Playing the Cymbals (Symbols)
Now that we’re familiar with the concepts of play, symbol, and festivity, it is much easier to find examples of and connections to them in Christian worship and the liturgy. Play is the most apparent of these ideas and the most easy to address. Cyril of Jerusalem addresses this in Lectures on the Christian Sacraments, discussing the concept of serious playfulness. This refers to acting out the struggles of those who came before, or performing actions meant to remember them so that you can more deeply understand the beauty of that moment which transcends time. It brings to mind the few years I played the role of Jesus in the annual presentation of the Stations of the Cross at my home parish. Looking back on it, dressing up as Jesus and going through those motions feels a little weird from a general standpoint, but the actions themselves in that play drew me closer to God because my play drew me into deeper contemplation of the role Jesus played in that suffering. It also drew the audience in to the presentation of beautiful art through the stations, as they participated in the recollection of those moments.
Cyril of Jerusalem also addresses symbol in his work through his discussion of the spiritual senses, specifically through the balance between the physical and spiritual sides. His most clear example lies in anointing someone with oil, especially myron, as more than just dumping oil on somebody’s head. Of course, this is an easy statement to make and isn’t all that impressive at first glance. However, he discusses much more in depth how being anointed with oil allows you to be like the Anointed One, Jesus Christ, and for your soul to be sanctified by the Holy (and invisible) Spirit, a great finish of the otherwise pretty obvious setup with this specific example. The Romano Guardini piece, Sacred Signs, expands this discussion by being something of a spiritual symbol handbook. He goes through symbol by symbol, describing the significance beyond what an average person might consider when going through the motions of the liturgical sign being described. But I may be getting ahead of myself. We’ll bring this point back up later in our discussion of Guardini.
Festivity, however, continues to maintain its transcendence of time, relating back to Cyril of Jerusalem’s idea of serious playfulness. In this time of serious playfulness, arbitrary denominations and divisions of our understanding of time cease to exist. In our immersion in this beautiful art, just as we have discussed in previous readings, arbitrary concepts of time are no longer relevant. However, Gertrude the Great of Helfstra describes some other interesting concepts of time in her books. Her idea of seeing life as a liturgical art in itself is difficult to reconcile with previous notions of time and festivity. In reading her ideas here, I had a difficult time deciding if she was just on such an incredibly high devotional level that she engaged in thoughtful contemplation and active understanding of the beauty of life at all times. If that is the case, that’s a really tough act to follow, which is why I had a hard time deciding if I should consider it as just a really high bar to meet, or something else.
Continuing on with Gertrude, I also found her ideas of finding beauty in God’s love to contain a little more eros than I could have expected. Her text, as a whole, was much more individualized than previous descriptions of the liturgy, but what I found a bit uncomfortable to interpret was her interaction with the Son of God. She says, in The Herald of Divine Love, “the Son of God, suddenly bending down like a sweet lover, imprinted on her soul the sweetest kiss” (175). Maybe I’m just not getting it if there is a deeper connection to the soul (because she did mention that it was imprinted on her soul), but this depiction of God and worship with such presence of eros. I’d imagine the sweet love as just one facet of God’s many-faceted and surpassing love for us, but in any case, it goes to show Gertrude’s approach to beauty in life as a liturgical art, though she does not forget the other side of a communal liturgy.
Going back to Cyril of Jerusalem, perhaps I’ve already covered enough of his theological bases in earlier discussion of honing spiritual senses and his ideas of serious playfulness. In the interest of not being too drawn out or beginning to talk in circles, I’ll move onto Guardini. In my earlier discussion on symbol, I brought up Guardini and his work, Sacred Signs. In it, he breaks down numerous aspects of Christian worship, from time to ascending steps to water and everywhere in between. It is a great illustration of the idea that matter matters because it is a way in which we live out our salvation, but also, I think, the most comprehensive and comprehensible explanation of symbolism thus far. He breaks down the significance of steps and how they signify a closeness to Christ, which is easy to forget if you are not actively contemplating the beauty of an artful staircase or living out an artful life as outlined by Gertrude and her very high standard set by her example.
He provides insight on the Sign of the Cross, which especially resonated with me because he says specifically not to rush it. He specifically says to appreciate each motion and to contemplate, to appreciate, the deep significance of the symbol. He also explains, and this one is my favorite, the significance of the chalice. He talks about one particular chalice that he remembers for its simplicity, but also how it symbolizes the universe and the people that live in it, for the chalice relies on holding the Blood of God just as man relies on his ability to hold fast to God. Here, I find connections again to Gertrude’s text exemplifying her life and her ability to hold fast to God, living a beautiful life of artful liturgy. Perhaps I’m holding onto Gertrude’s example too tightly, but I do believe the chalice analogy is a great one for understanding and illustrating our own ability to appreciate beauty and actively contemplate the theology expressed in art. If we continue to practice the balance between our spiritual and physical senses, along with all the other theological practices we’ve seen thus far, then maybe we can expand our own ‘chalices’ of faith and hold more strongly to God through art.