Symbol (TA)
Word and symbol
Everyday we use words and language to communicate ideas, feelings and information. Words serve us well at a particular level yet they begin to flounder when we try to speak about deeper realities, stronger emotions or the numinous. Poetry and music have the ability to find a deeper echo in our minds and hearts. Eventually however language must give way to other forms of symbolic communication. When meaning is no longer held or begins to loose its moorings in language it is anchored again in symbol. And when meaning begins to loose its moorings in symbol it is anchored again in the word. In death we can often find no words to comfort because language simply can’t express grief and so we embrace. In love, two lovers may talk forever but their truest feelings will find expression in a kiss or the exchange of rings. If one were to try to really explain the effects of love or death words would flounder and so language takes on symbolic expression. Symbols are born from language and story.
Symbols loose their meaning if divorced from the story which originally gave them expression. Wedding rings mean little if the couple who wears them is no longer in love. In this instance the only way for the rings to mean something again is for the couple to revisit and rediscover the story of what attracted them together in the first place. Here a symbol desperately needs to be reborn again out of the story which first gave it life. Whilst words seldom require symbolic expression, symbols always require an appreciation of the story which gave them their origin. If we are presented with a symbol which evokes no memory, feeling or experience then it is meaningless because we can’t relate it to a story. 

Religious Symbols
When we apply the above insights to the Catholic celebration of sacraments, attention should focus on how closely the use of symbols is aligned to the story from whence they originated. It becomes a means of presenting them more effectively. So for example a community must question how effectively it presents water as a symbol aligned to the process of leaving unbelief to enfold faith. In what way is oil related to vocation or illness? What is so special about bread and wine? Why did Jesus choose to share his presence with us in a meal? Why do we light candles? What is so significant about light and dark? When we answer these questions we unify word and symbol, story and expression. It is crucial to be aware of the fact that symbols allow us access to the deepest of life’s realities, feelings and insights way beyond the realm of language. Therefore to stifle the use of our Christian symbols either through minimalism or indifference is to deny a community some of its most profound experiences.

So we understand symbols as those signs which can disclose a reality which is not identical to itself.  They differ from signs insofar as symbols have the power to resonate deeply inside us.  Their ability to effect us emotionally or psychologically is due to their capacity to refer to multiple or complex realities whilst signs only refer to simple realities. Whereas we devise and construct signs, symbols occur naturally and so it is impossible to limit one to a single meaning and to do so is to annihilate or to annul it as a method of cognition.  Victor Turner identifies a symbol's ability to convey many things simultaneously as 'multi-vocality' which implies that a symbol can be used often in the same ritual but it will be interpreted differently depending on the context and setting. 

Turner tells us that symbols can bring us in touch with realities which can often remain hidden, opaque or suppressed.  They can act therefore as a set of evocative devices for arousing, channelling, and domesticating powerful emotions such as hate, fear, love and grief.  Symbols differ from signs by their power and depth to reveal a reality by actually making it present. When a symbol makes a reality present it acts as a catalyst or medium of unity by bringing to the level of awareness a spiritual or unconscious reality.  In effect, symbols laden our consciousness with profound realities.  According to Turner, they are the smallest units of ritual and it is their ability to unite that grants them such a crucial role in sacramental activity. In the sacraments, rites try to deepen or enrich our awareness of the realm of the spiritual. It is through symbols that profane and ordinary experiences can be integrated with the extraordinary world of the sacred, a realm which paradoxically, is always present but for the most part remains unseen. 

Finally, it should be remembered that if symbols are the smallest units of a ritual then to some extent the effectiveness of a ritual will be determined by the potency of the symbols used. Turner argued that rituals break down when the symbols fail to prompt an affective response. 

Tom Gunning

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