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Blessings and Symbols

Like everybody else, I love words. I love the way I can have a vague sense of something I want to say or think about and as soon as I attach a word that fits the thought comes alive and starts to run around on me.

I love the way another person can possess an amazing insight in his own soul and, by embodying it in a collection of sound-signs (what we call words), he can give me eyes to see the same thing: at least, if I am ready.

I love the way my wife and I can discuss all our failures in raising our children, but because we’ve done so so many times now, we can do it with an equanimity that only words can reach.

I love that we could discuss our often very different ideas about how to raise children, keep house, work, read, teach, incorporate rituals and liturgies into our household, pursue God, manage money, and virtually everything else under the sun and above it, and we could do so without physical violence or aggression because each of our souls had access to the other’s soul through words.

Homer spoke of words as “winged.” That they are: totally common miracles with wings.

I have something for my wife, but it is hidden away in my soul; let me, out of desperation, call it an idea. I want her to see what I have seen, perhaps to feel what I have felt – or at least to have a feeling parallel to it, one we can commune over. I want to share a thought with her, and so doing to deepen our fellowship in that sharing.

I try to express it with a word, but it’s not the right word. (How do I know that?)

I roll around a few more words, until I stumble upon one that seems to work. I use my throat, my tongue, my cheeks, my larynx, and I breathe through my mouth a collection of sounds (sounds that took me years to learn how to make when I was very little – sounds for which I am eternally indebted and grateful to my parents and the entire millennia long tradition of the English and German languages, not to mention the Latin and Greek that informed them, not to mention… OK, back to the point).

Those sounds cause physical vibrations in the atmosphere, and the vibrations fluxate the air until the waves break on my beloved. There the physical vibrations perform all sorts of acrobatics on the anvil of her ear, sending sonic rhythms to some spot on her brain.

And then her mind, ignoring all the chaos of the sensory shaking, receives into itself the sound-sign. She hears my words. The idea (or whatever it was) that was trying to find some way from my soul to hers has found a way. It is the most extraordinary mixture of the mystical and the physical anywhere observable. And it sits right on the surface of our lives.

Using words we can bond and bless, or we can break apart and curse.

Greek is a particularly fascinating language to me. One of the root words it loves to play with is “bole.” You can see it in hyperbole, which means to throw over or beyond. It’s basic meaning is “to throw”.

Lately I’ve been wondering at another pair of words built on that root. The first is sumbole, from which we get symbol. The idea they “capture” with this word is that of bringing things together.

That’s what a symbol does, right? At one level, it brings together the object or idea being thought about and the sign used to express it.

A stop sign brings together the idea of stopping and the sign for stopping. Crossing yourself can bring together the combined ideas of trinity, cross, and salvation with the sign itself, or outside the traditions that use it, it can mean very different things.

A word is a symbol in this sense. When you start making sounds as a child, they probably don’t mean anything particular or unique. Coulter is two now, so he has learned to attach meaning to some of them, but Jeremiah is only one and he has only just begun to make those links.

Do you see the sequence? First we make sounds because other people do. There is something those sounds will one day be used to “mean,” but they don’t yet. They’re just sounds.

Then, gradually, the child comes to see that “mom” or “no” is not just a bunch of sounds, but a rather astounding symbol that communicates meaning. Of course, they don’t think all that, they just recognize it. We are, maybe above all, symbol-using creatures, even from birth.

So on the one hand, the child is simply learning to make sounds. And he needs to do that before he can use them well.

On the other hand, he is learning that certain sounds made by others carry implications: if I do that, I might be hand-slapped, if I hear that, mom might be close by.

Once again, it is obvious that the child isn’t thinking these thoughts, but he is making those logical connections. We are, after all, cause-seeking creatures, even from birth.

So a symbol brings together the idea with a sound.

But do you notice how much else it also brings together? Mother and child; husband and wife; schools, communities, churches, friends, and (get this) God and man.

The right use of symbols is the foundation of all blessedness, fruitfulness, human flourishing, and union with self, creation, man, and God.

The wrong use of symbols, on the other hand, is, whether by intention or carelessness, a curse.

If the Greek word sumbole (our word symbol) means to bring together, what do you suppose is its opposite?

Words themselves can be used to create separation. Take, for example, Genesis 3, where the serpent separates man from woman, mankind from creation, and creator from Image. How?

By contorting symbols. He uses sound symbols to communicate a falsehood. He speaks of real and true things (a tree, God, Eve, knowledge, death) but he creates a false relationship between those things (you shall not surely die). He inserts an adverb and destroys mankind and the planet.

What has he done? He has used “sumboles” for the most perverse imaginable end: to do their opposite. To drive things apart. What were given to us to bless have been used to curse.

Jesus calls Satan the father of lies. When we break the relationship between subjects and predicates, when we speak falsehoods, we are his children.

Note this: the Greek word for the opposite of sumbole?


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