Sacramentality and foundational experience: a reflection on Bruce Morrill’s The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke

Bruce Morrill's 2016 book, The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke.In June, I had the pleasure of participating in a panel at the CTSA celebrating and commenting on the publication of Bruce Morrill’s new book, The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke (Paulist Press, 2016) (Amazon link). In my presentation, which developed Cooke’s understanding of sacramentality (chapter 3 of the book), I commented that it would be a mistake to interpret Cooke’s sacramental theology as the whole of this idea of sacramentality: one of the pleasures of Bruce’s book is that since it is organized both chronologically and topically, it highlights the fact that Cooke does all his theology sacramentally. This influences how we should interpret his proposal, for example, that marriage rather than baptism is the foundational sacrament of the Catholic sacramental system.

On p. 116 of Essential Writings, Cooke suggests, “even the young infant who is baptized after only a few days of life has already been subjected to the influence of parental love (or its lack), which in the case of Christian parents is really the influence of the sacrament of Christian marriage.”(1) In the second edition of the book he spoke instead of “the sacramentality of human love and friendship,” treating marriage as paradigmatic of deep friendship.(2)

Because my parents were not churchgoers and would not describe themselves as Christian parents, my experience of baptism at age 9 was grounded quite differently than Cooke’s young infant above. I was in love, from my pre-school memories, with the Christmas narrative, broadly available outside a churchgoing family, of the God who so loved the world that his beloved Son became a helpless child and entrusted himself to that world. Gradually, this faith led me to church membership and then to baptism. Then, though not without some surprise turns, to a career as a Catholic theologian.

I definitely recall devouring this Golden Press Children's Bible.

As I put it in my blurb, which I was gratified to find on the back of the book, Morrill’s book embodies what Cooke called “’down-to-earth theology’: an integration of the personal and the theoretical, the tradition with its concrete historical embedding.” My experience serves as a reminder that neither baptism nor Christian marriage is foundational in the sense of being the prerequisite experience for every Christian’s faith. Rather, I believe, Cooke’s theology points to the multiplicity of ways that human experience cries out for sacramental narrativity in order to ground itself in the Christian message. What is foundational, then, is not one sacrament, but the Spirit’s communication of the gospel into human life through the history of the church.

From this perspective, friendship, as a foundational sacrament, is the friendship between God and the covenant community, made visible in the liturgies of Israel, rabbinic Judaism, and the Christian churches. Marriage, as a foundational sacrament, is the marriage between Christ and the church, which is to say between the God who so loved and the world so loved. Baptism, as a foundational sacrament, is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit on the apostles to preach the gospel to the world.
Sacramentality, then, is the intensification and transformation of the human in contact with the divine. It rests not on the individual experience of a sacrament but on the accumulated wisdom of the church’s life with God through history. When it touches an individual’s life, it does not transform one “proto-sacramental” type of human experience but illuminates and interprets those experiences that are already at the core of one’s life mystery.

This change of perspective illuminates the section on the Eucharist that makes up the second half of chapter 3 of Morrill’s compilation. By the Eucharist, according to Cooke, human friendship is elevated into charity: “Since the very nature of love is to be personally unitive, it follows immediately that no element of unity in the Church is more profound and constitutive than is the charity of the community . . . . it is their sharing of self with one another, so that their very being as persons is in common.”(3) In this respect, another of Cooke’s sacramental reflections can still function as a prophetic call to the broadening of the church’s pastoral charity:

We might reflect—since we are discussing the matter of intercommunion—on the grave reasons that must be present to justify any decision to bar baptized Christians from the kind of open eucharistic situation they may need in order to fulfill their baptism, i.e. the working of the Spirit. Whether we like it or not, we are part of that community which bears responsibility for the faith of all the baptized.(4)

Book cover of Bernard Cooke's Power and the Spirit of God, Oxford, 2004.This notion of responsibility is not limited to our fellow Christians, although there is certainly a particular responsibility to the baptized. Rather, one of the strengths of Cooke’s theology-done-sacramentally is the fact that its explanatory power and its ethics extends to the cosmic, although this part of the vision sometimes remains implicit. As the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on the apostles represents sacramentally the Spirit of God resting on the waters and renewing the face of the earth, so the eschatological dimension of the sacraments reveals in the human what is meant for the cosmos. This is clearer in Cooke’s book-length discussion of power and spirit: “one could say that within the entire dynamism of the universe, the creative power of God, that is, God’s Spirit, is at work ‘drawing’ all that exists toward its fulfilling union with the Creator.” He adds, “God’s Spirit is the eschatological impulse that drives human history toward its destiny as the achieved reign of God, a community of justice and peace.”(5)

1 Bernard Cooke with Bruce Morrill, The Essential Writings of Bernard Cooke (New York: Paulist, 2016), 116.

2 Cooke with Morrill, 128.

3 Cooke with Morrill, 131. This theme of the elevation of friendship into charity includes two subsections of Morrill’s chapter: the Eucharist as reconciliation and as charity.

4 Cooke with Morrill, 136.

5 Cooke, Power and the Spirit of God, (New York: Oxford, 2004), electronic copy loc. 1278.

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