Sacramental Complications: Sufjan Stevens’ “Casimir Pulaski Day”

The sacramental worldview of Catholicism is defined by a vital paradox: we must seek the God who is beyond the world by seeking Him in the world. The Catholic view of the relationship between grace and nature reflects this paradox; grace perfects nature and allows nature to transcend itself. Christ epitomizes this view, since he maintains a perfect human nature while transcending that nature with miracles that stem from his divinity. We ordinary human beings participate in this paradox by partaking in the extensions of his Incarnation, the seven sacraments. Through the sacraments, grace both heals our nature and allows us to move beyond our nature toward God. Yet our human nature is paradoxically defined by this yearning to move beyond our human nature, as Josef Pieper explains in Leisure: The Basis of Culture:

[M]an, of his very nature, reaches out beyond the sphere of the ‘human,’ touching on the order of pure spirits…[M]an participates in the angelic faculty of non-discursive vision, which is the capacity to apprehend the spiritual in the same manner that our eye apprehends light or our ear sound. Our knowledge in fact includes an element of non-activity, or purely receptive vision—though it is certainly not essentially human; it is, rather, the fulfillment of the highest promise in man, and thus, again, truly human (just as Aquinas calls the vita contemplativa ‘non proprie humana sed superhumana,’ not really human but superhuman, although it is the noblest mode of human life).

Because we exist in the liminal space between material and spirit, partaking in both, we require sacraments that address both. The sacramental worldview therefore requires us to move simultaneously through and beyond nature to God.

Complications arise, however, when we focus on the “through” at the expense of the “beyond.” For example, one of our greatest temptations is to idolize our current knowledge and memories instead of moving beyond them to God. After all, it is much easier to view our current knowledge and memories as the ultimate authorities in life instead of seeing them as a limited part of a living tradition that stretches through all time in the Church. So we must try to see our knowledge and memories as gifts from God; as gifts, they reveal God’s love to us, but if we rely solely on them for our joy, then our view of that love becomes stunted by their limitations. The only way to prevent such stunting is to remain receptive to God’s love through constant prayer, charity, and participation in the sacraments. These actions, which the Holy Spirit inspires within us, allow us to lovingly approach the fullness of God’s person instead of stopping at our limited perceptions of Him.

A poignant instance of the tension between “through” and “beyond” is the popular indie song “Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens. Stevens is adored by the indie music movement, which is often antiestablishment and anti-religious, yet his music honestly handles the grittiness of lived faith. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is the firsthand narration of the death of a loved one within a Christian community. The song shows “all the glory” that God reveals through the beloved while it simultaneously conveys the pain of losing the beloved. The sacramental tension between “through” and “beyond” thereby arises; the speaker loves God through the beloved, so he has difficulty understanding God’s ways when he must pray in the grief beyond her death: “All the glory when He took our place / But He took my shoulders and He shook my face / And He takes and He takes and He takes.” The speaker’s faith is  still intact, since he recognizes and celebrates Christ’s sacrifice, but he is confounded by the mystery of loss. Yet this mystery somehow magnifies God’s glory even more: “All the glory when you ran outside / With your shirt tucked in and your shoes untied / And you told me not to follow you.” Even when the beloved runs away in sorrow sometime before her death, Christ’s glory is visible to the speaker. Indeed, that is the mystery of the Cross: Christ, the source of all joy, is closest to us when we share in his sorrow.

The song’s ability to illuminate such vital paradoxes stems from its own sacramental quality; it celebrates the beloved and ultimately God through concrete imagery. For example, this is a particularly beautiful image of intimacy: “In the morning, through the window shade / When the light pressed up against your shoulder blade / I could see what you were reading.” Also, the image of a shirt tucked in with shoes untied occurs twice in the song, and it adeptly conveys sorrow by illustrating how life’s order continues after loss, with something always feeling out of place. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible reality according to Augustine, so a sacramental piece of art hints at God through such concrete imagery. “Casimir Pulaski Day” is explicitly about a sacramental reality: “In the morning when you finally go / And the nurse runs in with her head hung low / And the cardinal hits the window… All the glory that the Lord has made / And the complications when I see His face / In the morning in the window.” When we catch a glimpse of God through this sacramental reality, we experience “complications.” Yet these complications are indications of grace, the hallmark of which is surprise, since they force us to move beyond our pre-established notions of the world and of God. Grace thereby forces us out of our confining spheres of pride and deeper into God’s reality. By cherishing his memories of the beloved but simultaneously seeking God beyond them, the speaker of “Casimir Pulaski Day” comes to see God’s face more clearly.

 

Tristan is pursuing a Master‘s in English at UMass Amherst. We [Slant] think that Tristan’s musical tastes will help him connect with high school students in his future vocation as an English teacher.

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