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Book review: Recovering a Sacramental Vision

Begin with the Heart: Recovering a Sacramental Vision by Daniel O'Leary (The Columba Press, £13.99)

Every now and again a book comes along that seems to encapsulate something that has been niggling at you but you've not been able to quite put your finger on. Daniel O'Leary has done just this in his latest book in which he says that the sacraments of the Church only really begin to make sense when they are connected to the nitty-gritty of our everyday lives.

O'Leary, a priest based in the Leeds diocese, has built up a reputation as a thought-provoking author and inspirational speaker. His other books include Travelling Light and Already Within, which scooped the Irish Reality/Veritas award in 2007.

In Begin with the Heart he presents a powerful argument for the need to rediscover what he calls 'the sacramental vision'. This is about seeing God primarily in our relationships, our work, the highs and lows of everyday life. This is where God is to be primarily encountered, he says. As he points out, the implications of this sacramental imagination for RE and catechesis are huge.

This sacramental vision was built into the documents of Vatican II, he explains, but along the way seems to have got lost. Key to the sacramental vision is the idea that grace builds on nature.

'The recovery of this neglected perspective requires a profound shift in focus for the average Catholic,' claims O'Leary.

He says this because he thinks many Catholics have unwittingly adopted a form of dualism in their approach to faith. Things to do with church are sacred; things not to do with church are secular.

But O'Leary suggests that if we haven't glimpsed God in our visit to the supermarket, on the bus ride to work, or in the chat with that annoying neighbour, then we probably won't glimpse him at Mass.

He believes that very often in the Church we have got things back to front. Our focus on the sacraments, on certain ways of celebrating the liturgy, on defending doctrines, all of this is pretty meaningless if God hasn't already been encountered if the ordinariness of our lives.

'One of the reasons for our difficulties with dogma and doctrines is their loss of relevance for our lives. Beliefs are not ends in themselves. Once theology or belief loses contact with experience they become empty formulas with no personal meaning,' he says.

It's clear from the declining Mass going statistics each year that many Catholics do not find much spiritual nourishment at Mass. That's why most stop going. We shouldn't be surprised, says O'Leary, for people only go to where they get spiritually fed.

And for some people, he maintains, it's music, painting, and dance, not liturgy, that provide them with spiritual food, with glimpses of the divine.

O'Leary has drawn insights from on a wide range of thinkers, including Karl Rahner, Richard McBrien and Thomas Aquinas, along with poets such as W.B.Yates and T.S.Eliot.

If he sounds like he might be launching an attack on the Church, he's not. In fact, Begin with the Heart, as he makes clear, is picking up where the bishops' own document on the Way to Life, published in 2005, left off.

This is a book that leaves you with much to ponder after you have put it down. If the price seems a bit high, that's because it comes with a DVD, which could be useful resource for parish groups wanting to explore Begin with the Heart's far-reaching, profound and stimulating ideas.