Archives, Biography, Pondering, Wheaton

Living Symbols

St. Bartholomew Church, Berchtesgaden, Germany -

One of the pictures that frequently rests on my computer desktop is a photograph my friend Gigi took of St. Bartholomew’s Chapel. This brave little “Pilgrim chapel”-white with bright red turrets-has stood since the 12th century between the Watzmann, the highest continuous vertical face mountain in the world, and the Konigsee—the deepest lake in Germany. Here is how Gigi explained her photograph:

This lake is incredibly deep, and incredibly still. It is like glass almost all the time. The winds and storms hover about the mountains of rock, and you can see snow drifts and clouds and storms, but down
at the lake it is peaceful. …I’ve always loved water. But this water was an unreal color. It was aqua, it
was neon green, it was navy blue, so many colors that I couldn’t even speak. Also, cruising along a
very deep, deep lake is scary for me, especially when it was so still. I kept picturing myself
suspended in between a bunch of mountains, on the surface of the water.

The earth is full of such rich realities. But while the photograph on my laptop reveals a mountain, a lake and a chapel, my friend tasted something more: the awe and terror of encountering such towering majesty and deep stillness. In experiencing St. Bartholomew’s Chapel on the Konigsee, Gigi tasted the holiness of God through his creation.

Living symbols have this precise quality: they are what they are in themselves and, at the same time, they invite us to taste more and other than they are in themselves. A mountain is a permanent thing, with “mountain-ness” as its essence. But it is also a symbol that enables us to experience something of the great majesty and power of an awesome God. The psalms often invoke this symbol:

Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O LORD. (Psalm 36:6)

Symbols are the most elemental window between heaven and earth. The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemman writes, “For Christ to be ‘ symbol’ of anything in the world, the world itself must, in the first place, be known, viewed and experienced as the ‘symbol’ of God, as the epiphany of his holiness and power.”

We find these living symbols not only in nature, but within our own beings.

A living symbol is a permanent thing, drawing its essence and existence from the Creator God. It is a case in point of something greater than itself. Living symbols are gifts in two ways: to awaken to one’s symbolic meaning in the world is to find oneself beginning to drink wine in a world that once contained only water. In finding ourselves entrusted with more than we are, we carry meaning much greater than we ourselves can ever comprehend. That realization alone is enlivening beyond words.

To accept the gift of that symbolic meaning requires us to share the gift: to be a particular kind of symbol bearer in the world. One’s symbol is something to be shared, yet completely without striving. The mountains do not strive to give us a glimpse of God’s majesty. These created things carry gifts greater than themselves without ever being other than themselves.

As gifts to others, living symbols do not simply point outside ourselves to a reality that is bigger than we are. They do not only offer us a way to perceive and understand reality, to circle around it and analyze it from different angles. Rather, true symbols offer us a way to participate in the reality itself. Gigi’s experience of majestic mountains and deep, still waters gifted her with an epiphany of awe. There was a time before St. Bart’s where she knew about awe. But she is forever changed by one moment of genuine, terrifying, insider awe.

Sometimes living symbols dissolve the distance between us and eternal, divine reality for a moment so that we can taste and see, and be forever changed. Those epiphanies come as unique, unbidden gifts. But in everyday life, we carry our symbolic meaning more as an icon. Icons are written (not painted) and read (not viewed) to be, like the word pictures in the Scriptures, a window between heaven and earth-to create a transparent focal point for the reader to drawn into an invisible reality that would not be perceived except through a created, blessed symbolic representation.

At the core of my theological musings about gender is this symbolic foundation: gender is intended as an icon through which we taste the dance of the Trinity and the relationship between this Trinity and the Church as Christ’s bride. We are made, man and woman, in the image of God. As we embrace and live within our God-given symbols as man and woman, we not only become most fully ourselves, but we also become windows through which others are drawn into the Trinitarian life from which our symbols spring.

For this insight we ought to begin at the beginning and end at the new beginning, for the Scriptures begin and end with a wedding.

* Schmemman, Alexander “Sacrament and Symbol” in For the Life of the World.
Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1998.

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