The Recovery of Symbolism

By Jonathan Pageau on October 30, 2012

Saint-Maximos the Confessor

“Symbolism” is a term that has become quite diluted in the past 500 years. Since the middle ages, the notion of the symbol has undergone a deep mutation due to the immeasurable changes in our experience of knowledge and meaning.  Symbolism has been progressively reduced from underlying our very cosmological world view, to now being a form of “signifying”, like the little man on the door of the lavatory or a traffic sign with its shapes and color.  There is an exteriority, a non-participation between the symbol and the signified meaning.  So for example, when Protestant Reformers said that the Eucharistic bread “symbolized” the body of Christ, they were implying a separation between the two rather than a union of the two.  This vision of symbolism has not always been so, and one of the great thinkers of the early Church, Saint-Maximos the Confessor, will help us find that more ancient meaning.

Looking at the word « symbol », one can already gather what the original understanding was.  The Greek word symbol means a « meeting » or « gathering ». We call a “symbol of faith” that which is a bringing together of the essential elements of what we believe. The most outstanding use of the notion of « symbol » in the new testament, very much in the sense we will be looking at, appears in Luke 2:19:  « Mary kept all these things, and pondered (from « sumballo », « gathered » might be another possible translation) them in her heart ».  We will in fact see that “to gather in the heart” is one of the most adequate definitions of symbolism we could come up with.

A symbol in the true sense of the word is not a « substitution » for something, a sign merely pointing to something else through resemblance or through an arbitrary consensus.  A symbol, properly understood, is only a sign pointing to something, a principle, in the sense that it concentrates that principle in a direct way, makes it manifest.   And a symbol, being a concentration and manifestation is also a participation in the thing it symbolizes.  The Church is a symbol of Christ in the sense that Christ is the Principle (he is the head, kephale, in Greek) and the Church is his Body (In fact the word “church” or: “ekklesia” means nothing else than a meeting) and so it is both a manifestation or “condensation” of and a participation in the head.  In this understanding, symbolism is not opposed to realism, rather it is realism itself.  Saint Maximos tells us“…for he who starting from the spiritual world sees appear the visible world or else who sees appear symbolically the contour of spiritual things freeing themselves from visible things… that one does not consider anything of what is visible as impure, because he does not find any irreconcilable contradiction with the ideas of things. [1]”.

Ultimately, a symbol is the meeting place of two worlds, the meeting of the will of God with His creation. Saint-Paul tells us that «…since the creation of the world, (Gods) invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead… ».  The symbol is that place in created things where one can see the heavens, making what is on earth like what is in heaven.  That « place » is a theophany, it is seeing a glimpse of God working through creation.

The “bringing together” that underpins the theophany is the very reconciliation in Christ of which saint-Paul speaks in 2Cor.5,  “…all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ…” for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself…”.  Although in translations, the emphasis is often put on people, the text speaks of ALL THINGS for “if anyone (or anything) is in Christ, he (or it) is a new creation…”   This point of contact between creation and the divine of which we have been speaking is what is often known as the « divine spark », the logos by which that very created thing exists, and by grasping it one can seize that things ultimate meaning, its « simple nature », as well as its place in creation.  So what is a logos, what are logoï?  The logos is the quality of something which is simple and unified, its spiritual reason, bringing together specific modalities through a “communion” of what is eclectic and dispersed into something which is one.  The logos of something could be seen as the “essence” of that thing in God from all eternity.  Saint-Maximos explains that we are able to “understand how everything in the universe is separated one from another in an orderly manner in accordance with the logoi in which each thing consists by the ineffable One who holds and protects everything in accordance with unity.”[2]

The person of Jesus Christ then is in fact the ultimate symbol, for in Him lies the very fullness of the concentration of meaning in a form, showing us God while revealing the very essence of Man.  He is the type of the Father and the archetype of Man, “reconciling all things” to the Father.  This mystery can be seen in the function and even in the form of the cross, which being the union of the vertical and the horizontal leads to that very point in its center where the symbol finds its source.  “The mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos contains in itself all the meanings of the enigmas and the symbols of the Scriptures, all the signification of creatures visible and invisible. He who knows the mystery of the cross and the tomb knows the logos of things; he who is initiated to the hidden signification to the resurrection knows the purpose for which God from the beginning created everything.”[3]”.

The unification just explained is what we mean by symbolism.   Not surprisingly, this process in the created world, for saint-Maximos, happens in man, whos logos contains in itself all the logoï of the visible creation and must unite them in his own logos. He is “the laboratory in which everything is concentrated and in itself naturally mediates between the extremities of each division[4]”.  This communion is always a concentration, as when the radii of a circle are nearer to one another the closer they come to the center, finally converging into a single point.  Therefore man, by concentrating himself, that is by moving towards his own center (heart) also gathers within, though a process of analogy, all of creation, finally giving himself and all that is within him to God through an act of love.  Andrew Louth in his commentary on St-Maximos the Confessor gives a concise description of this process saying that “by ‘a way of life proper and fitting to the Saints’, the human person unites paradise and the oikoumenê to make one earth.  Then, by imitating by virtue the life of the angels, the human person unites heaven and earth.  Then, by being able to perceive the logoi of the created order, the distinction between the intelligible and the sensible falls away.  And finally, by uniting created nature with uncreated nature though love, the coinherence or interpenetration of God and the creation becomes apparent.[5]”  If it is through its analogy to man that creation participates in God, it is by man’s analogy to the Divine Logos, that he participates in the Divine.

That, my friends, is symbolism.

I was once told by an Orthodox Deacon who I admire very much, that if the Catholic believe Christs body is REAL in the Eucharist  and if protestants believe it is a SYMBOL, the Orthodox believe  it is REAL because it is a SYMBOL.  I think that sums it up quite nicely.

[1] St-Maximos quoted in Balthazar, « Liturgie Cosmique », (my translation)  “…car celui qui partant du monde spirituel voit apparaître le monde visible ou encore qui voit apparaître symboliquement le contour des choses spirituelles se dégageant des choses apparentes…, celui-là ne considère rien de ce qui est visible comme impur, parce qu’il n’y découvre aucune contraditction inconciliable avec les idées des choses. p.235

[2] St-Maximos quoted in Andrew Louth,  Saint-Maximos The Confessor ». p.113

[3] quoted in Balthazar, (my translation) “Le mystère de l’Incarnation du Verbe contient en soi tout le sens des enigmes et des symbols de l’Écriture, toute la signification des creatures visibles et intelligibles.  Celui qui connaît le mystère de la croix et du tombeau connaît la raison (logos) des choses; celui qui est initié à la signification cachée de la resurrection connaît le but pour lequel Dieu dès le commencement créa le tout” p.210

[4] quoted in Louth, p.73

[5] Andrew Louth, « St-Maximos The Confessor » p.4

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