March 31, 2019

Latin Liturgy and my Love-Hate Relationship with Symbols

One minor motion at the Latin liturgy today transported me and lifted me, as it were.  Sometimes an action says a thousand words and there’s a beautiful economy in that effortless grace. 

The motion was during the Consecration when an altar server lifted the robe of the priest up just as the priest was lifting the chalice. I interpreted this symbol as showing that the priest, as Jesus, was lifting not just the bread and wine but himself. The priest, in persona Christi, seemed to be ascending to Heaven with the gift of His body and blood and there was great reassurance in the acceptableness of that sacrifice. 

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with symbols. My practical side manifested itself in a strong affection for saying what you what to say plainly, don’t hide behind a symbol. If Melville meant the white whale to mean God, then he should’ve been transparent and said so.  

The irony is that I’m a word-lover, a logophile, and words are symbols.  And I’ve always been fond of math and statistics, again symbols.  But this anti-symbol manifesto showed itself early in a craving for non-fiction and poetry, the latter for the words and not the symbols or “plot”. 

A Dominican priest recently mentioned that the genius of the book of Genesis is that you can tell a child the story of Adam and Eve and then get something from it, while at the same time professors in universities spill mountains of ink to this day on the meaning.  

He said the genre is symbolic truth, which is not well understood today: “Which is more accurate, symbol truth or historical truth?” And then answered his question with another, “which is more accurate, 2+2=4 or ‘it was German aggression that started World War 1”?  “Yes, 2 + 2 = 4 are symbols and more accurate than the historical statement.”

Early on I didn’t like symbols in part because of the Wizard of Oz.  The troupe go to all this trouble to find the wizard, and he turns out to be a humbug, ordinary person underneath all the glitz and glitter. 

But Christianity turns that completely upside down.  We find that beneath the bread and wine, as humbug as those are, there is Christ himself.  We find that within our humdrum neighbor and within our humdrum selves, there is Christ himself.  Whereas the Wizard of Oz the symbol turns out to be a disappointing reality, with God the symbol turns out to be the reality, and to be a reality merely too rich for us to comprehend. 

So symbols hide things and reveal things.  As a kid having a safe made by my grandfather was a thing of wonderment because it could conceal secrets. Similarly I loved the faux library doors that led to much greater libraries inside, like the Holy of Holies within the Temple. 

St. John Paul II quoted the book of Proverbs on the joy of seeking: 
There is thus no reason for competition of any kind between reason and faith: each contains the other, and each has its own scope for action. Again the Book of Proverbs points in this direction when it exclaims: “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out” (Prov 25:2). In their respective worlds, God and the human being are set within a unique relationship. In God there lies the origin of all things, in him is found the fullness of the mystery, and in this his glory consists; to men and women there falls the task of exploring truth with their reason, and in this their nobility consists. The Psalmist adds one final piece to this mosaic when he says in prayer: “How deep to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! If I try to count them, they are more than the sand. If I come to the end, I am still with you” (139:17-18). The desire for knowledge is so great and it works in such a way that the human heart, despite its experience of insurmountable limitation, yearns for the infinite riches which lie beyond, knowing that there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered.

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