When I was young, I was attracted to the writings of James Joyce, even when people ridiculed me for being pretentious. There was something about his language that fascinated me, like a puzzle that allowed one to discover hidden secrets. Perhaps it was hearing Joyce read from Finnegan’s Wake after my lifelong friend Antonio Gardella came home one day with a recording featuring Joyce’s own voice.
The fascination was the discovery that Joyce’s works were constructions that led to deeper meanings or more oblique feelings that could not be expressed conventionally. They were symbols, references to something difficult to apprehend. I like Jung’s distinction between the symbol and the sign. The sign references something that is known and a symbol points to something deep and unapproachable, a mystery that cannot otherwise be easily expressed.
The Christian cross is both a sign and a symbol. In the military cemetery the cross says that the person buried is a Christian, just as a star of David would indicate that the person buried is Jewish. It is a sign of something known. But the cross can also be a symbol, referring to the mysteries of the faith which it represents.
There are a series of transformations that occur with symbols that point to something important in our human need to believe. It is possible for the symbol overwhelm the mystery and to become completely identified with the concept or being to which it refers. The symbol becomes reality and thus becomes idolatrous.
This suggest that people need something tangible in which to believe. If the meaning behind the symbol is lost, the symbol itself becomes the object of belief. We see this in the modern world as clearly as in the ancient because there is always a clear conflict between the symbolic and the idolatrous. Iconoclastic movements are the result of that conflict.
There is another further transformation that occurs with symbols. After knowledge of the original mystery behind the symbol perishes, the conflict between the symbol and the mystery will end and eventually the symbol itself will die out. It will become something inert, an archaeological artifact.
At some distant point, a final transformation may occur. The artifact may be rediscovered and completely re-created symbolically. This is something that I witnessed at the age of fourteen. My family made a trip to England and my father woke us up early to take us to Stonehenge on the summer solstice to watch the sunrise over the Heel Stone. This was a very mysterious experience … to stand in the misty pre-dawn on the Salisbury Plain amidst giant monoliths waiting for the warming sun to rise. But we were not alone – there was a multitude of strange people dressed in enigmatic costumes. I particularly remember a gigantic bare-footed woman with wild red hair wearing a shift made from a single white bed sheet, cinched by a rope at the waist, with a strange riveted look on her face. I also noticed that she had huge feet. Men with beards and staves were there as well. We were told that they were Druids and that they were there to celebrate an ancient Druid ceremony.
The ceremony appeared to be nonsense to my fourteen year-old eyes and even then my history told me that Stonehenge far pre-dated the Celtic druids. But what was real, what did happen, was that these worshippers had adopted Stonehenge as the symbol for their neo-pagan beliefs. They had resuscitated the ancient symbol and given it new – if tenuous – life.
This is important for a number of reasons, not the least because it is what PJ and I have done with the Romanesque churches that we photograph with such a passion. We are unable to share the beliefs of the original builders, however much we would like to do so. But the churches have for us a deep meaning – a dual symbolic meaning. They are symbols of the God in whom the builders believed with such conviction – the creator who gave his son to redeem humanity. But they are also a symbol of the immense depth of faith in that God demonstrated by those very same builders.
That symbolism that we have given replaced the original symbols that we try to decipher. The buildings themselves were symbolic – built in the shape of the cross that is the most important representation of the sacrifice on which the religion was based. And this symbolic structure was filled with other symbols, with references to the Bible and the beliefs, references that taught the mysteries of the religion to the faithful.
A gentleman named Anthony Harpur commented on our blog this week and his comments included the following observation:
“One detail the blog brings out is that, even for those who don’t believe, the buildings depicted here tell a truth that can easily be ignored or overlooked – that religion was central to the lives of our medieval ancestors. Even a non-believer could find these buildings very moving. And secularists should note that religion cannot be written out of European cultural history. These treasures are the product of a religious culture and we should acknowledge this openly and willingly.”
There are plenty of reasons that so many of us – both believers and non-believers – find these buildings moving. For many it is a reinforcement of their own religious belief. For some it is a lament for the loss of that belief in our own world. For others, it is that the churches are symbolic of that deeper conviction where the entire world was explained by belief in the Christian God. And for all, the sheer beauty we find in these quiet spaces sparks the most profound reflections and asks us to to measure our own lives against our longing for something true and good.
And in this way, these great churches continue to live. They are not dead stone artifacts but vibrantly alive, kept vital by people who are powerfully stirred by what they are and what they represent. They are symbols of multitudes – a faith that moved thousands of builders to create monuments that have been handed down to us by the thousands – a thousand years later.