Catholic CornucopiadCheney

3. Multiple Symbolism

Catholic Customs and Symbols

Symbolism is not merely figurative, representing one thing or thought by another, as when the Holy Trinity is represented by a triangle or by a three-leafed clover, the Eternal Father as an aged patriarch, the Eternal Son as a lamb, the Holy Spirit as a dove. Symbolism is also poetical and almost fancy-free.

As a result of this poetical and imaginative freedom, we find at times that pious minds or eloquent tongues have attached to one and the same symbol quite varied meanings. The harp, for instance, is a symbol of music in general and is also the national emblem of Ireland in poetry. A lamp is commonly used to symbolize learning. But it also suggests that studiousness which leads to learning and which is referred to as “burning the midnight oil.” It also is a symbol of life, as when Robert Emmet declares that his “lamp of life is nearly extinguished”; or of the hope that resides in life, as when the wicked are told that
While the lamp of life doth burn,
Vilest sinner may return.
But since the soul is the life of the body, a further extension of fancy may make a lamp symbolize the soul. Thus the Abbé Durand, in his Catholic Ceremonies, considers the sanctuary lamp as a symbol of the Christian soul consuming itself in adoration before the tabernacle: “In honor of Jesus Christ, a lamp burns perpetually before the altar. The Christian soul longs to remain in constant adoration at the feet of Our Lord, there to be consumed by gratitude and love. In heaven alone will this happiness be given to us, but here below, as an expression of our devout desires, we place a lamp in the sanctuary to take our place. In this little light St. Augustine shows us an image of the three Christian virtues. Its clearness is faith, which enlightens our mind; its warmth is love, which fills our heart; its flame, which, trembling and agitated, mounts upward till it finds rest in its center, is hope, with its aspirations toward heaven, and its troubles outside of God. (Serm. lxvii., de Script.).” Thus, also, do the “Vigil Lights” symbolize for the devout a continuance of the prayers made at the shrine after the worshiper has been called away by the thronging demands of life. Discussing symbolisms with instances such as these in our minds, we shall be tempted neither to amazement nor to amusement. Idealizations are not only beautiful, but as well are they helpful. For the earthly, material, sensible world bounds our physical vision on all sides. We are assuredly cabined, cribbed, confined by it. But because of that wondrously creative faculty which we call the Imagination, we can cry out with the poet-prisoner, “My mind to me an empire is,” making good the boast from experience. For though we be in chains and cast into a dark cell, we can follow the vivid word-paintings of St. John of the Cross in similar circumstances. Imagination can lead us far beyond the bourn of time and space; can make us be present when the Creator said, “Let there be light!” and time began; and can let us anticipate the last dread cry of the Apocalyptic angel, “Time shall be no more!” It can mingle our Hosannas with those of the heavenly host, and can prostrate itself before the Great White Throne of God, seated though He be, in inaccessible light.

That strangely powerful faculty, so necessary to the speculative scientist and to the practical engineer, so active in working miracles of beauty and holiness in the lives of the saints and in the material edifices erected to the glory of God in their name, manifests itself alike in the canticles of the Saint of Assisi and in the analogies between nature and grace falling so unlaboriously from the lips of his namesake of Sales. Symbolism is poetry, for it is the creative imagination at work. Sometimes it devises a thing or an action or a word with the purpose of symbolizing. Sometimes it accepts an existing thing or action or word, and clothes it with symbolism. In the latter case, the personality of the artificer will shape his work in his own way; and so we may have variant—and even mayhap contradictory, or what to us may appear so— symbolisms attributed to one and the same thing or act or word.