A sacrament is an outward symbol, a visible sign of inner divine grace. Traditionally, there are seven of these, ranging from baptism to confession to marriage. But in Dancing After Hours, Andre Dubus supposes there are not seven sacraments, as Catholics and Orthodox assume, neither are there two sacraments as Protestants suggest, but limitless sacraments. For the churched or unchurched, it does not matter: the church does not have a monopoly on sacraments, on grace. It is all around us.
In the short story, “Out of the Snow,” part of this collection, he elucidates this most clearly. “Watching the brown sugar bubbling in the light of the flames, smelling it and the cinnamon, and listening to her family talking about snow, she told herself that this toast and oatmeal were a sacrament, the physical form that love assumed in this moment, as last night’s lovemaking was, as most of her actions were.” He goes on to write, “Being a mother had taught her that sacraments were her work, and their number was infinite.”
We do not see the world around us as a sacrament, as a vehicle for love.
Similarly, we do not see the opportunities for grace the way that Dubus does. In “The Colonel’s Wife” he tells of a long marriage, and the moment that husband and wife come together to admit they have both cheated, and the husband now is confined to a wheelchair. Yet, after all this, after the pain and deception and loss of the use of his legs, the colonel says, “I’m glad that damned horse fell on me. It made me lie still in one place and look at you.” At that moment we realize, or question, “Have I both felt and offered such grace? Could I feel it so much that I could offer it to a lover who cheated?”
This book asks questions: where are the sacraments around us? It challenges: could find grace and love in a wheelchair, a bowl of oatmeal, in the relief of a cigarette? It turns these ideas upside down, and the relapses or injuries or mundane tasks are not simply times of loss, but times of hope, infused with grace. And perhaps the book itself, in that it changes the way we think about sacraments, is one itself.