On Symbols, the Sacred, and Festivity

Visit the ancient catacombs of Saint Callixtus, just outside of Rome along the Appian Way, and you will realize what a symbol means for a Christian. It is not simply a representative drawing, or a dispensable metaphor for something spiritual. Indeed, I think a walk through the crypts of the first Christians would convince most that symbols meant something real to them-that they were a necessary and important part of worshipping God, of experiencing what is sacred. In the first few centuries after Christ, these disciples of the faith frescoed and engraved various animals, objects, and letters on the tombs of their brethren. You can still see these mysterious etchings of fish, lambs, anchors, shepherds, and even phoenixes. But when we consider that they stand alongside the bodies of the courageous whose martyrdom laid the foundation for Christianity, we start to consider how important these symbols really were. Do they simply “stand for” Christian principles-are they merely metaphors for certain virtues, or for Christ, Himself? After walking through those literally hallowed halls, I sensed that these images had to mean something more.

The ICHTHUS fish, for example, was a sacred symbol of Christ for the early Christians. It literally means “fish” in Greek, but is also an acronym for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It is often found near images of loaves of bread to indicate the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. To call the ICHTHUS a “cultural icon,” or a “historio-religious metaphor,” would do a great injustice to the power of this image for these Christians. So how can we properly understand the transcendent power of a sacred symbol?

In response to this question, Josef Pieper, a popular Thomist philosopher of the 20th century, argues that one must believe in the ancient philosophical idea that anima forma corporis, or “the soul is the form of the body.” You can find this statement in St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, and in Aristotle’s De Anima. Pieper writes about this in his essay, “The Grandeur and Misery of Man,” from his Anthology. This statement illustrates Aquinas and Aristotle’s belief that the body and soul are esssentially connected. The soul needs a body to experience the world and to interact with its surroundings. This is important because the intellectual soul does not possess a natural knowledge of truth, as angels do. As a result, the soul must cultivate knowledge using the senses. In order to do this, Aquinas argues that it needs a “corporeal instrument,” which performs the “action of the senses.” This corporeal instrument is the body, to which the incorporeal soul is linked for its complete activity. Thus, while the immortal rational soul can exist without the body, its union with the body allows it to engage with and apprehend what is sacred. Otherwise, without a body, the soul would need a “supernatural gift” from God to fully function. Also, we should remember that Aquinas states that the soul is the form of the body, not vice versa. In other words, “the body is not of the essence of the soul; but the soul by the nature of its essence can be united to the body.” Indeed, this unity is for the “soul’s good.”

Pieper argues in his essay that a belief in this reasoning is a sort of password that admits a person to the world of the sacred. To believe that the soul is the form of the body allows someone to “understand the fixed and predetermined form of sacred ‘language’, the language of gesture, symbol, and word.” In other words, through our senses-by reading a prayer, singing at church, seeing a symbol-we are able to exercise our soul.

This logic is challenged by “spiritualists” and “corporealists,” as Pieper calls them. On the one hand, spiritualists attack the anima forma corporis idea by arguing that the spiritual act is the central and “decisive factor in worship.” As a result, the manner in which praise is expressed is viewed with “indifference.” The symbols, music, and fixed prayers are “purely a matter of externals,” as long as one’s spirit is acting. This stems from the spiritualist’s belief that the soul can bypass the body to interact with God. “Corporealists,” for wholly different reasons, also believe that “the rite is entirely optional.” They see fixed forms of worship as “unwarranted constraint” and so rituals are put aside in favor of “letting ourselves go” so as to maximize a more natural form of worship. Both these interpretations devalue the power of symbols because they do not acknowledge that anima forma corporis-that the soul needs the body to operate as the “consummate form.”

Let us consider this “spiritualist” idea with respect to the symbols in the catacombs, which were so dear to the first Christians. If we overstress the value of spiritual action, without acknowledging the role of the body, then we necessarily view the etchings on the crypts to be charming, but arbitrary. As long as we spiritually feel that Christ gives us hope, we don’t need to view the anchor as a symbol of the hope that derives from Christ. If this is true, were the early Christians simply fascinated by symbology? I think not; these symbols were not merely for “show.” Nor did they serve much of a utilitarian purpose. Instead, the anchor meant something to them because seeing it provoked a movement of their soul towards something higher-towards the core of all that is sacred-God. When you see a beautiful crucifix in a church and feel something in your soul because you see it and detect the reality of God in it, you too are experiencing what the ancient Christians found so powerful.

Indeed, this idea of anima forma corporis can lead us to a very enriching spiritual life. As Pieper eloquently writes, there is a “unique opportunity offered the individual by the challenge to transcend the limitations of the self precisely by submitting to the objectivity of the consummate form.” We can overcome our body’s inability to physically see God by acknowledging that what our eyes see can move our soul because of God’s real presence in that object. This is the essence of worship. This paradox allows us to truly view something as sacred.

I have still not mentioned what is perhaps Pieper’s most persuasive point in his argument. He rightly observes that someone who does not accept anima forma corporis cannot understand the reasons behind a purposely non-utilitarian act. In other words, he “will never comprehend what is meant by a symbol.” Think about the last time you lit a candle to celebrate a special occasion, or to commemorate a loved one who had passed away. You do not light this candle to illuminate the room, but to symbolically express something that involves your soul. If you have ever done this, you know the meaning of a symbol. It exists so that we can use our body to apprehend something sacred and holy-God.

Perhaps this is why the Eucharist, the ultimate “symbol” in Catholic worship, is not even a symbol. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not “merely symbolic,” but sacramental. As Pieper says, “like no other sign in the world, it at the same time effectuates what it means,” not merely “signifying” what it means. “In other words, it creates objective, solid reality… It is the actual presence of God among men.” The spiritualist we have mentioned, who “thinks primarily in abstract, conceptual terms,” might view the “act of feeding on God himself” to be excessively “materialistic or even primitive.” Indeed, their denial of anima forma corporis necessarily makes the consumption of the Eucharist-a bodily act- “merely symbolic” since they cannot see a necessary unity between the soul and body. But for the believer in real signs, the “bread of life” that is Jesus Christ in the Eucharist (John 6:35) gives life to our soul through our body. Indeed, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, Holy Communion “augments our union with Christ,” as according to the Gospel of John which reads “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). The Catechism also states this in a different way-“what material food produces in our bodily life, Holy Communion wonderfully achieves in our spiritual life.” Clearly this “symbol” is not merely an external act that “signifies” something. Instead, it is an interaction with the reality of God.

It was clear from my walk through the catacombs that the Eucharist was a life-force (and not in the material sense) for the early Christians. They deemed it so important that they created small chambers, many feet underground, for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Although their lives were threatened in the world outside the catacombs, these Christians succored their spiritual lives with the Eucharist. In his essay, “Not Words but Reality,” Pieper refers to the deep, transcendent power of this “real” symbol:

The Eucharist, whose nature may appear dubious or insufficiently “spiritual” to a man sitting unmolested at his desk, has, again and again, for many thousands of people living in the most desperate conditions and facing the ultimate problems of existence, proved a source of true comfort and healing, and above all has proved to be the only tangible reality in their lives, the only solid ground beneath their feet.

When someone told Flannery O’Connor that the Eucharist was merely a symbol, she responded: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She later wrote: “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

I don’t think enough people realize their almost natural acceptance of anima forma corporis. For example, this idea connects to the spirit we surely feel around Christmastime. It is true that commercialization has somewhat clouded the sacred season that is Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Christ. But think about the times you remember sitting at the dinner table on Christmas Eve, surrounded by your family, and love abounds. Everyone is eager to open gifts and to watch others open their gifts; but there is something more than eagerness. There is joy. It is a joy that is “an expression of love,” as Pieper puts it. What creates this “festal joy”? It has to be more than the idea of a desacralized Christmas, which consists of material exchange. Indeed, we receive gifts on our birthday, too, and there is something clearly different between the two celebrations. The joy of Christmas is created by “something of another order,” something real and holy. It is only possible to celebrate Christmas festively if we believe that the Incarnation matters in our life. As Pieper puts it:

The past cannot be celebrated festively unless the celebrant community still draws glory and exaltation from that past, not merely as reflected history, but by virtue of a historical reality still operative in the present.

I deeply believe that we can sense this historical reality through the love and joy that flourishes during Christmas. Our celebration is not utilitarian in the name of gifts, but is, in Pieper’s usage of the word, symbolic. Our festivity brings us to something greater than ourselves.

G.K. Chesterton describes this sort of experience, which might even relate to those who are not Christian:

Father Christmas is not an allegory of snow and holly; he is not merely the stuff called snow afterwards artificially given a human form, like a snow man. He is something that gives a new meaning to the white world and the evergreens, so that the snow itself seems to be warm rather than cold.

If you happen to catch yourself feeling joyful at the sight of the cold snow on Christmas Day, you are experiencing the reality of God.

Jordan D. Teti, Editor-in-Chief, is a Government concentrator in Kirkland House.