given for people suffering from homelessness at the center where I worked and it tasted of grape juice rather than wine. I did not feel like I had had a proper Communion. And then I realized that most of the people we served were alcoholics.

I had started working at this mission in Seattle’s Skid Road (the country’s original skid row) because I was hoping to make a real change in the world. The Lord had said to sell all I had, so I gave up my well-paying engineer job at Boeing and went to work at this mission to “make a difference.” After all, I was highly skilled and young. The problems at the mission, I felt sure, could be solved with energy and ingenuity.

Day, however, passed into day, and the problems did not go away or get better. My idealism began to turn into cynicism. Whatever was making these people alcoholic and homeless was bigger than I was.

During those dreadful days, my wife and I were blessed with the adoption of a 6 1/2-month-old Mexican American girl. Angela was also homeless.

But once Angela was in our hands, our family became her home. We wanted some rite of passage to mark our new life together. Angela had already been baptized, so we decided on a christening.

When the chaplain at the center heard our plans, he volunteered to do the ceremony at the center. The idea seemed strange at first, but as I thought about it, the suggestion began to make sense. What better place to “Christ”-en a baby than at an inn for the homeless?

My wife and I began to make preparations. We asked friends and acquaintances from our church to take part in the service. We were surprised when many made excuses not to participate. Apparently many felt it inappropriate to have the christening at the center.

I began to ask the people who used the center if they would take part in the service. Jerry, who played the sax on the street for donations, would play “What Wondrous Love is This” as an offering. Harold, who used to be a ship’s captain, would read the first lesson.

As the day for the christening came near, there was excitement in the streets. The people sitting outside begging for coins would stop me and ask me how our little girl was. Angela also became the topic of conversation at our soup kitchen. Out of nowhere, a fellowship had revealed itself in the midst of a ragged group of panhandlers and hustlers.

On the day of the service, as I rose to take Communion, I was surprised once again; this time, the grape juice tasted like wine.

Since the last time I had drank, a ferment had taken place, the grape juice had turned to wine. It was not the ferment of years, which only adds alcohol to grape juice, but the ferment of the sacramental imagination revealing a profound fellowship where I thought none existed.

Angela had stirred that imagination, revealing the presence of the One who also lived in the streets.

I realized that I, too, was part of this fellowship. That I, took, was homeless. God had not brought me here to save these people from themselves but to join their fellowship. I finally realized that to follow Jesus was not to change the world but to embrace it as he once had done, raising the cup of his blood on a wooden altar and creating a ferment that changed his blood to the community called church. The world was not so much to be changed as to be fermented.


I often remember the wonderful smell of my mother’s cooking. Olive oil, garlic, peppers, and onions simmered in anticipation of a special event or family gathering. I always wondered what magic my mother used to produce the smell that would bring all those people to our home.

The Bible teaches the very special meaning of the olive tree and its oil—the oil that created my mother’s magic in the kitchen. The olive tree grows at the border between life and death, between rich, brown soil and pale desert sand. The olive tree grows in rock, almost barren ground at the margins of civilization, at the beginning of the wilderness. Yet from such a difficult life, the olive tree produces an oil of exquisite taste and a wonderful image of the church.

The church, like the olive tree, has always flourished at the margins. At the rocky, barren areas of our live together—the slums, the hospitals, the cynical heart, the moment of death—the church, like the olive tree, produces an oil of exquisite nature, an oil that speaks of life together and where desert silence is replaced by the bustle and excitement of a family visit.

The sacramental element of oil is not for the dying but for the lonely.

There is no lonelier feeling than being seriously ill. At least that is how I felt when sharp pains in my abdomen sent me to the hospital a few years ago. Suddenly I was apart from everyone else. Restricted to a bed in the hospital and far away from my home, I felt a stranger in somebody else’s house. My body also became a stranger to me; this painful mass of flesh was not that body that silently supported my life without complaint.

A nurse began to prepare me for the operating room, a ritual that began to strip the last vestiges of familiarity with the life I had known just two days before. The nurse shaved my abdomen and painted my chest with a brown disinfectant. Several tubes began to sprout from my nose, mouth, and arm.

I felt like I was slowly turning into some kind of machine. The hospital room was austere, not a single painting or even a window by which I could reassure myself that I had not lost touch with reality.

I was groggy when I woke up from the surgery. A burning pain surged from my belly. I looked down and say a six-inch cut through the middle of my abdomen. The reality of what had just occurred struck me: someone had taken a knife and cut my belly open.

It was then I noticed a strange form on the wall directly in front of me. It was the portrayal of a man in great pain. He had been cut, too. His belly had also been cut open, and his hands and feet. I suddenly became very angry. What kind of cruel place was this hospital? What had they been thinking of when they put up this gruesome wall decoration to greet the ill?

When the anesthesia wore off, I realized that the wall decoration was a crucifix, a cross of olive wood with the figure of the pierced and crucified Lord hanging to it. In my grogginess, I had entered the world of sacramental imagination.

Relief was my first reaction. By now I knew that my illness had taken me to another land, a territory where the ill must walk and where family and friends cannot walk with you. It is terrain that is more desert than soil, a place of unimaginable lonely proportions, the land where olive trees flourish. I also knew that I was not alone here; the crucified Jesus was walking this strange territory with me.

The next day my pastor asked if I wanted to be anointed with oil. I wondered if he knew something I didn’t. Was I terribly sick? Was I in danger of death? But as I heard the words of celebration and saw the oil puddle up and quickly seep into my skin as water does when it meets dry skin, I realized that this was no farewell rite, but a family visit.

The oil and the words stirred my imagination; they reminded me of previous family visits where the smell of my mother’s simmering oil mingled with the sounds of family and friends.

The oil connected me to the ancient and broad trunk of the church. I was reminded that the territory I found myself in had been walked before by the man hanging from that olive tree and by all his disciples after him. My loneliness faded away. The sacramental imagination took over and I began to reimagine my health, not just of body but also of spirit.

Today, I am walking around without a gallbladder. And I am not as afraid as I used to be of unfamiliar places, of rocky and forbidding territory, for now I know that’s where olive trees grow.


I was baptized on September 15, 1951 at a church near the blue-green waters that lap the coast of Cuba. The warm tropical sun of Cuba warmed my childhood, a childhood oblivious to the storm that was rapidly becoming a revolution.

On November 3, 1960, I was baptized again, a baptism of fire. My family and I crossed the waters of the Atlantic to the safety of Miami, Florida, crossed from the frying pan of Castro’s revolution into the fire of cultural and prejudicial shock.

At first my child’s eyes saw a wondrous land. The language and customs were exotic and exciting. Everything seemed to have a magical quality and was so different from my own language and customs in Cuba.

Later, however, the wonder left. I was playing with some new friends who were teaching me how to play a new game, football. As we were playing, a couple of teenage boys accosted us. They were yelling words I had learned but that didn’t make sense, words like Cuban and pig. Some of the boys around me began to run, and so did I. Next thing I knew, one of the tall teenagers tackled me to the ground. I tried to get up, but my legs wouldn’t move. My leg had been broken at the hip joint.

My father came running. He tied my leg with a makeshift splint and took me to the hospital. When my mother and father left the hospital, I was panic-stricken. I could speak little English and had never been away from them.

When the nurse turned off the light for the night, my imagination ran wild. I saw monsters and devils peering at me from the darkness. I began to cry. Then the lights came on. A nurse, with obvious disgust, once again said words I understood but that didn’t make sense: Cuban, crap. Apparently I had disturbed other children in the ward, and she was rolling me someplace where I couldn’t disturb them.

The nurse rolled me into an empty room. I kept crying, as her brusque manner scared me even more. The next thing I knew, the nurse was tying a gag around my mouth. Then she tied my arms and the leg that wasn’t broken to the bed. I knew then I would never see Cuba again.

I prayed in the darkness—Hail Marys, Our Fathers and Glorias—but no one answered. Exhausted, I fell asleep. During the night, the nurse took the gag from my mouth and untied my arms and leg. She couldn’t untie, however, the bindings she placed on my spirit, the feeling of profound abandonment.

By the time I reached high school, the binding that had been left on my soul had become pretty tight. The feeling of abandonment had become more real to me than the Father I prayed to that horrible night. Eventually, I decided that God was but a fiction of the imagination, that abandonment is the true reality, and that I must do what I could not to let that reality get the better of me again.

So I chose science as my reality. I did not have to face God there. But as I went on to pursue a successful career in physics, I met my wife, a Lutheran woman from central Ohio. Slowly but surely she filled my sense of abandonment with a sense of family.

I returned to the church, but this time as a Lutheran. Someone was calling me from a place beyond my soul, a place of the imagination beyond my understanding. Someone was calling me from the darkness of that abandonment I still carried inside me and I had to go and see Who it was. I applied for admission into a Lutheran seminary.

My first call as an ordained Lutheran pastor was to a church in Allentown, Pennsylvania that wanted to start a ministry with Hispanic Americans. Within a year I was pastor to about 100 Hispanic men and women from Puerto Rico, Peru, and Central America.

These folk were very poor. We were a successful church in terms of numbers, but we were a poor church without even a chapel to call our own. Nonetheless, the Lutherans of Allentown were kind and generous and let us use their facilities.

Trouble was brewing, however. Some of the members of the English-speaking church and the senior pastor were having second thoughts. Words were being addressed to my members: Puerto Rican, pig, crap. I had come full circle, back to these words that were the source of my abandonment.

It came swiftly. A year after the words started, I found myself in the office of the senior pastor being asked for my resignation. I was technically an assistant pastor in his church and part of his staff. Yet I had become pastor of a community within a community.

When I heard the senior pastor ask for my resignation, I thought I would buckle under with despair, but a force came from nowhere, an energy that forcefully took hold of my spirit and defiantly proclaimed that I would not abandon this small Hispanic community. I would not resign.

When I left his office, I imagined the worst. I thought about the forces that had brought me to this place and wondered Who had called me into this new darkness of the soul. Who had brought me, once again, to this place of abandonment. Who was asking me to relive that painful night of my childhood?

The answer came from the Lutheran bishop, who became aware of my refusal to resign. He asked if I would consider forming a new church, separate from the host church. The small Hispanic group was overjoyed at the news. They unanimously chose the name Saint Martin of Porres Lutheran Church.

My first thought was how to explain this to the bishop. Lutherans may name their church Saint Peter or Saint Paul, but they hardly ever name their church after any saint who is not mentioned in the Bible. I found myself afraid again. I thought the bishop might take back his offer because the name was too “Catholic.”

In despair, I went on a 30-day Ignatian retreat to rest from my struggles. My first three days, I slept. I was exhausted in body and spirit. When I finally regained some energy, I felt something odd.

It was a feeling I had felt a long time ago but had since forgotten. A profound and silent peace engulfed me. Now I heard a voice without sound, a voice that came not from the core of my being but from beyond the core, across that place where I ceased to be me.

The voice was calling me again—not to a place of abandonment but to the place of my baptism, the place where I had first joined the community called the Roman Catholic Church. I began to hear the soft rushing sounds of the waters of my baptism, dissolving the bindings on my spirit, becoming a siren song beckoning my return.

And so I found my way back to the Catholic Church. God had been calling me back to the place of my baptism. Today I am a Catholic professor of theology. My doctoral thesis was on Saint Martin of Porres. I left the Lutheran church a small legacy: the only Lutheran church named after him.

The fellowship I find in the Catholic Church is my constant joy. Though, as a young boy, I lost my way, I found my way back home. Oddly enough, this was only possibly through the loving understanding of my Lutheran wife and her church. My way back home was a labyrinth. Yet such is the sacramental imagination, obstacles reimagined so that crooked ways come straight and mountains razed.

Bread, wine, oil, and water

I am a professor of theology, but I cannot tell you what a sacrament is. I can only tell you why sacraments are.

Saint Paul has written that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38–39).

Saint Paul was talking about the power of the sacramental imagination, the power to reach across insuperable odds to claim back God, to go back to the origins of all being to reimagine and recreate.

Each of us lives with insurmountable odds, inside labyrinths of our own makings and some over which we have no control. For me, it was the Cuban revolution, the Atlantic Ocean, and the spiteful heart of a young nurse at a Miami hospital. For Eva, it was the effects of a terrible disease. For Angela, it was poverty and the desperation of a panicked mother. We all fall victim to war, poverty, disease, human hatred, and pride. Yet none of us are left alone to lose the way.

Bread, wine, oil, and water become the elements for a new creation. The sacramental imagination changed the terms under which we exist, bringing innocence to a dangerous world, fellowship to places of abandonment, healing to the sick, and the way back for those who get lost in the complex and confusing world of the human condition.

A version of this article originally appeared in the February 1994 issue of U.S. Catholic.

Image: Flickr cc via wplynn

About the author

Alex Garcia-Rivera

Alex García-Rivera was a professor of theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, California. He passed away in 2010.

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