Full Symbols: Why they make a difference

May 02, 2007


In a quiet neighborhood in the northwest quadrant of Washington, D.C., the house seemed a bit out of place.  Not so much the house, really, but the environment in which it sat.  The other yards around it were carefully tended, but this yard was filled with ideas that had taken shape.  Each corner of the property -- at least what could be seen -- sang its own line of music.  Each line was beautiful in itself, but together played a prominent role in the harmony of the whole.  Someone had an eye for the placement of shrubbery -- many members of the pine family, azaleas, and boxwoods each had a place, along with a dogwood tree and a magnolia, too.  The yard might have just been a yard, like all the other yards on the block.  But this little spread of earth was inspired and possessed the authority to draw the heart and mind to greater things.

Symbols -- actions, words, and gestures along with other physical objects -- most naturally fulfill their function by both being themselves and pointing beyond themselves to a whole host of meanings.  Who wouldn't agree that certain symbols mean different things to different people (e.g., the same stylized crosses used in a wrought-iron fence of an old southern Indiana Jesuit cemetery are later the swastikas of the Nazi party)?  Depending on many factors, symbols have more or less depth in meaning.  Some would rather cavalierly dismiss the "unity candle" at weddings as some extra-Catholic symbol.  However, to employ a concrete image, especially when well done, could help catechize all those gathered for the wedding.  One candle is often lit with two others.  The two are then extinguished to pullquoterepresent the unity of the couple.  But if those two candles were lit from the Easter candle by the mothers of the bridge and groom to serve as a reminder of baptism, then what is their extinguishment saying?

In the Christian tradition, the use of FULL SYMBOLS is crucial.  In other words, "something more is required" than the bare minimum.  For instance, the arms of the priest ought to be extended in hospitality as the great greeting "The Lord be with you" is offered to a gathered assembly.  The casual throwing open of the hands meets the requirement, perhaps, but isn't anything more than what is required.  Further, a plastic Easter lily, fragrance-free, spring from a machine and not from the good earth, demanding no care during the Fifty Days of the Easter Season, may symbolize Easter, but could arguably be even less than the bare minimum.  Imagine the difference a dozen pots of real lilies -- God's creation -- make in the Resurrection celebration within a small country church.  That would be a fuller symbol!

The fullness of the symbols upon which the sacramental system of the Church relies, at least in part, makes significant difference in the sacramental imagination of the people.  A flame created from chemicals at the Easter Vigil might rightly suffice in inclement weather.  The burning of wood -- wood like Eden's tree, Noah's ark, Abraham's offering, Moses' burning bush, Jesse's stump, Bethlehem's crib, Calvary's cross -- the burning of wood is a fuller symbol, more evocative of the real elements of the tradition in which the timeless is made present within the vigil itself.  Wood burning can have that impact on the sacramental imagination of a gathered assembly.  Jesus himself imaginatively employed the simple symbols of bread and wine -- cavernous in their meaning, expressive of life and spirit, of movement and freedom, of gift and promise, of simplicity and richness, of plainness and opulence.  These simple symbols, which become His Body and Blood, teach us eloquently where so many words would fail and falter.  But teaching is hardly the only task of the full symbol.

As the United States bishops teach in their document Built of Living Stones: "[The] liturgy and its signs and symbols do not exercise merely a teaching function.  They also touch and move a person to conversion of heart and not simply to enlightenment of mind (26).  Do the words and actions and objects of the Church draw members and strangers to conversion of heart?  Do they work within the dirt of our "property" and inspire the human heart and mind to greater things?

Too often in this twenty-first century, we might be tempted to explain or replace the symbols of the Christian tradition.  Too often, we will want our Christian symbols to function as precise theological treatises instead of carrying the multiple meanings inherent to their nature.  Too often, the scientific mindset of our day will sell short the converting power of rich and full symbols.  Thanks be to God that our sacramental tradition follows the lead of our Savior, who took bread and wine -- simple and available -- the symbols of fullness themselves and showed us how to know the Father.  How might the symbols of our day be enhanced in such ways that hearts might be converted before a word is spoken?

Rev. Godfrey Mullen, OSB is a monk of Saint Meinrad Archabbey, St. Meinrad, IN and assistant professor at Saint Meinrad School of Theology.

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