Tag Archives: symbols

Catholics, time to brush up on things about your faith that you used to know — or thought you did?

March 21, 2012

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We walk into church and the first thing we do is reach our fingers into the Holy Water fount.

Why?

Even better questions are, what benefit are we supposed to be getting, and, what are we supposed to be thinking about when we do it?

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!

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Brown’s “The Lost Symbol” pulpy and preachy

September 30, 2009

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“The Lost Symbol,”
by Dan Brown

Can the writing style of a novelist get boring by just the third book?

I’m sure Doubleday is going to sell enough copies of Dan Brown’s latest puzzler to wallpaper every monument and public building in Washington, DC inside and out. However.

Although I really liked “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels & Demons” wasn’t that good and didn’t hit the charts until Da Vinci made the author famous, and frankly “The Lost Symbol” got to be 500-plus pages to fight through.

By chapter 126 I was struggling to stay awake, and there were seven more chapters and an epilogue to go.

First-time readers of Brown may find the sleuthing of main character Robert Langdon fun to follow, but readers of Brown’s first two Langdon novels are likely to see the tramping about Washington in search of clues as formulaic — way too similar to the tramping about Paris and Rome in those earlier works.

Throw in the usual gruesome deaths and violent tortures, Brown’s usual mysterious society — this time the Masons — and you’ve got your typical pulp novel. Of course that doesn’t make for a 500-page book, so Brown does readers the real disservice of going way too deeply into explanations about ancient philosophies, symbols, religions, languages, sciences, archeology, plus off-the-chart mind-over-matter silliness, all of which seems like filler in what should be an action-packed story.

Anti-religion once again
Catholics and others who practice a traditional life of faith will notice that Langdon, Brown’s protagonist, continues in this latest novel the insidious assault on organized religion and its traditions that he put forward in “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons.”

Brown does his best to work in subtle jabs at the Catholic Church in particular and other faiths as well, questioning the veracity of truths they teach in some cases, in other times bluntly alluding to what he paints as errors.

An example is a passage half-way through the novel. You need not even know the context to see what I mean:

“Then he discovered the writings of Aleister Crowley — a visionary mystic from the early 1900s — whom the church had deemed ‘the most evil man who every lived.'”

Really Mr. Brown? Two sources I read credit the British press — not “the church” — with calling Crowley “The Wickedest Man in the World.” And your brief reference to him as “a visionary mystic” hardly do justice to the depraved person Crowley was.

Interested readers should Google Aleister Crowley to see what kind of person Brown is holding up to his readers as he puts down “the church.”

Minus the overbearing scientific explanations and the graduate-school lessons in antiquities, “The Lost Symbol” might almost be a decent page-turner of a story. But then Brown succumbs to the temptation to get preachy.

Much of the reading satisfaction that was to be savored gets sucked right out. — bz

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