The Power of Symbols

Last Sunday we entered church and found our icons, pictures, statues, and crucifix masked with purple cloth. My son was very upset by this, but so was I, small matter that this happens every Lent! I spent the Mass feeling uneasy and unsettled – where could I rest my eyes? When I go to Mass, I look more at the religious art that adorns our churches than anything else. When the mind wanders, as may be relied upon, the artistic and symbolic depictions of significant people and events in my Faith serve as extra aids in keeping my attention on God, rather than my grocery list (although they by no means prevent my drawing up grocery lists). We have very nice art in our church and I like looking at it all, but in every church I visit, it is the crucifix that captivates me more than anything, and it is that upon which I fix my gaze for most of the Mass, as it facilitates an ongoing conversation with – and meditation upon – Christ, and the mystery of His almost incredible love. When, on Sunday, the crucifix was veiled, I spent much of the Mass feeling like a child lost at a family reunion: I wasn’t scared because I knew my parents were there somewhere, but I was a bit anxious because I couldn’t see them, and my eyes darted everywhere.

The veiling of the church art is an effective means of reminding us just how powerful our representations and symbols are. It made me reflect upon how empty the world would be without Mary, St Joseph, St Michael the Archangel, Divine Mercy, etc., etc. – but first and foremost: without Christ! Then would I be lost indeed!

On Thursday, I met with the counsellor who is helping me address my anxiety and insomnia challenges, and she gave me a page out of a book and spoke with me about the idea that in order to overcome anxiety, one does better to face the source of anxiety immediately than to avoid it or ignore it. Avoidance defers the moment wherein the anxiety will be addressed, allowing the anxiety to build.

“Because we are scared to feel fear, we avoid whatever triggers it. It’s the avoidance that locks the phobia [or anxiety] in place…. It’s not the fear that stops you. It’s fear of feeling the fear that stops you…. If you can let yourself tolerate feeling fear, the feeling gradually decreases…. what you really need to do is face down the fear.” – Healing Through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan (p. 173)

Reading Greenspan’s thoughts, I remembered the crucifix. After all, the representation of a man dead or dying from torture is essentially the representation of all those things we fear most: death, humiliation, vulnerability, loss, abandonment, betrayal, absolute poverty, nakedness, shame, heartbreak, defeat. Greenspan’s book presents the message of facing down one’s fear through a New Age-Jewish-Buddist mindfulness lens, but the idea is at the heart of Catholicism: there is no greater symbol in our Tradition than that of Christ crucified upon the cross. In our homes, in our churches, around our necks, on our keychains, on our dashboards, and tucked away in just about any ready nook, cranny, or pocket, we face our deepest fears on a daily basis. Better even than the acclimatization to fear (“affect tolerance” is apparently the term used by psychologists), Christians are given a real reason not to fear. “In the grand scheme of things, what’s the worst that could happen?” “Hm, well, the Powers of Evil could conquer the Powers of Good. They could even kill a God who, crazy as it sounds, is a fool for love over mere creatures!” Well, The Worst Thing that could happen in The Grand Scheme of Things did happen, and evil was still completely and utterly defeated, for the Crucified Christ became the Risen Christ, gloriously triumphant, having endured the greatest pain and humiliation.

“And the LORD said unto Moses, Make thee a fiery serpent, and set it upon a standard: and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he seeth it, shall live.” – Numbers 21:8, a prefiguration of the Crucifix

I have many fears, and many thoughts make me feel anxious. I fear the death of those I love most, I fear raising children poorly so that they prefer sin or worldly comforts to God, I fear the stack of dishes that piles up in the sink and the floor covered with toys and food that the children have dropped, I fear the judgement of those who read my writing and of those who see my lazy or indulgent grocery choices at the check-out counter. And my heart still aches from the death of my son, and from sundry injuries past, missed opportunities, regrets. There is fear and there is grief and there is the temptation to despair, and all this Christ has taken upon himself and given us a symbol that encompasses them all to gaze upon in wonder, knowing how they were not merely faced by a brave man, but thoroughly transformed.

When Catholics gaze upon the crucifix, we gaze upon all that is the worst in this world. We bring our pain and humiliation, our brokenness, grief, and defeat, and face the darkness with Christ. Through Him, with Him, in Him, we not only grow unassailable in the face of the apparent threat of the tyranny of evil, but we find the darkness transformed into light. The “emotional alchemy” that Greenspan writes of? The High Alchemist is the Holy Trinity.

Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Saviour of the world.

2 thoughts on “The Power of Symbols

  1. Kevin

    What a beautiful, heartfelt, piece. Thank you for sharing this. My family fights with anxiety daily and so much is based on avoiding fears. But we find time and time again that expectation is always worse than reality when facing fears. God bless you and your family.

    Like

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