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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

Vernacular Sacraments

As anyone familiar with my work would know, mine is an inherently sacramental worldview. That is, I see divinity as capable of disclosing itself and administering grace through the material elements of the cosmos. This disclosure comes by way of the natural world and its subsidiarities—the arts, liturgy, scripture, and so forth, and even the realms of speech and ideas. The disclosure, of course, is not assured, nor is it programmatic. It doesn’t happen in every circumstance. But we have all experienced it.

For sacramentally-minded Christians (I’m thinking primarily of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican iterations), the primary locus for such a phenomenon is the Eucharist, with Baptism and Chrismation /Confirmation standing in close proximity. So, possessing such a sensibility, I found myself very disturbed when bishops of every stripe denied the Eucharist to millions (perhaps billions) of Christians throughout a sizable amount of the past two years, even to the point of canceling masses, feast days—Christmas and Easter not the least of them—and removing the “Sunday obligation” and accompanying mortal sin that allegedly comes from skipping church. When the bishops finally decided the political coast was clear, they reinstated the Sunday obligation. But by then they’d lost me. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

The madness even reached the point at which many Catholic parishes (and I’m sure the same is true with the Orthodox and Anglicans) unvaccinated parishioners were barred from the sacraments, in what seems to be the most blatantly unchristian move imaginable. The Vatican (not that I was surprised) even instated a vaccine mandate for all employees and visitors. I even know an Episcopalian priest who was denied a post as a pastor for being unjabbed.

Now that we know for certain (as many did much earlier, but were decried as “anti-science” or conspiracy theorists) that the vaccines are worthless at either preventing infection or spread (and that “it would have been much worse without” canard is absolutely risible if not contemptible)—and we know for certain they lead to harm or death for some people—such clerical moves prove themselves only to be tragic, but a tragedy that has devolved into farce. But no one has apologized from what I’ve noticed. No one.

Having been accompanied on most of my life as a Catholic Christian by the specter of child sex abuse (one of the pastors at my boyhood parish was one of the most notorious abusers in the history of American Catholicism) I am very familiar with the evils of clericalism and have for many years had some serious doubts about the fairytale that the Holy Spirit selects the bishops, cardinals, and popes. In fact, when my book Transfiguration was in production in 2018 and the McCarrick scandal erupted—a scandal Rod Dreher and my friend Larry Chapp had known and warned about for years but were ignored—I wanted to change the subtitle from “Notes Toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything,” so filled was I by outrage and shame. But I didn’t, alas. Then Notre Dame burned during Holy Week of 2019. And this was all before the world was turned upside-down in 2020.

After living in the shadows of a church gone mad in the midst of a society gone mad for nearly a year, having missed the celebration of Christmas and Easter by governmental decree greeted with clerical approval—and with school-age children still at home—I decided to take matters into my own hands: we started a house church, replete with the celebration of the Eucharist (and one baptism). This was nothing I ever imagined myself doing; it was not something I desired or sought. But I definitely felt the spirit of the Lord beckoning me to not let my children starve from the Eucharist due to the politics and fears of weak or malicious men.

It is my understanding that Ivan Illich thought this was where the Church was headed and that he thought it a welcome development. Illich speaks much about “vernacular” phenomena—in gender, work, and so forth—in his work and it made me start thinking about the notion of vernacular sacraments, which is what I see to be the issue here. But I don’t really feel the need for the rhetorical appeal to authority on this score. The children need to be fed.

Surreptitiously, this morning I found a Substack post by my friend, Tara Ann Thieke, in my junk folder (sorry, Tara! I don’t know what happened!) in which she shared these words of comfort on the Eucharist by our mutual friend, Rudolf Steiner: “An understanding of the world is only present today when a transubstantiation is carried out at an altar.” This line well-captures my gradual movement into the realm of house church: for I know this is the only way to understand the world, and I refuse to have my children denied it.

Of course, some may say that churches have stepped back from vaxx and mask mandates and requirements. Well, good for them. Still haven’t seen any apologies. I know a good number of my friends are disappointed in what I’ve been doing, but not one of them has said so to me personally. But when you know you know. But none of that concerns me now. Friendship has its place, but that doesn’t concern me now. What concerns me is standing in the light of God, dependent on His grace which is freely given and not dependent on a set of credentials or licensure. This may mean I’m excommunicated. But that doesn’t concern me now.

Michael’s latest book is Sophia in Exile. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses. Also check out the latest volume of Jesus the Imagination: The Divine Feminine.

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