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The Language of Symbols

Far from being unnecessary extras, the symbols of our Faith enrich our prayer life and help us to grow closer to Christ.

From crucifixes and candles to the sign of the cross, symbols are deeply woven into Catholic worship and devotional life. Are they simply unnecessary extras? Definitely not! The symbols of our Faith exist to enrich our prayer life and help us to grow closer to Christ.

Our Faith touches and involves our whole self: mind, will, emotions, and body. We need to know the truth, but we also need to internalize it and apply it. It’s vitally important to teach doctrine and Scripture, but explaining something only once, or in just one way, won’t ensure that it will be understood, let alone that it will be meaningful and memorable. We need to have ideas presented to us in multiple ways and in a variety of modes.

Symbols are important because they express truth via another layer of teaching, which we can absorb on an emotional and aesthetic as well as an intellectual level; when we make gestures such as the sign of the cross or lighting a candle, we are speaking symbolically and thus enacting our Faith on a physical level. For that reason, the liturgy contains a wealth of symbolic detail and action, and the interiors of churches are traditionally rich in symbols.

For instance, the Stations of the Cross, displayed along the walls of most churches, provide the opportunity to enter imaginatively into the suffering of Christ on the way to Calvary: fourteen stations, each with an image inviting us to meditate on a particular aspect of Our Lord’s passion and death. The incarnational specificity of the images invites us to move from a mere intellectual grasp of the events of the Passion to an appreciation of their meaning.

A symbol is something that stands for something else; it literally re-presents an idea to us in a different form so that we can take it in more fully and deeply. Some symbols are images, such as the lamb representing Christ as the Lamb of God. Other symbols are abstract, such as the monogram “IHS,” an abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus. Color can be symbolic: blue is associated with the Blessed Mother, white with purity, and red with martyrs; the color of priestly vestments on any given feast day or season symbolically reinforces the significance of the day. Lastly, gestures often carry symbolic meaning, as when we genuflect before the tabernacle: bending the knee before Christ present in the consecrated host represents our allegiance to him as our Lord and King. In each case, the symbol points to something more significant beyond itself.

One vital distinction is between a symbol and a sacrament. A symbol represents something, while a sacrament is something. The Eucharist is not a symbol of the body and blood of Christ; it truly is the body and blood of Christ. The water used in baptism is not a symbol of the cleansing of original sin; it is the sacramental means by which this cleansing is effected.

However, images of the sacraments can function as symbols in their own right. An artistic depiction of the eucharistic chalice and host is often used as a symbol for the Faith. Likewise, the holy water at the entrance of a church functions as a symbol of baptism, so that we are reminded of that sacrament every time we dip our fingers in the stoup.

Because God created the material world, everything is potentially meaningful. A truly resonant symbol has a meaningful connection with the thing it represents, and reflection on the symbol will yield more insight into the truth to which it points. In this way, symbols can communicate truth effectively.

Consider the chimes rung at the elevation of the host. Not just any sound will do: the bells represent the heavenly music sung by the angels whom we know by faith are surrounding the altar. The sound is symbolically appropriate and thus teaches us something about the nature of the eucharistic celebration.

Let’s take another example in more detail: candles. There’s something inherently fascinating about a candle, with its soft, flickering light, so different from the flat sameness of electric light. The candles on the altar, or candles lit before a shrine, thus say to us, “This is a sacred place; slow down, quiet yourself.” Furthermore, as sources of light, candles are natural symbols of truth; the word illumination can refer to either physical light or intellectual insight. A candle is thus an intuitively fitting symbol for Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the light.

We can see the richness of this meaning at the Easter Vigil. The great Pascal candle, representing the light of Christ, is used to kindle others, with each person sharing the flame with others nearby, the darkened church gradually filling with hundreds of tiny flames. Here we have a vivid image reminding us that we are called not only to shine with the light of Christ but also to share that light.

Can symbols go wrong?

Just as spoken language can be used to tell lies, symbols can be used to present untruths or sow confusion. Consider the popular “Coexist” bumper sticker, with each letter resembling a symbol of a different religion or worldview. In one variant, the “C” is a crescent (Islam), the “X” is a Star of David (Judaism), the dot of the “I” is a pentagram (Wicca), and the “T” is a cross (Christianity). Two symbolic messages are being conveyed, one true and one false. First, the use of religious symbols to spell out the word coexist conveys a message of tolerance: “People of different faiths should live together in peace.” True: every Christian should agree.

However, many people intuit that there’s something wrong here; their feeling of dissonance comes from the second symbolic message. Because the word is spelled with each religious symbol next to the others, all at the same level of importance, the symbol placement carries the meaning: “All religions are basically equivalent.” This underlying assumption, embedded in a well-intentioned and reasonable plea for tolerance, is untrue.

With practice and attention, we can learn to “read” the language of symbols and identify when a symbol is being used (deliberately or not) to mislead us. For our own devotional life, we should be careful about using unfamiliar or non-Catholic symbolism that may be communicating a message we don’t agree with. Fortunately, there are countless beautiful symbols in Church tradition, tested and refined through faithful practice, for us to use.

Rightly understanding the crucifix

One symbol that often troubles our Protestant friends is the crucifix. Since the crucifix is such a quintessentially Catholic devotional item, it’s worth addressing this particular concern in detail.

One objection to the crucifix is that the image of Christ on the cross encourages us to dwell on the death of Christ to the point that we forget the significance of his resurrection. (Sometimes this objection is associated with the mistaken idea that Christ is re-sacrificed in the Mass.) However, this doesn’t stand up to our common-sense understanding of pictures. No one fears that portraying Baby Jesus on a Christmas card is dismissive of his adulthood and earthly ministry.

Similarly, it’s not uncommon for even Protestant Christians to have images of Jesus preaching or healing the sick, and yet at this point in history he has ascended to heaven; his earthly ministry is over. In all these images, we see snapshots from Jesus’ life—just as a family will display pictures of baptisms, graduations, and weddings.

A related objection is that the crucifix is morbid, especially if the corpus is lifelike. It can be unsettling, especially if we’re accustomed to a bare cross. But that’s precisely the point. The Son of God willingly died a humiliating and painful death to save us. Our sins—mine and yours!—are part of the weight he bore on the cross. This should give us pause, at least once in a while, and remind us of the great gift of our redemption. We should keep in mind that the marks of Our Lord’s suffering on the cross are eternally significant. He retains the wounds in his hands, feet, and side in his glorified, resurrected body. He showed them to the disciples.

Meditation on the death of Christ could become morbid, of course; an unhealthy mind can become fixated on anything. But that’s one reason why regular confession is good for us, and also why the Church takes us through the different seasons of the liturgical year, to ensure that our devotions are appropriately balanced.

Sometimes people are disturbed by the Catholic habit of kissing the crucifix, such as when the cross is venerated during the Good Friday liturgy. Idolatry? No. We are expressing love for Our Lord and gratitude for what he has done for us through our physical response to the image of him. Consider how, in a moment of great emotion, we might clasp to our breast a picture of a beloved spouse or child, or kiss the photograph. We aren’t mistaking the picture for the person; rather, the action expresses love for the person, because we are incarnate beings who intuitively “speak” a symbolic language of gesture.

Symbols in our devotional life

Now that we’ve seen how symbols work and addressed some concerns about their use, we can turn to how symbols can help us in our everyday devotional lives.

Symbols can help us to pray, both during the Mass and in our private devotions. One’s mind will wander, and distractions will arise, whether they consist of thinking about lunch or being worried about serious problems in one’s life. Simply thinking, “I must focus!” is seldom effective. When we are internally distracted (by thoughts, worries, and exterior annoyances), we need something outside ourselves to reorient us and draw us back to prayer.

In a symbolically rich environment, meaningful images offer opportunities to refocus. As our wandering gaze comes to an image of the Annunciation, we can reflect on Mary’s “yes” to God and our call to imitate her; as we see images of the saints, we can recall their lives and witnesses, and ask for their prayers; the images of the Stations of the Cross can remind us of Our Lord’s passion and death.

Trusting our artistic instincts

In addition to appreciating the symbols available to us in the liturgy and in church art and design, we can incorporate symbols into our homes and daily routine. Having religious art (icons, pictures, small statues) in our homes is a way to nourish our devotional lives. The choice of images will vary from person to person, according to one’s preferences, but the basic fact of having some sort of visual reminder of the Faith is itself very significant.

What we choose not to include in our spaces for worship and our devotional lives speaks just as loudly as what we do include. If our homes are bare of any Catholic symbols or art whatsoever, we may imbibe the unconscious message that our Faith is relevant only on Sunday mornings. In contrast, if we make an effort to select images and symbols to remind ourselves of our Faith, we are choosing to strengthen our relationship with Our Lord.

After all, we have bodies because God wants us to have them; it makes sense that he would make it possible to grow in our love of him through the more physical, embodied language of symbols. Images of the crucifixion, the nativity, and Our Lady with the infant Jesus are often especially rich in symbolism, allowing for fruitful reflection over time, particularly if they are displayed in a space in our homes that we’ve set aside for prayer and spiritual reading.

One reason that people may hesitate to display religious art in their homes is that, frankly, there’s such a lot of bad religious art, cheesy or sentimental images. Fortunately, there is also good art out there, even if it is sometimes a bit harder to find. It’s usually a safe bet to choose images based on icons or traditional religious art of centuries past. We should trust our instincts. Better to have fewer images, but each one meaningful and well chosen, than lots of underwhelming images.

Beautiful or compelling pictures need not be expensive: some of my favorite devotional images, which are in my prayer corner, are from greeting cards purchased at cathedral gift shops. Also, look for devotional aids that include pictures; booklets on the rosary or the Stations of the Cross often include drawings or reproductions of artworks that are helpful for prayer.

Faith enriched by knowledge

A little bit of online research, or a book on Catholic symbolism, will allow us to discover the meaning of specific symbolic details. For instance, Our Lady of Walsingham (for whom I have a particular devotion) is dressed as an Anglo-Saxon queen and holds a lily scepter representing her purity and also her queenship. Prayer cards often feature the saint with something symbolic of his or her special characteristics, such as St. Peter with the keys, St. Thérèse with a bouquet of roses, or St. Thomas Aquinas with a book.

Find out what symbols are associated with your patron saint, your namesake, and your parish church’s name. The more we learn about specific saints and their emblems, the more we’ll be able to “read” church art such as stained-glass windows, sculpture, and decorations—and the more meaningful our time inside a church will be. Furthermore, having images of saints at home is itself a symbol of our connection with the communion of saints. We are not cut off from those who have gone before us! Images of the saints serve as reminders that they are praying and interceding for us.

There are many other ways to enrich our prayer lives with symbolism. Following the Church year allows us to participate in the symbolism of the seasons: for instance, the Advent wreath incorporates the powerful symbolism of candles and the increase of light as we draw nearer to the birth of Christ. A crucifix in the bedroom can remind us to end the waking day with prayer. Making the sign of the cross when we say a prayer is a powerful physical symbol of uniting ourselves to Christ’s death and resurrection.

It’s all about the Incarnation

The Catholic tradition offers a multitude of symbols, allowing people with different personalities and preferences to find meaningful ways to enrich their devotional lives. Whether they are appreciated intuitively or need to be explained, symbols invite us to discover more riches of meaning in our Faith and to connect on a truly incarnational level—with our bodies, our senses, and our emotions and imaginations, as well as with our minds.

All these symbols have something in common: they remind us that our Faith encompasses the whole of reality. Every time we dip our fingers in a stoup of holy water, cross ourselves, genuflect, light a candle, or look at an icon or a crucifix, we are reminded of the truths of our Faith and invited to deepen our reverence and draw closer to the Lord.

Sidebar 1:

Sentiment vs. Sentimentality

What makes one devotional image cheesy and another one beautiful? It’s not just personal taste! One marker of bad devotional art is sentimentality: attempting to provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer without providing enough substance for such a reaction. Sentimentality is also self-conscious; it reminds us of the feeling that we are supposed to have.

Consider a picture of a child at prayer (a difficult scene to render without sentimentality). A tear comes to our eye; how moving and sweet a picture this is! Then we reflect on our own pious reaction: how sensitive we are, to feel touched by this sweet picture! This second, self-aware reaction is a signal of sentimentality: the image is overdone. In contrast, a pietá is unlikely to be sentimental, because the subject matter (the Blessed Mother holding her dead Son) is appropriate and ample material for reflection on sorrow and loss. We don’t think about our own feelings: we simply share in Our Lady’s sorrow.

A marker of good, healthy devotional art—whether simple or elaborate—is that it gives us real substance to reflect on so that we are drawn out of ourselves.

Sidebar 2:

Accidental Symbolism

Not all symbols are deliberately chosen, but they can be powerful nonetheless, as with what we can call “the symbolism of legacy.”

Consider the possibility of using a tablet computer for the book of the Gospels read during Mass. Although on any given day the text would be the same as that in a printed Gospel, the symbolic meaning would be vastly different. Electronic text is changeable and evanescent; the click of a button, the swipe of a finger, and the words of Holy Scripture can be replaced by some other text. The electronic text is unstable by design: precisely the opposite of the association we want to have with the Gospels!

The physical book, on the other hand, has present day after day in the church; it is redolent with the scent of incense from many Masses; the hands of hundreds of people have touched it over the years. All of these things contribute to a symbolism of stability, permanence, and continuity: precisely what we do want to communicate with regard to the gospel.

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