Chair's April Blog: How Symbols Can Satisfy Our ‘Hunger for Meaning’ this Lent

Hunger for Meaning: Re-imagining Our Symbols

The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,

is the same moment the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.

No, they whisper, you own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
— The Moment, Margaret Atwood

The poem ‘The Moment’, by Margaret Atwood, speaks of a moment of revelation when we realise all is not as we assumed and the certainties we have built our lives upon may not be as we thought. Reflecting on this poem together during Lent led my friend and I into a discussion of Lenten practices and particularly the idea of fasting or ‘giving something up’. We understood that some might see the practice as ‘pointless’ and ‘of no benefit to others’, but then we began to consider the resultant hunger caused by temporary denial.

How good that first square of chocolate tastes on Easter Sunday morning! And how delicious the simplest food tastes when we are genuinely hungry at the end of a busy day. Our discussion moved to our deeper hungers, for Love, for Purpose, for Meaning? How can these be expressed?

The Catholic faith tradition has a rich seam of resources to help us in this respect: the Scriptures and the Liturgy abound with images which we then symbolise in art, artefacts, architecture and prose. They are familiar friends which surround, comfort and strengthen us. And yet... before we get too comfortable... their potency is not universally guaranteed. There are large swathes of our society who are completely untouched by them. They can be hijacked as a means of exclusion or an exercise in power. We may need, occasionally, to look at our symbols and reimagine them, to unlock their potential and their accessibility for others.

Three recent examples may help to illustrate this point:

Dominus Flevit

The first occurred during a recent visit to the Holy Land. We were due to celebrate Mass in the beautiful chapel of Dominus flevit (Jesus wept) overlooking Jerusalem. Behind the altar the hemispherical window provided a stunning view of the City of Jerusalem. Before mass began we were invited to place a single drop of water (a tear) into a glass bowl to represent every tear we ever shed. These were taken up during the Penitential Rite, raised in offering by the celebrant and placed on the altar where the sun shone through them, for the rest of the celebration. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. When reflecting on the pilgrimage many participants reference this as one of the most meaningful moments of the trip.

Homeless Jesus Capernaum

A second example was provided by the Sculptor Tim Schmalz at an evening lecture delivered at Farm Street Parish, London. Tim is the creator of the sculpture ‘Homeless Jesus’, a visual representation of Matthew 25. The sculpture is so challenging that the artist was unable to obtain planning permission to install a copy of the sculpture in a public space in front of the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster. The sculpture subsequently found a home within Farm Street Church. There are now over 100 casts of the bronze sculpture all over the world. Pope Francis also has a Homeless Jesus Sculpture in the Vatican, and there is a version in grounds of the Church of Saint Peter in ancient Caparnaum on the Sea of Galilee, Israel (pictured). Tim described three profound moments in the creation of the sculpture. The first was his first sighting of an ignored and disrespected human form covered by a blanket in a public place. The second was his fear over the risk of ridicule from the art establishment for creating a ‘devotional’ object; and the third was the realisation that his Sculpture is effectively a contemporary crucifixion. The effect of his work is startling in its ability to re-present the familiar.

My third example is drawn straight from CPW practice at the recent weekend in Hyning. Despite our keynote speaker being unable to join us at very short notice, the strength of his scholarly body of work and the power of the symbol of the Eucharist, reimagined through the lens of Theological History, resulted in a celebration of the Liturgy which is still reverberating, weeks later, through those of us fortunate to be present. One Loaf, one Cup, one Body. It is simple yet profound. Please read the report of the weekend provided by Teresa to begin to share our new understanding.

In these final weeks of Lent we are presented with so many symbols. There may be a moment when a new realisation breaks through. Be brave. Reimagine.

Anne Dixon

Anne Dixon