“The sacraments of the Church are understood to be symbols and rituals which affirm and bring to being the Christological and ecclesial reality of man’s life” (Power 1977 6). The medieval play Everyman begins with God summoning Everyman to make a “pilgrimage” (68) in order to make a “sure reckoning” (70) and “count” (104) for the actions he had carried out during the course of his life. Everyman’s sin in being too attached to his worldly possessions while forgetting charity is then portrayed as a sin that confines him in a “state of bondage, impeding transcendence” (Power 1977 22). The role of the sacraments was then viewed as “a liberation from this bondage, a gradual attainment of transcendence” (Power 1977 22). In the play, the playwright carefully establishes the need for Everyman to seek redemption in order to avoid damnation. In doing so, the administration of three sacraments that are associated with the Catholic last rites of passage are highlighted in the play. Everyman’s playwright shows his reader how Everyman cannot “win his own salvation without grace from God” (Wertz 1970 90) and that “God’s graces in their fulness flow to men only through” (Ryan 1957 724) the holy sacraments administered unto mankind through the church. In Everyman’s journey towards salvation, he must partake specially in penance, holy eucharist and extreme unction which are generally “received upon the approach of death” (Ryan 1957 733).
After being refused and turned down by his most treasured and cherished companions “Everyman’s spiritual education and regeneration” (Ryan 1957 725) begins with attrition when he calls out to God saying “Our Lord Jesus help me!” (506). Everyman is now aware of his sin and requires God’s grace in order to start redeeming his soul. Even though his good deeds are weak “that she can neither go nor speak” (483) Everyman still goes to Good Deeds and asks for her help. Here, Good Deeds replies that she is unable to help him and she cannot go “on [her] own feet” (218). According to Ryan, this shows that “good deeds in themselves are as nothing if a man be in the state of sin” (Ryan 1957 727). Everyman’s playwright is emphasizing on the fact that “nothing performed by [man]without divine aid, even his good works, can bring him to the end for which he was created” (Ryan 1957 730). The medieval play then shows how Everyman is introduced to Knowledge, who will guide him to earn God’s grace by repenting for his sins in the correct manner. The character Knowledge here is important as according to Cawley, knowledge means the “acknowledgement or recognition of sins” (p. 222) which is essential in the process of redemption and regeneration.
Knowledge then guides Everyman to the “cleansing river” (536) of Confession who dwells “in the House of Salvation” (540). The “House of Salvation” (540) refers to the “church” (p.222) according to Cawley. Knowledge goes on to say that Confession “will comfort [them] by God’s grace” (542) “for he is in good conceit with God Almighty” (545). Here the playwright once more emphasizes on the fact that God’s grace that is essential for man’s salvation flows to mankind only through the church which is capable of administering the holy sacraments. Thus, Everyman starts to partake in the sacrament of penance as he reaches out to Confession “redempt with heart and full contrition” (549). Having completed the initial stages of the sacrament of penance, contrition and confession, Everyman then receives the “precious jewel” (557) “called Penance” (558). But it must be noted that the playwright does not make Everyman explicitly admit to his sins in detail. This maybe be due to the fact that it has to be “abstract enough to convey general theological concepts and to include all spectators by mirroring the experience of every member of the audience” (Harding 2009 6). Everyman having realized his folly by this point calls himself “a sinner most abominable” (595) whose “body sore shall punished be […] for the sin of the flesh” (612-613). Then he scourges himself and partakes in the sacrament of penance. “Through heartfelt participation in the sacrament of penance (which comprises of contrition, confession, absolution, and satisfaction) the sinner has transformed himself into a saint, deserving eternal reward” (Best 1987 14-15). Everyman who is now in a state of grace then finds out that his Good Deeds are now strengthened, enabling her to “walk and go” (619) and add “value for his salvation” (Ryan 1957 729).
Further emphasis on the act of receiving the sacrament of penance can be seen when Everyman is “garment of sorrow” (643) to adorn himself with to indicate his “true contrition” (650) having received penance. Then Everyman is introduced to four new friends; Strength, Discretion, Beauty and Five wits, who symbolize various aspects of Everyman’s human condition. At this point, the playwright brings forth a digression on priesthood, which is another sacrament. Here, Knowledge advices Everyman to “go to priesthood” (707) and receive “the holy sacrament and ointment together” (709). “The holy sacrament and ointment” (709) that Knowledge is referring to here are the sacraments of holy communion (eucharist) and extreme unction. Here the importance of the church and priesthood is once again emphasized as Five Wits says that the priest has God’s “commission” (714) and “he bearth the keys” (717) “of the blessed sacraments” (716) which is essential “for man’s redemption” (718). The playwright goes on to say that the “gracious sacraments of high divinity” (727) which is “[our] soul’s medicine” (719) can be found “only [with] priesthood” (746). Priesthood is highly praised as Five Wits continue to say the priesthood “converteth man from sin heaven to reach” (734) by administering “all the sacraments” (742) onto us as God’s representative on earth. As Everyman leaves to receive his sacraments, “Knowledge and Five Wits deliver to the audience a sermon designed to stress the validity of the sacraments regardless of the moral condition of the minister” (Ryan 1957 734). This speech also admonishes the “sinful priests” (759) “with unclean life and lusts of lechery” (762) and asks them to “honour priesthood” (765) and lead religious lives since “if priests give scandal by their conduct, the faithful may stay away from the sacraments” (Ryan 1957 734) and end up in hell, having lost their guidance towards salvation. The sacrament of eucharist that Everyman thus receives is significant in two ways as it liberates him “from the slavery of sin” (Power 1977 7) and helps him gain “communion in Christ” (Power 1977 7). According to Thomas Kempis’ Imitatio Christi, “there is no oblation more worthy, nor satisfaction greater to put away sin, than for a man to offer himself purely and wholly to God, with the offering of the Body of Christ in Mass and in Holy Communion” (cited in McRae 1986 306).
Having received the sacraments of eucharist and extreme unction, Everyman is now ready to go on his pilgrimage. It is then he once again comes into realization that even the four natural powers that are within his own body will forsake him when faced with death, “leaving only the grace received through the sacraments to sustain him and to make his Good Deeds effectual” (Ryan 1957 734). Everyman feels helpless once more as he cries out “O Jesu, help me! All hath forsaken me” (851) and Good Deeds who comes to help him now is really able to do so as she has been “made efficacious by the infusion of grace which Everyman has received from the sacraments administered by the priest” (Ryan 1957 734).
“Rather than staging the rituals of penance, communion and extreme unction in any realistic manner, Everyman represents their effects on the protagonist” (Harding 2009 8). By doing so the playwright has been able to represent the mystery that surrounds the sacramental rites quite effectively to his audience. “At the time Everyman was written, the tenets of faith concerning the sacraments were contested or in a process of mutation” (Harding 2009 8). Nevertheless, Everyman’s playwright insists that Christ’s “life of course must be reproduced in every human being, for there can be no personal salvation otherwise” (Obrien 1960 152) emphasizing on the importance of receiving the sacraments administered by the church.
Moreover, “a man has to realize both his own lowliness and his personal worth” (Power 1977 7) and “desire and accept the new life that Christ offers him before it can be communicated to him” (Obrien 1960 157). It is because Everyman acknowledges his sins that he is able to receive God’s grace. But God’s grace alone does not lead him to heaven. Therefore, in order to receive complete salvation, he must first partake in the sacraments which are administered onto him by the church. In doing so, “not only [does he] profess [his] faith, but [gains] access to Christ in all that he is for and acquires a vital relationship to him” (Obrien 1960 154).
Through the sacraments instituted by Christ, “man is transformed in the hidden depth of his soul” (Obrien 1960 158) which bring about a “momentous change” (Obrien 1960 158) in his life. Everyman was able to become an “excellent elect spouse to Jesu” (894) and reach heaven after his death because he performed the sacramental rites of penance, holy eucharist and extreme unction “as a faithful Christian with the aid of the graces that are channeled to him through the church” (Ryan 1957 735). Thus, it is clear that even with the controversies that were taking place alongside the reformation of the Catholic church at the time, Everyman’s playwright insists that while man can achieve salvation only through God’s grace despite his good deeds, the church which administers God’s grace unto mankind by partaking the holy sacraments plays an equally important role. In conclusion, the sacraments administered by the church as an essential part of God’s grace in man’s journey to salvation “unite Everyman with God and extend God’s purposes beyond reckoning and judgment to mercy and redemption” (Cunningham 1988 168).
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