From the Veritas ‘Into the Classroom’ series: Christopher O’Donnell OCarm examines the role of ritual, prayer and contemplation in different faith traditions, paying special attention to the Christian tradition.
218 pp, Veritas, 2004. To purchase this book online, go to www.veritas.ie.
Part one: Symbol, ritual and sacrament
Part two: Prayer
4. The need for reflection
5. The human being as pray-er
6. Contexts for prayer
7. The praying tradition
Part three: meditation and contemplation
9. The contemplative traditions
10. The mystic tradition
CHAPTER 1: Symbol
Symbols are so much part of us that human life as we know it would be impossible without them. It is, however, one thing to move comfortably in a world of symbols, it is something quite else to try to grasp them and perceive how they operate. In the past few decades there has been much study of symbols, which can help us to understand ourselves and our world. But there is not full agreement about symbols by all the many kinds of people who analyse or theorise about them: philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, operatives in marketing, artists, workers in the media, religious thinkers and many others. Hence, though it is possible to speak about symbols in a way that might be generally acceptable, on particular issues authors and experts will differ on many areas of interpretation and in the language they use. This problem of interpretation is particularly marked in the religious field. Religious symbols are a special class, which, however, share many of the characteristics of all symbols. One could begin by attempting to heighten one’s awareness of symbols generally in our world.
A moment’s thought will show how widespread symbols are in our lives. We use them because we are corporeal beings with mind, feelings, desires and imagination. Symbols are all around us: uniforms, traffic indications, directions and instructions are usually symbolic as well as practical. Advertising depends largely on symbols. Sometimes when we see a TV advertisement for the first time, we may not know until the end what product or service is being advertised; sometimes it is unmistakable from the outset. Advertising operates on our imagination, on our feelings and to some extent on our reason to evoke a desire such as to purchase some item, to participate in some group or to avail of a service. The immediate appeal of an advertisement may be direct, as when we are shown condensation bubbles on a glass or can to suggest a cool, refreshing drink. It may seek to suggest to us that some product will change our lives, or attractiveness, our potential; sexuality is often used in such advertisements. An important example of symbols on which millions of euros are spent is logotype, commonly called a logo, which is an artificial word or set of letters, usually incorporating a design which sets apart a business firm, a team, an institution, an organisation, or some group and makes them readily identifiable. Firms are very protective of their logos; it is a major and expensive decision to change them. It can also be risky, as the new logo may not work as well as the old. A logo is a particular kind of symbol.
The world of symbols is a rich and complex one. The word itself is from Greek, symbolon meaning a token, itself made up of two compounds, sym–ballein, meaning to bring or throw together. People, however, use the words ‘symbol/symbolism’ in various ways, so that we need to attend to the specific meaning intended. In general a symbol is a thing, word, action, image or word that points to a further meaning beyond itself. The simplest symbols are often called’ signs’. These have usually only one meaning, such as traffic indications about speeds, hospitals, schools, features of the road; they primarily convey information. Scientific signs such as π, +, ∞, or ♀♂ which indicate respectively the ratio of a circumference of a circle to its diameter (3.14159…), addition, infinity and female/male in genetics, all have their own one clear sense. Such signs are usually called ‘arbitrary’ in that there is no intrinsic connection between the sign and its meaning; they are also called ‘conventional’ because there is agreement about their significance in a place or even internationally: red indicates danger, an image of a plane shows the direction of an airport.
Symbol in a stricter sense is an image that is affective: it evokes a feeling or is evoked by a feeling. A clenched fist, a national flag or anthem, a Christmas card, all do more than convey information. They touch our imagination and involve the area of feeling. Circumstances will determine the depth of feeling: a Tricolour or Union Flag may have little effect on us when seen abroad flying with other EC flags; either could be quite provocative or welcoming in a particular street or village in the North of Ireland. Again saluting flags and the rules for respecting them, e.g. national flags are not to be flown after sunset, nor to be allowed to touch the ground, all point to affective values much greater than belongs to a piece of coloured cloth.
True symbols are said to be poly-semantic, that is, they can have several meanings. A material thing may have an independent existence, for instance a rose growing in a garden. But a single rose laid on, or dropped into, a grave can be filled with profound meaning. Those observing this action may interpret it differently. The same reality may have widely different denotations. Water is such a symbol, pointing to very contrasting ideas: a glass of water to cooling and refreshing; a pump or oasis in a desert to life and fertility; a basin or bath to cleansing; a flood or angry sea to destruction; a stream, lake or waterfall to relaxation; a dam to power, etc. Pilate washed his hands to indicate that he was not guilty of Jesus’ death. Again, people will be variously moved by the same symbol, even when they share the same meaning, e.g. a family meal or wedding celebration will be differently appreciated by the participants. Dreams are very important symbols, which enable us to deal in a healthy way with our unconscious or suppressed memories. They usually have many layers of meaning. The meaning of some dreams is obvious; the interpretation of other dreams may need skilled help.
Symbols moreover at times may be the main, or indeed the only expressions of some deep experiences. A symbol is often a non-verbal communication. Holding or hugging a person in distress is a very powerful way of support, empathy, sympathy or compassion (the last two both meaning ‘suffer with’). Again, people such as monarchs, presidents, pop stars, religious or inspirational figures, or people in distress can focus our thoughts and draw our feelings in a specific direction: we may wish to emulate the person, follow their lead or guidance, take up some project under their inspiration; on the other hand burning their effigy would be a sign of contempt or rejection. Such symbolic persons also communicate more powerfully than any detached essay, no matter how profound. Again, poetry, the visual arts and music communicate in a way that rational or conceptual discourse cannot achieve. Symbols are particularly important in literature, especially in poetry. Here they provide an entry into a whole area of affectivity that is not easily touched by prose.
Symbols can operate for good or evil. The Nazi swastika, pornography, and racist emblems are destructive symbols. A positive symbol is the Red Cross (Red Crescent in Muslim countries), which rallies people to care for sick and wounded in war or in catastrophes and to uphold proper treatment of prisoners in times of conflict. The American Statue of Liberty was a positive symbol of a nation that welcomed people and gave them a new beginning. The shamrock and the harp are positive reminders of Irish identity, whereas shillelaghs and leprechauns can be symbols of stage-Irishism and hence rather negative. The Cross sums up the central mystery of Christian love.
Some symbols belong mainly to a particular place, e.g. the shamrock to Ireland. Others have a more complex life depending on various places, e.g. a harp is a symbol of Ireland, of an airline, of a brewer, of St Cecilia the patroness of music, of heaven (as in the phrase ‘gone to play the harp’), of tediousness or boredom (as in phrase ‘to harp on’ from the monotony of an ill-played harp), etc.
Language is symbolic. Words indicate a reality. The phonetic sound ōk indicates in English a genus of tree (Quercus) of the beech family; in Irish and Italian the words, dair and quercia respectively indicate the same tree. Language is conventional: we cannot decide to avoid the word ‘oak’ and make up our own word ari instead; we simply would not be understood, if we spoke about the ari in the field. We may have to explain what an oak is like to a person who has never seen one. We are constantly learning new words that can be particular to some science or activity: sport, music popular and classical, sciences, technology and even relatively simple activities like cooking (e.g. baste, braise, marinade) have their own terms that must be learned by asking or by observing how they are used. Moreover, people can create new words, or neologisms, which in time become current and to an extent unchangeable. Such new words are most often technical within a trade, science, area of study, group or culture. Ordinary words may change meaning; most teachers will have the experience of using what they thought was an ordinary word, but which provoked sniggers from the class. Text-messaging has its own language which seems to become progressively more obscure, at least to an older generation.
Modern linguistics has many theories of language and of the role of symbolism. Without getting too involved in these questions we can usefully explore some characteristics of language. Language is usually words, but not any words. The words must have meaning. Thus this following would seem correct in grammar, but has no meaning: ‘Carrots love purple parachutes.’ Moreover, language reveals something of the speaker. I may get only a very limited idea of persons from a photograph. When I hear them speak they already reveal something, about themselves. Moreover, I normally speak to someone; speaking to oneself or a tree is not very common behaviour. But when I speak, I am inviting or looking for a response; I will not persevere in speaking to a person who is asleep or otherwise totally inattentive. The response I seek may merely be other person’s interest. I may, however seek information (‘what is the time, please?’), or wish that he or she did something. Speaking backed up by action is especially powerful.
Some symbols are universal and are called trans-cultural, for instance the heart is a symbol of love, passion, and commitment to a person or cause. Psychologists coming after Sigmund Freud (d. 1939) and Carl Jung (d. 1961) speak of archetypical symbols, which arise from the deep subconscious or are seen as otherwise implanted in, or arising from, human nature itself. These universal symbols have been classified in very many ways, e.g. related to the four primitive elements of earth, water, air and fire; or related to primitive geometrical shapes: circle, square, centre, cross. The French anthropologist Gilbert Durand writing in the 1960s gave a useful classification of archetypical symbols and symbolic activity that is widely accepted. They are based on the development of children to adulthood as they take possession of their space. Firstly, to the activity of standing erect are clustered such symbols of ascent, the head, heavens and consequently of sun and light, separation and hence of purification. Secondly, to the activity of nourishment can be gathered symbols of descent, the mother, intimacy, womb, house, places of refuge and caring. Thirdly, to the activity of walking correspond symbols of life, departures, progress, means of transport, roads and rivers. Finally, there is the circle, which draws in sexual symbolism, cycles of life and death, new life, the wheel, the lunar and solar cycles.
There is, furthermore, a series of symbols based on interpersonal relationships. Some of these are seen as ascending: symbols of fatherhood to which corresponds the religion of the heavenly God. Others are viewed as descending: the symbol of the mother, which in various cultures can stress fecundity or destruction. The symbol of spouse is not primarily about fertility, but rather of friendship and love. The symbol of the hero brings in the drama of the human condition, the struggle against death. Freudian interpretations of symbols stress their relation to the past history of an individual, and are frequently negative; Jungian interpretations tend to emphasise the thrust towards the future and towards transformation of archetypical symbols.
Symbols in religion
Symbols arise from people’s contact with their environment, with their history. Symbolic language has the characteristic of moving from the image to another level. All religions use symbols as well as ritual, which is often an extended or activated symbol. These are a means by which humans who are both corporeal and spiritual can communicate about and with the deity that is purely spiritual.
Some symbols, the archetypical ones, arise from our human nature and are found in almost all cultures. We find them particularly in folklore and in religion. They are the means whereby we communicate, especially about cultural experience. Religious experience moreover can only be communicated through symbol. Furthermore, religion is very much concerned not so much with God as a Being wholly other than us, but as an infinite, spiritual being with whom humans, men and women, can relate. Ascent symbols are particularly common in religion. Thus the religious symbolism of a mountain can be moral or spiritual exertion, but so too are a ladder and a tower in mystical writing; mountains, as the points of the world closest to the sky, can also be symbols of divine meeting.
The Judaeo-Christian tradition
The Old Testament in all its books, historical, prophetic and wisdom, is replete with symbols of all kinds. The religious experience of the Hebrew people and later Christians centred on a God who created, cared for and saved his people. Some powerful symbols of this core religious experience were that of God as Father (e.g. Isa 9:6; Hos 11:1-4; Ps 89:26) and less frequently Mother (see Is 66:13), King (e.g. Ps 95:3), Shepherd (Ps 23), Vinedresser (Is 5:1-7), Deliverer and Saviour (Is a 49:26), Jealous Spouse (Hos ch. 2). God’s power is also conveyed by symbols such as a Lion (Am 1:2; 3:8). The relationship between God and his people was frequently described with legal symbols like covenant, which was a particular form of contract, with warm interpersonal symbols of family, espousals, marriage and friendship. There were, too, symbols of alienation and sin: people were said to go astray, to disobey, to rebel, to offend God, to be unfaithful or commit adultery, to incur debt or guilt. Sin digs an abyss or erects a barrier between sinners and God (Isa 59:2 – the whole chapter has many symbols of sin). External ritual purity is a symbol of inner righteousness. Above all the sojourn in Egypt is seen as an image of sin and slavery, and the Exodus is a paradigm for all freedom and deliverance. God’s plan for his people is expressed symbolically as the new or heavenly Jerusalem (see the abundance of symbols in Isa ch. 54 and Rev ch. 21), as a marriage, as a well-tended vineyard, and as the sacred Passover Meal.
In the New Testament the word ‘symbol’ does not occur. The equivalent is, however, ‘mystery,’ which has the sense of something hidden but now (partly) revealed, such as God’s plan for salvation in Christ (Rom 16:25-16; Eph 3:1-10). In the gospel of John we have the word ‘sign’ which is an action revealing the meaning of Jesus and his message (John 2:11; 4:-54). The notion of sacrament shares this duality of something visible and something invisible.
In the New Testament we encounter innumerable symbols, most notably the powerful symbol of Kingdom in the life and ministry of Jesus. He also presented himself under various symbols: ‘I am bread of life … the bread that has come down from heaven’ (In 6:34.41); ‘I am the light of the world’ (In 8:12); ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life’ (In 14:6). The Pauline writings present Jesus as the first-born of humanity (Rom 8:29; Coli: 15.18), as the head of all things (Eph 1:22) and head of the Body the Church (Col1:18; Eph 5:23). The followers of Jesus are urged to be salt of the earth and light for the world (Matt 5:13.14). Through baptism they are symbolically buried and raised with Christ (Rom 6:3-4). Indeed all the sacraments are symbols, using primitive materials such as oil, water, bread, wine, and primitive gestures of blessing and touching.
Historical events can attain the status of symbol. Abraham’s departure from Haran (Gen 12:1-6) becomes a symbol of other divine calls; and the Exodus of the people from Egypt (Exod ch. 12) a symbol of liberation. Again, biblical figures can be symbolic of exceptional qualities: ‘A Daniel come to judgement’ (Merchant of Venice; see Dan ch. 13), or ‘wise as Solomon’ (see 1 Kgs 3:5-15). Other people would use the word ‘analogy’ in these last two cases, indicating a partial resemblance.
In religion there can be a rich symbolism of numbers: three and seven are often seen as perfect numbers; forty indicates completion or an indefinitely long period as in forty years of wilderness exile, forty days of the Lord’s fast. Again, the Jewish menorah, a candlestick usually with seven branches, signifies true worship.
All these Judaic and Christian symbols share the characteristics we noted above: each symbol has a rich variety of meaning; each one can be grasped at different levels by various people. These symbols make possible a grasp of religious truth, which is attainable only through symbols. They are intellectual, appealing to reason; volitional, appealing to desire; and affective, appealing to feelings.
The first 1,500 years of the Christian era was profoundly marked by symbols in all areas of life, religious and secular. In Ireland there was a strong sense of deep symbols. We have only to look at Newgrange to see remains of a culture whose symbolic language was extraordinarily powerful, but not fully clear to us. Many of the pre-Christian symbols were transformed. Wells with a pagan significance were given a Christian meaning, often being linked with a saint and healing. (1) Indeed, symbols were at times so extravagant that core values could be obscured. After the Reformation various currents of thought opposed symbols. The radical reformers rejected many of the religious symbols of the Catholic Church. Some like Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658) were called ‘Puritans’ because they sought a pure religion freed from ritual, ornaments and symbols as well as what they saw as other non-scriptural excrescences. In general, one can say that Reformation Christianity emphasised preaching and the word over ritual and symbolism. In the secular world about the same time the new sciences arose which distrusted the lack of precision of symbols. In the late seventeenth and throughout the eighteenth century, some religious thinkers, called Deists, modelled themselves on science and sought a natural religion, which was devoid of revelation and mystery. In the nineteenth century, with the Romantic Movement in poetry and the arts symbols made a comeback. At the turn of the twentieth century, especially in the Catholic Church, there was what was judged to be an excessive use of symbols in the so-called Modernist Movement. Its critics, especially Pope St Pius X (d. 1914), saw one of the dangers of Modernism to be a tendency to reduce faith to religious experience and symbols, whilst denying or neglecting the reality to which faith and symbols point. After the condemnations of Modernism for a variety of reasons, Catholic theology avoided any emphasis on symbols or subjective experience and concentrated on the objective content of revelation. It was only around the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962.-1965) that theologians again spoke with confidence about symbols, particularly when dealing with sacraments.
A wider use of sacrament itself arose. Traditionally sacrament was an exterior symbol, which pointed to inner grace: water and specific words in baptism pointed to new life in God and membership of the Christian community. The word ‘sacrament’ became applied to Christ, who points to the Father and the life of the Trinity. The Church was then called a sacrament, pointing to Christ.
Other religions also have rich symbolism, which makes religious discourse possible. In what are called ‘primitive religions’, that is, religions without a book, we can have highly sophisticated symbols based on places (mountains, rivers, sea), objects (trees, food, animals, garments), gestures, actions and movement (bodily marks and mutilations, rituals). Many of these religions also use symbols in common with the Judaic-Christian religions: the sky as the abode of God, sacrifices, and meals. And they are familiar with the archetypical symbols of light and darkness, life and death, guilt and burdens.
Some of these symbols feature in the great world religions. Thus Islam is constructed on five pillars. It knows ninety-nine names of God, most of them highly symbolic. There are holy places such as Mecca. There is a sacred garment called the ihram worn on arriving at Mecca. Ritual washings symbolise the inner purity needed to approach the holy place.
In Buddhism and Hinduism there are many sacred places, sacred rivers to allow access to the absolute or to God. Symbols common to Christian are also found, e.g. heart, tree, journey, light/darkness, or purification.
The birth and death of symbols
Some symbols are deliberately created by a person or group. In time they may gain acceptance and be found fruitful or valuable. Many symbols die or no longer speak to many people, e.g. the rich symbolism of Greek and Latin mythology, the medieval symbols of dragons, unicorns, fairy princes and princesses. The Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings books and films contain powerful symbols of the struggle between good and evil. Whether their symbols will become widely received in our culture remains to be seen.
A particular area of concern for Christian religious symbolism is that much of it arose from rural pastoral or agricultural communities in which tribal values still obtained. Thus symbols of vines, of shepherds, of agrarian men and women and their works of sowing, harvesting, of tribal marriage customs, of lakeside commercial fishing, and so forth may not mean much to urban dwellers. The fact that this symbolism is found in normative books of revelation presents a special problem.
With the philosopher Eric Voeglin we can consider four stages in the life of a symbol. The first stage is the engendering experience of the symbol. The baptismal symbolism arose from the preaching and practice of John the Baptist (see Luke 3:1-22), from the teaching and command of Jesus (see Matt 28:18-20; John 3:3-8; Mk 16:16) and from the practice and experience of the early Church (see Acts 2:38-41; 8:11-16; 19:17). The second stage in the life of a symbol is a period of reflection. This commenced already in New Testament times (e.g. Rom 6:1-11; Tit 3:4-7). This reflection has continued ever since in the preaching of the Church and in its liturgies. A third stage can come about when people lose contact with the engendering experience. People can seek baptism without very great sense of its meaning. Then we can have either fideism when people hold on to the symbol, repeating what has always been said, or else belief in the symbol that is at variance with its meaning. Thus people can seek baptism for their children for social reasons, to obtain entry into a particular school, or they may see it as bringing luck or protection. At this stage the symbol is under serious threat. A secular instance of loss of meaning might be the Irish flag. Its colours are often described as green-white-yellow; or green-white-gold, but it is more correctly green-white-orange. In the nineteenth century there were attempts to unite two cultures: one was Irish and Catholic symbolised by green; the other Protestant and Scottish symbolised by the English king William of Orange. If one says that the Irish flag is yellow or gold, one has lost contact with the engendering experience, which was an attempt to bring together the two cultures indicated by green and orange. So far have people lost contact with the symbolism that even its name is differently pronounced: trîcolour (with long i for Catholics) and tricolour (with short i for Protestants).
The fourth stage is a meditative reconstruction, in which we look again at the engendering experience. In the case of the Irish flag we might look at Irish history since the 1690s. If we feel passionately for national harmony and reconciliation, then the flag may take on again its symbolic meaning. The Church is always concerned that people return to the full meaning of baptism. Hence we have renewal of baptismal promises occasionally at Mass, and we have the Easter Vigil, which symbolically re-enacts salvation history.
If the meditative reconstruction does not come about, the symbol may persist in a weak form in the third stage; it will no longer be a bearer of meaning or affectively touch people. It will eventually die or lose all relevance. There are many areas, not only in religious education, where teachers can walk with young people in the rediscovery of symbols. The power of symbols lies in the fact that they appeal not only to cold reason but also at the level of feeling.
1. E. Healy, In Search of Ireland’s Holy Wells (Dublin: Wolfhound, 2001).
P. Béruerie and C. Duchesneau, How to Understand the Sacraments (London: SCM, 1991).
S. Happel, ‘Symbol’ in The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship, ed. P.E. Fink. (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan/Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 1237-1245.
K. Richter, The Meaning of the Sacramental Symbols: Answers to Today’s Questions (Collegeville: Liturgical Press) 1990.