Monday, July 7, 2014

Working with Symbolism, a Handy Guide

It'd be easier if all the mysteries of God were revealed, right? But that's not the point of this earthly experience. As we learn to reflect on symbolism, we can have insight that we might not otherwise have.

A lot of people have difficulty with symbolism, especially as it relates to the temple, because they feel they have little practice with it. Sure, the scriptures are full of symbols, but outside of that, where's a Latter-day Saint supposed to look? Our Sunday meetings are not known for big displays of symbolism aside from the Sacrament.

This is where I feel like converts from the Catholic Church have a huge advantage (Catholics are all about symbols and signs!), and I'd like to share that advantage now to make things a bit more even. I can say that this has served me well in the temple. What I cannot share are the specific things that apply to the temple endowment ceremony, if any. This is simply a practice in how one might look at religious practices that use symbols and gestures to convey much deeper concepts.

Got it? Good!

OK, so in Catholic mass, here are some common gestures, signs, practices:
  • Prior to entering the worship area, one takes some holy water and makes the sign of the cross. This actually signifies many things. The water reminds one to be pure in thought and mind, and to also think of baptism. The sign of the cross should be made with the right hand only, with digits 2-3 bent and the thumb (digit 1) connecting with these digits. The three digits combined represent the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Digits 2-3 represent Christ's dual nature as both man and god. The sign is made by starting at the head, at which point one reflects on the Father (for He is the head of all things). The hand is then brought down to the navel and the Son is invoked because He was born of a woman. Next is the left shoulder, which represents the Holy Ghost, our comforter and confirmation of the truth. Finally, one arrives at the right shoulder and at this point the unity of the Godhead is complete. (Note: The Orthodox may in fact touch their shoulders in opposite order.)

    That's a whole lot of meaning for something that takes place in seriously 4 seconds or less!
    Shall we go on?
  • Kneeling. It's a sign of respect, of course, for being in the presence of Holiness. 
  • Sign of peace. This is simply a handshake nowadays. I think there's a lot to it, though. I will outline most of that from a physician standpoint below. It is important to consider here the timing of this gesture. It must take place prior to communion. If there are negative thoughts or feelings, the Holy Ghost cannot be present in His fullness.
  • When words from the gospel are about to be read, one traces a cross with the thumb on head, lips and heart. This is meant to invoke the presence of the Word of God in one’s mind, upon one’s lips, and in one’s heart.
  • Hand cupping. This is at the end, a lay person places his/her right hand into the left and forms a cup shape in order to receive the communion wafer, which is believed by Catholics to be the actual flesh of Christ. 
  • Orans pose.
    In researching this I only realize now that this gesture, in which the arms are held out from the sides with the palms up, is only to be done by someone ordained to the priesthood (even deacons aren't allowed). It symbolizes supplication to God, praying on behalf of others. --That last bit is why it's meant only for the priest, because he is representing the flock.

Now let's look at the clothing. The clothing is meant to be symbolic, too, of course. What the priest wears may vary depending on the type of mass being celebrated (e.g. Easter vs. Lent). There is a great link that outlines the various articles of clothing, but I'll point out some things here in case you don't want to read through all of it:

  • Alb - This is long, white, and robe-like. It goes over the priest's regular clothes. White is meant to represent purity. 
  • Girdle - This isn't Spanx, ok? The girdle, or cincture, is more like a fabric belt that is tied around the waist. It symbolizes chastity. 
  • Chasuble - This is the often colorful poncho-like vestment that goes over everything else. It is meant to symbolize the yoke one shares with Christ, charity. 
  • Mitre - If the mass or sacrament is being celebrated by a bishop or higher, he will likely wear a large headpiece called a mitre. This is supposed to set him apart as shepherd of the flock. It also hearkens back to the ancient Judeo practice of wearing a headpiece bearing words indicating the wearer was dedicated to serve God the Father. 

So that's the Catholic scoop for now, there's actually tons more we could talk about that takes place during baptism and confirmation, but that'll be for another post. 

I did want to throw in something at the end from a physician perspective (sounds unrelated and random, right?). The reason for this is that as you could tell from the first section of this post (and punny title) that hand gestures  play a huge part in worship pretty much everywhere. Thus, it may behoove you to know something about the anatomy of the hand.

Layers of symbolism, no? FYI This is the Hand of Benediction

And that's just a couple of ways to look at Christian worship through symbolism. I hope you could appreciate that seemingly simple acts can have multiple layers to them, and that with some practice you can uncover holiness anywhere you are, for indeed all things denote there is a God


  1. You speak well of Catholic symbols and rituals. What you haven't mentioned is the symbolism of Mason ritual.

    1. Not in this post, but earlier I've written about concepts like squaring the circle and vice versa. --VERY Masonic.
      Thing is, I don't have intentions of going further than that because I'd rather reflect on things that are specific to my background and expertise. So, you can expect more woman POV and rap artist references. :)

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Seriously your posts are an answer to prayer and pondering. I tell everyone about you. Thank you!

  3. Aw, shucks, Sara. You're too kind!