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Symbolism: the glory of escutcheoned doors

30 November, 1999

Mark Patrick Hederman OSB uses biography, art and liturgy as starting points for some creative writing. When we experience the world symbolically, he says, we find that the energy of God takes over as the operating fuel in our personalities.

186 pp. Veritas Publications. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie


Introduction: Portals of Discovery

Part One: Biography

Annapurnas of the Mind
Harry Potter and the Three Rs

Part Two: Art

The Day the Earth Moved
Holbein’s Secret
Vincent van Gogh
A Pair of Worn Shoes
The Icon
William Butler Yeats and Byzantium

Part Three: Liturgy

Creating a World
Redeeming Time
Liturgy and Life
Liturgy as Mystery
‘The glory of escutcheoned doors’

End Notes




I wrote this book in order to relate an important secret which I have discovered during my time in this world. I believe that I was guided to this discovery and led by the hand until I did so. The discovery itself is intimately linked with my own life story and the telling of it intertwined with the telling of that story. Any person can make such a discovery quite independently of their own life story and quite otherwise than mine. In fact, the mingling of these two realities may be as irritating to some as it could be helpful to others. I know no way of communicating this mystery to my reader other than by combining it with the story of my own discovery of it.

And so, what is the discovery? It is about experiencing this world symbolically. The energy of God takes over as the operating fuel in human personality. This happens and perdures through a life of symbols. In other words, symbols are the cause and the continuity of such a life. However, it also means that you begin to experience the world symbolically, that the world around you is a front or a sign of a greater reality. This means that symbols are also the result of such a life. From this perspective the most important symbol of all is you yourself as an active part in a greater whole.

Symbols are particles buried in one reality which bespeak their connection to, or with, a greater reality. When I say that you are a symbol I mean that apart from the biological, chronological, geographically located identity that is you, who were born on a certain date, occupied a certain space on the planet and fulfilled a very specific and recorded curriculum vitae during your lifetime until you died and were buried on another specific and identifiable date, there is a bigger and better and much more important ‘you’ which far exceeds this meagre and quantifiable slice of existence. In fact this historical you is merely an appetiser, a soupçon, an inkling, an intimation of the you who is infinite, eternal and everlastingly you. So, the most important discovery about your life story is that you yourself are a living symbol.

You are not, as most of us imagine and are taught, the whole reality of who you are – you are simply the preview. Everything about you, everything that happens to you, everything that you are, is indicative of what you could be, of what you are in another dimension. If you could see yourself in the perspective of infinity, in the time warp of eternity, you would recognise that what you experience as one horizontal thread in the three dimensional tapestry of human history is, from the obverse angle, a harmonic note in a larger, deeper matrix.

Accustomed as we are to the anchored swivel range of the human viewpoint we have to imagine the alternative space and time which makes of every element within the created world, including ourselves, a meaningful part of a very much greater whole. Far from being a star upon the curtain of the firmament, we are portholes in a submarine ploughing through an ocean of infinity. Such a viewpoint turns everything we think we see into a symbol of something else, something larger.

Let me think of a crude example. Two people meet at 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in front of a bank. It is raining slightly. They talk to one another for a few minutes. The second person then moves away and the first takes up position on a chair in a porch. This person is a guard replacing the other on a morning shift. Unbeknownst to either, their meeting is the signal which a second group has given to begin robbing this bank. Their meeting is the catalyst for a much more sophisticated and diverse series of manoeuvres involving several others who have been previously preparing for this moment and this sign.

However, in the meantime, a secret agent – planted within the gang and working for an international anti-terrorist organisation – has alerted headquarters who have also specified this morning meeting of the two people as the signal for putting into operation their swoop on the gang whom they have been following for some months. Up to now they have not had an opportunity to catch the robbers red-handed. Thus the very mundane meeting of two people on a Monday morning at 6 a.m.suddenly takes on a much larger meaning. It becomes part of at least two other sets of significance which weave into a multilayered tapestry. With hindsight, these two people can look back at their very ordinary fulfilment of a daily routine and become aware that on at least one morning, their lives took on a significance which made every action they performed into something momentous.

In something of a similar fashion our everyday lives are embroiled in at least two larger plans of action. There is a force of evil which tries to bring every human endeavour towards annihilation, but there is also a beneficent and evolutionary influence, acting at all times through designated human beings, who are secret agents for this creative centre of gravity. Everything we do happens at the epicentre of such a crossroads. So, even our life here on earth is not something which we take in hand and forge for ourselves as if we were inside it and guiding it like the captain of a submarine viewing the past and the future through the lens of a periscope. It begins much further back than that and its significance is registered on a much wider skin surface than the radar screen of our internal consciousness. There is a preparation for our arrival which concerns the history of two families, two members of which eventually give birth to that visible, tangible, recordable flight-path which is our biographical life. This one life represents a number of seconds in the overall chronology of the planet. But every preparation for that life, every coincidental collision of possibility which produced it, every external, temporal accident or action which formed it, governed it, directed, shaped and concluded it, are symbolic tangents representing a larger, wiser, more comprehensive pattern which we describe in our limited vocabulary as eternal, infinite, everlasting.

Such words are merely projected opposites of the short, limited and fragile existence we experience both in ourselves and all around us on the planet during the brief moment of our stay here. But they are based upon the glimpses which we get of that deeper, broader, wider horizon which flashes its light off the reflective surface of those precious gems which we are, in our deepest selves and which every element of this creation is at its most crucial, its most sacramental. We and they are symbols of an alternative energy, a subterranean biology more lively than any we have been able to identify on this obverse side of our shortchanging hemisphere.

Our biological life from birth to death is bankrolled by counterfeit currency unless we consciously switch to the alternative energy of divine illumination. In light of this superior wattage we ourselves and everything that exists in our world are seen, heard, tasted, smelled, touched, and breathed, not as discrete, self-contained things in themselves but as manifestations of a larger reality, signals from a vaster energy.



I was in Germany visiting the monastery of Maria Laach at Christmas time during the winter of 1969. One of the monks there told me that he could see two people in me. He was a professional photographer and offered to take two pictures which would show me the two people. I went to his studio and he asked me to walk around casually and ignore him while he took many shots from different angles. He didn’t show me all the photographs he had taken. He picked out two which were quite strikingly, as I saw them, my father and my mother respectively. He had recognised the two inmates lodged within, of whom I was the symbolic summary. I am myself, certainly. But I am also the symbol of their love for one another.

My father, John Hederman (1907-1984), was the youngest son in a family of five. He inherited one of the family farms, three hundred and fifty acres at Ballyneale, Co. Limerick. He was supposed to marry a girl whose sister had married my uncle and who had inherited the original family farm next door. Presumably the marriage had been arranged by his parents.

My mother, Josephine Mullaney (1907-1987), was born in Boston, Massachussetts, six months after my father in the same year. Her father died young, apparently in the great ‘flu epidemic, and her mother, who was Irish, preferred to take her chances in the home country rather than remain in the American city where her husband had made quite a tidy fortune. She and her three children sailed for Dublin on the Cunard line in the 1930s. My mother went to Trinity College where she studied for an arts degree.

Soon after, she was invited to spend ten days at Ballyneale by my father’s sister, who lived there. My mother was at first reluctant to go but was stung into acceptance by her siblings, who said she was a stick-in-the-mud and never went anywhere.

My father was walking down the front avenue and saw his sister coming through the gate in a car. He ignored her completely as was his wont until he saw someone else in the car with her, Josephine. It was love at first sight. A few days later my father proposed to my mother. `I know nothing about you,’ she said, somewhat dismissively. His was the thirteenth such proposal she had dismissed to date. ‘You know as much about me now as you’ll ever know,’ came the jaunty reply, ‘so, you’d better make up your mind.’ Both witnesses agreed some fifty years later that he was right! They never did get to know much more about each other.

And yet they remained ‘in love’. What they saw in each other was beyond what either of them ever reached or understood in their own lives. It was a dream, a hope. Both of them were physically beautiful. My father was well-built and tall, my mother intelligently glamorous and petite. People said that they looked like each other and could have been brother and sister. On my father’s side this ‘love’ was a very deep infatuation, an admiration close to idolatry. On my mother’s side it was probably a mixture of deep gratitude for his overwhelming and very physical love, allied to an irrevocable decision she had carefully and prayerfully taken, enshrined in a deeply religious belief in the marriage vows they had sworn to each other.

Such slender and fragile threads of chance organised my arrival on a Co. Limerick farm in 1944. I was the result of this meteoric collision between two fragments of the galaxy. But there was more to it than that: their marriage had also been arranged so that a future person could be fashioned out of the instinct for communion which brought them together so fortuitously. As such, I was the symbol of their potential future, their dream, destined to work out inside my own intestines the peace treaty which they kept postponing and which such distances and differences inevitably generate. They were two separate people who could afford to circumnavigate each other during their lifetime; I was a combination of both who had to come to terms with their circuitous dance.

I hardly ever spoke with my father without there being a third person in the room. Neither of us would have wanted it any other way. We played golf together and he applauded and enjoyed everything I achieved even when others disapproved. ‘Ride on, Marcus!’ was his perennial and encouraging cry. We got on well and enjoyed each other’s company — albeit somewhat reticently. He sometimes attracted people who hoped to confide in him. He was embarrassed and nonplussed by such overtures and diplomatically demurred; he wasn’t at all into baring his soul.

My mother, on the other hand, was a deep communicator with those she counted as her friends. When I was eighteen I decided to approach her directly. I told her that I wanted to be her friend, not just her son. I was sure we could really get to know one another if we made the effort. She was clear and decisive. ‘My generation,’ she told me, ‘values courtesy, where yours seems to value intimacy. The two idioms cannot mix. I never met a man in my life without spending several hours preparing myself to do so. You young people go off camping together without even a chaperone. How can one have any respect for someone you meet crawling out of a tent in a sleeping bag before breakfast in the morning?’

I gave up. It wasn’t just a battle of the sexes, it was a generation gap.

Parallel lines, mathematicians tell us, meet in infinity, as parents can meet, if and when their children break through to this dimension. What some beneficent evolutionary appetite sows as seeds of passion in the past, become composite living creatures in the present, undertaking to realise a dream in the future. John and Josephine’s dream became my vocation: to turn the key in the lock of eternity and open a door into the infinite. When I talk about symbolism I mean two things represented in one thing. This one thing is all that can be seen in this world but it encompasses and gives access to the much larger reality of which it is both offspring and replica. At all times and in all places of our history and geography we are being pushed, seduced, shepherded towards this breach in the bulwarks of the supposedly escape-proof workaday world.

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