The Sacred Elements: An Alternative Perspective

In her keynote speech, “Elements of Renewal: Fourfold Wisdom,” (as yet unpublished) given at the 2010 Epiphany West Conference, Dr. Marion Grau, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, cracked open the classic institutional forms of understanding of sacrament. “The sacrament is a deep life force around which a community gathers,” she said, “depending on it with a deep need and hunger that nothing else can satisfy.” Another way to think of it is this: something has sacramental value when you understand it as carrying a piece of you, even as you are carrying a piece of it; when you understand that each needs and depends on the other. The relationship is always mutual. As we move our anthropocentric worldview to a biocentric perspective, we can anticipate the opportunity to reframe our understanding of sacrament, and, ultimately, our sense of ritual.

“Earth, water, fire and air are deeply imagined ways of exploring and comprehending the world within and around us,” Grau continued, as a preface to her question: “Can we truly get over the self-focus that is forefronted by some of our own religious traditions, that focus almost all rites, texts and practices on God/human or human/human interactions. Can we remember the elements . . . to give them back their rightful place into our own personal and global cosmos?”

I am indebted to Dr. Grau for opening up a line of inquiry I might not otherwise have stumbled across. Earth, waters, wind, and fire – these are what all life forms hold in common, the sacred elements.

What better way to explore the parameters of a non-doctrinal, non credal spiritual life than to tease out (borrow back) from churches the breadth and depth of sacrament, allowing those elements we hold in common to shape what Thomas Berry insists is the spirituality of the earth itself.

Berry writes (The Spirituality of the Earth) “The crassness of our relation to the earth cannot but indicate a radical absence of spirituality in ourselves, not the lack of a spiritual dimension of the earth. The earth process has been generally ignored by the religious-spiritual currents of the West. Our alienation goes so deep that it is beyond our conscious mode of awareness.”

Berry challenges us to distinguish between human tributes to the earth, and a true acknowledgement of the spirituality of the earth itself, including our human place within the earth community.

So engaging Marion Grau, Thomas Berry, and Caroline Fairless in the same conversation (Oh I wish!), how better to acknowledge the spirituality of all life than to celebrate sacramentally with the elements all life forms hold in common: earth, waters; wind; fire.

To be specific, take, for example, a loaf of bread, and a cup of wine. In Christian churches, these are defined for us (whether literal, metaphorical, historical, or symbolic) as the body and blood of Christ. For those who might understand these sacraments differently, there is little or no room in churches, at least not without a fair measure of deception. The truth is, the grain and the grape are shared by not only among all humans, but across the species as well;  it’s time to reclaim them. They are birthed and formed by the sacred elements of earth, waters, wind, and fire. To share in the bread and the wine is to celebrate the richness, the beauty, and the abundance of life.

Another example, the sacrament of Baptism, which, in Christian churches, celebrates initiation into Christ’s body, the church. Pretty simple. But it’s a rite whose core is Jesus, and includes the theology of being cleansed from sin (Original Sin, by the way), dying and being reborn into the life of Christ.

The waters of baptism, however, not only are shared by everyone, but they are a deep reminder that water forms our very identity; it is water which connects humans to all life forms; water, the basis of our very identity. Understood in this way, then, baptism is a rite of remembrance, or, as I have said elsewhere, a rite of the loss of forgetfulness.

For Reflection

What has it cost us, within churches and outside both, to put a doctrinal and credal frame around the sacraments? This is fodder for a group discussion, church or not. I’m hoping to be a part of it, from the space between . . .


  1. Lee Glembot on February 22, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    The Native Americans recognized the importance of Mother Earth and the circles of life she represented. This concept is not new only forgotten by man in his search of enlightenment. The spirit of god is energy or fire in one of it’s many forms. Water is the main sustenance of life as it is material to life’s being. Air literally the breath of life. We could not exist with out these four element. Time is the space in between.

  2. daigoumee on May 22, 2011 at 7:19 am

    nice post. thanks.

  3. Caroline Fairless on May 31, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks, daigoumee. Keep checking back. I’d be delighted if you’d go to the FB page Restoring the Waters, and become a friend. New posts from this website show up there.

  4. Caroline Fairless on June 1, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Someone asked what the FB profile that’s connected to this website. Thanks for asking. It’s Restoring the Waters. I really appreciate those of you who have “liked” the FB page. And I hope more of you will do so. Thanks!

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