Catholic CornucopiadCheney

2. Symbols

Catholic Customs and Symbols

What is a symbol? The word is in common use and of frequent application. Thus, the quondam Labor Premier of Great Britain, J. R. MacDonald, summoning the hosts of Labor to the May Day celebration of the year 1924, declared: “May Day for the Workers throughout the world brings every year its message of hope and comradeship. This year that message has a new note of promise. In the beauty of the earth, decking itself anew with leaf and flower, we see the symbol of our own movement. Within our common life there are forces creating for all a world at once beautiful and happy. May Day calls to the people of every nation to unite and be glad that there is promise in life.” He saw in the natural beauty of May Day a symbol of beauty for the future of Labor. In this case, the symbolism was founded upon nature.

Quite another view of May Day and its Pole around which the people danced was taken by the Puritans of England, who found therein a symbolism of two kinds: first, the secular revelry suggested by James I and Charles I (names of offense to Puritan political ideals) in the Book of Sports; secondly, the fact that the May Day revels were permitted under the old Catholic times, added the feature of religious detestation. With respect to this second one, Patten, in The Year’s Festivals, quotes from a pamphlet of 1691 in which reference was made to the Puritan “brethren” as follows: “Remember the blessed times when everything in the world that was displeasing and offensive to the brethren went under the name of horrid and abominable Popish superstitions; organs and May-poles, surplices and long hair; cathedrals and playhouses; set forms of prayer and painted glass; fonts and apostles’ spoons,—a long list.” Here, of course, the symbolism was rather arbitrarily based on “private griefs” (to quote the excellent phrase in Mark Antony’s speech).

How, then, shall we define a symbol! Can it be chosen arbitrarily! Must it be founded on some metaphorical resemblance between the symbol and that which is thus symbolized?

Perhaps another concrete illustration will help us here. Might an author justly write that the white and black keys of a piano or an organ are symbolical of purity and of soberness! Our first thought would naturally be that the claim is extravagant. And, yet, if the organ were chosen by the author to symbolize the Religious Life, it seems clear that such a particular portion of that symbolism can adhere to the keys. Dr. Heuser entitled his volume The Harmony of the Religious Life, and the headings of the chapters are all musically conceived: e. g. Prelude, The Grand Organ, The Keyboard, Intervals, Flats and Sharps, Pedals, etc. And therefore when he writes: “The religious take their place side by side, as the keys, black and white—symbolic of both purity and soberness—in perfect order,” we perceive no straining of symbolism. “I have often,” writes the author in his “Prelude,” “looked upon the rows of religious at prayer or at instruction in their stalls, devoutly thoughtful, and sometimes with that sight arose the image of a grand instrument of music—a harp, or better, an organ—uttering sweet harmony through the silent spheres, caught up by angelic choirs in heaven and sending back its charming echoes to the whole communion of saints on earth.”

If the church organ had never before been chosen to symbolize the religious life, we may not therefore assert that the new symbolism has been arbitrarily chosen, that it is entirely too fanciful, that it has no basis in fact. Was John Henry Newman any less “fanciful” when, speaking of music, he asked: “Is it possible that that inexhaustible evolution and disposition of notes, so rich and yet so simple, so intricate and yet so regulated, so various and yet so majestic, should be a mere sound, which is gone and perishes? Can it be that those mysterious stirrings of heart, and keen emotion, and strange yearnings after we know not what, and awful impressions from we know not whence, should be wrought in us by what is unsubstantial, and comes and goes, and begins and ends in itself? It is not so; it cannot be. No; they have escaped from some higher sphere; they are the outpourings of eternal harmony in the medium of created sound; they are echoes from our Home; they are the voice of Angels, or the Magnificat of Saints, or the living laws of Divine Governance, or the Divine Attributes; something are they besides themselves, which we cannot compass, which we cannot utter,—though mortal man, and he perhaps no otherwise distinguished above his fellows, has the gift of eliciting them” (Oxford Sermons, No. 15). We perhaps begin to conjecture —and rightly so—that symbolism is a kind of poetry when it is used in religious life. The symbolisms we shall encounter in this little volume are poetizations of objects which, like the vestments and the utensils of the Mass, have primarily a utilitarian purpose, but are dignified and rendered instructive by the symbolisms attached to them.

A materialistic, wholly prosy, quasi-scientific or pseudo-scientific historian of liturgies may grow restless at such poetization. He wants dry historical facts or realities when he searches out toward the origins of liturgical observances. He is doing a good work in all this, for he is adding to the present-day sum of human knowledge. But ne sutor ultra crepidam—“Let the cobbler stick to his last.” For, as Matthew Arnold observes in a beautiful fashion, “It is not Linnaesus or Cavendish or Cuvier who gives the true sense of animals, or water, or plants, who seizes their secrets for us, who makes us participate in their life; it is Shakespeare with his
That come before the swallow dares, and take
    The winds of March with beauty.
It is Wordsworth with his
voice . . . heard
In springtime from the cuckoo-bird,
Breaking the silence of the seas
Among the farthest Hebrides.”
And commenting on this view, Charles Devas expresses a just estimate with poetic warmth: “The exponents of physical science can describe with much accuracy the cosmic dust, the refraction of light, the degrees of moisture, and other causes that make the sky what it is in the ruddy sunsets of a stormy summer; or the forces that uphold the stone roof of a Gothic cathedral a hundred feet above our heads; or the chemical analysis of the pigments of Raphael’s Madonna degli Ansidei. But of the main thing they tell us nothing. . . . For to those who have spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear, the beauty of nature and of art point heavenward; through the medium of created form and color we gain some glimpses of uncreated beauty; the glow of crimson cloud and depths of golden light are a faint fore-glance of the city that hath no need of sun or moon to light it, the soaring columns and fretted roof are to lead us upwards to the seven pillars of the Jerusalem that is on high. . . .” (Key to the World’s Progress, section 23).

Much more could be set down here to the same effect. Let not the Peter Bells of the world quarrel with the poetical and uplifting symbolisms attached by saintly and poetic souls to liturgical objects. The world about us is filled with a beauty faintly surmised, dimly glimpsed; to be expressed, or rather insinuated, by symbolism rather than by words; a visible parable of increate Beauty. And out of this mysticism, clothing with happy fancies what we perceive with our poor senses, come “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”