We walk into church and the first thing we do is reach our fingers into the Holy Water fount.
Johan van Parys, a Minneapolis liturgist, has the answers to those questions and more.
The director of liturgy and the sacred arts at the Basilica of St. Mary, he’s packaged them nicely in 150 reader-friendly pages in “Symbols That Surround Us: Faithful Reflections.” (Liguori Publications, $16.99)
Folks who haven’t had any exposure to things Catholic will find explanations for everything from church architecture to garb, from gestures to sacraments. But if it’s been some good while since Sister Mary Whats-her-name taught us that blessing ourselves with Holy Water upon entering church is a reminder of our baptismal vows, that we are members of Christ’s church, that we’re entering a holy place, a different atmosphere than the rest of the world, then you’ll get something out of reading this, too.
Van Parys reminds us that those ordinary elements of water, fire, bread and wine are symbols that “enable us to communicate on a deeper level . . . to express our faith in ways that would not be possible if we were to rely exclusively on words.”
He’s right on the money when he adds, “Although we may not always be aware of them, symbols surround us, connect us to sacred images found in our churches, remind us of our faith, and support us in our private and public prayer.”
Much to learn — or re-learn
Like a good teacher, van Parys sets the stage for comprehension by helping readers grasp the concept that nonverbal communication and symbols touch us everyday. Body language, for example, flowers on Mother’s Day, a hug to a grieving friend.
He quickly moves from the secular to the sacred, explaining, “When it comes to our faith, we use symbls even more readily to approach that which by definition cannot be explained or captured by words: the mysteries of creation and salvation. . . . The liturgy and the sacraments of the Catholic Church use symbols to share meaning and reveal deeper meaning.”
After that, the author is off and running, effectively quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the General Instructions of the Roman Missal, the documents of Vatican II and other authoritative works.
There’s much to grab onto here, the what and why of vestments worn at Mass, the meaning behind the use of the various oils during sacramental rites, how sacred art can connect us to God and the saints, and of course, the superb symbolism of bread and wine.
Bread, he simply writes, that becomes the Body of Christ, is for Catholics “weekly nourishment on our journey of faith.” And he’s honest enough to note this about the use of wine at Mass:
“Wine has been ascribed medicinal qualities: It was used to settle an upset stomach and to clean out wounds. Still, the principal quality of wine is to add festivity to a gathering and emphasize unity among those who share the cup.”
Perfect for discussion by groups
He’s unafraid to explain how some Catholic ritual evolved from pre-Christian peoples.
And there’s a marvelous chapter on sacred architecture as symbol that tackles why our churches look the way they do and how they’ve changed through 2,000 years. The book is richer for the personal anecdotes van Parys relates: I loved the one about the choir members who tossed their coats casually on the altar only to have the pastor come by and sweep the coats off in one fell swoop!
Each of the 10 chapters ends with a brief reflection and three questions to ponder and/or discuss.
After reading “Symbols That Surround Us” I could easily see it serving as the text for a small group for a number of sessions and as the focus of an adult faith formation series. Those who facilitate gatherings for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) might find it a nice supplementary resource.
But let me go back to my very first thought: I wasn’t halfway through “Symbols That Surround Us” when the lightbulb was turned on: I’d forgotten so many of these symbolic connections that enrich Catholic life. Reading van Parys’ little book will remind those of us in the over-50 crowd of some what we used to know — or at least had studied for the religion class test!