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The faith through symbols and stories
A well-worn preacher's tale runs as follows. One day a woman known for being a gossip in a village parish discovered to her remorse that a story she had told about another parishioner was in fact the converse of what she had believed to be true. Losing sleep the night of this revelation, to her credit, the next day she appeared in the queue for the Mystery of Penance.
That day hearing confessions was a wise old priest, a clergyman who had served numerous parishes, both in the city and in the country.
In walked the woman and stood near the priest before an icon of Christ. Soon she began to pour out her troubled conscience. The priest listened intently, his eyes half-closed with only a wrinkle or two on his face changing shape as she spoke. Then the priest asked the woman to carry out a form of penance in contrition for her uncharitable act.
Obedient, the woman went home to her farm on the outskirts of the village. She walked into her bedroom and pulled off the bed the fullest pillow, stuffed to the very seams with feathers. Then into the kitchen she walked. With knife in one hand and her pillow in the other the woman walked to the back of her property, cut open her pillow and, dropping the knife, she shook the contents into the breeze.
The next Sunday, she approached the priest after the Divine Liturgy telling him that she had carried out his instructions to the letter. "But why", she asked, "did you ask of me to do this?" "Ah", replied the priest, "I wanted you to learn from your sin". "But learn what?", the woman quizzed. "Tell me", the priest asked, "What happened after you poured the feathers from the pillow". "Father, you know what happened. They spread to the four corners of my property, blown by the breeze. They probably are now resting on the dome of the next village's Church."
The wise priest looked at the woman and asked: "So, if I was to ask you to find all these feathers and fill the pillow once more - could you do it?" "It is impossible", the woman meekly retorted". "So it is with gossip, good woman", the priest softly replied. " Remember this. Once the gossip is said, it spreads, and where it rests, only God knows. It blows along supported by the breeze of the ill-will of people, and can never be caught. Go away and try to speak ill no more!"
Symbols form an important and intricate part of both religious belief and practice. For those who believe in God - a Being beyond the total comprehension of a finite intellect - symbols give humanity a language by which to open a door to the human spirit, an avenue by which to dispel some of the darkness caused by the great cloud of unknowing, namely the shadow of God.
Even those who are only vaguely familiar with Christianity recognise in the baptismal font, or the Signing of the Cross, that these objects and actions are connected to a perceived sacredness; they herald a belief in a higher reality and are an attempt to signify the real presence of God in the life of human history.
However, for symbols to bring light to the spiritual life, they must be understood, and for understanding to occur, the process of education is paramount. Without the prerequisite knowledge, symbolic actions and sacred objects become mere gimmicks, cultural artifacts or fashion accessories.
Christ's parables are brilliant in their simplicity so that the entire world can comprehend their message for they discuss matters referring to the human heart. A father longs for his wayward son; a poor widow loses her coins; a man is set upon by thieves and is passed by. None of these people may have existed, but the stories capture our imagination for they are symbolic of something that we know to be true.
No father wants to see his son destitute and we long for the eventual parental embrace when the prodigal child returns. We all know poor women who are widowed and we want them to find the means to survive, as their dead husbands would have wished. We all know of some innocent who has been unjustly injured - we see it every day on our television screens - and long for someone, perhaps ourselves, to have compassion on them, and offer succour.
The parables that Christ taught have not only been retold for 2000 years but have inspired artists, writers, composers and religious leaders. We also wait for the story's end because we want to feel something; we want this imaginary character to speak to us, to know how we would have acted in the circumstance.
A religion survives only if its message is shown to be relevant, as well as true, across the ages. When Christ spoke to the crowds, he spoke of that which was tangible to them. If we are to convince others that indeed God came to be one like us we must not speak in a language only for the angels to understand but in a manner that a fisherman, an accountant, a physician, even a prostitute, can fathom.
We must choose our symbols well: when we speak; when we celebrate the Liturgy; and when we evangelise. What is most important is not to show the world that we are intellectually divine, but divinely intellectual, first and foremost by knowing our audience.
In this, Christ was the undisputed master of teaching, carrying within himself a message of incomparable magnitude, but using the language of the most common of men.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 23 No 9 (October 2010), p. 20
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