The Evidence of Things Not Seen: Knowing and Believing in Symbols

“You slowly peeled me out of time; 
I swayingly stepped into it
and yielded after subtle fights:
but now your darkling presence grieves
your gentle victory.

You conquered me and know me not.”

Symbols are powerful, and now, living in a world that too often fails to appreciate them, we who write with them, need to write with love and understanding. Need to absorb their darkness and their light in order to make sense of them. In order to share them with the world.

Belief in fairies, as Mr. Pond noted last week and both Masha and I subsequently quoted, is not "the comforting thing J.M. Barrie pretended it was." He meant, generally speaking, that the supernatural is not the cutesy, cuddly, kid-friendly side of existence. Even Tinkerbell was dangerous, but she holds nothing on the fair folk of legend with their enchantments and their changelings and their tithes to hell. And the fair folk have nothing on the gods.

But for the mind schooled in the West, belief in the supernatural is difficult merely by means of being unpopular—or rather, while admittedly popular in that there are comparatively few true atheists, it's unpopular in that society considers it bad form to speak much of belief or let it inform your understanding of public principle. Humans like to be liked and approved, and that makes it hard, sincerely hard, to hold to any defined belief, much less to speak of it.

Masha continues, this week, to emphasize the importance of belief:
Belief, a relationship with the symbols, is something that allows us to see them as living, changing, growing things; images with deep roots; and that understanding is the place from which to pull the nuance of meaning, without either over-extending the symbol or misrepresenting it entirely.... We’re a jaded lot, and while we may love the old tales, too often we look at them with eyes unused to mystery.
To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what Masha's asking of us, but I can at least elucidate one person's relationship to symbol. As an artist, I have a responsibility to know the tools of my trade. I write fairy tales and fantasies, in which are tangled bits of astrology and pagan myths and alchemy and other ancient magic-related things, all of which I must attempt to understand before I can use them. Yet I, as a Christian, believe this:
All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.—Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2116
and this:
Catholic theology defines magic as the art of performing actions beyond the power of man with the aid of powers other than the Divine, and condemns it and any attempt at it as a grievous sin against the virtue of religion, because all magical performances, if undertaken seriously, are based on the expectation of interference by demons or lost souls.... The Catholic Church admits in principle the possibility of interference in the course of nature by spirits other than God, whether good or evil, but never without God's permission.—The Catholic Encyclopedia, Occult Art, Occultism
Neither of these, obviously, has anything good to say about astrology or anything else remotely magical. (And yes, I did try to come up with a Biblical reference, but in my getting-over-a-cold brain fog, couldn't come up with any clear and extensive statement that wasn't a Levitical admonition to stone all practitioners.)

To say that I believe in my symbols is not accurate, then, in the scientific sense. St. Thomas Aquinas may or may not have practiced alchemy, and Martin Luther apparently approved it, but I do not think that what frankly sounds like dangerous meddling with metals and solvents is a trustworthy path to purification of the soul. I do, however, generally believe in the cyclical path of transformation that involves a period of breaking, followed by one of cleansing, and one of renewing. It makes a great plot structure, too.

At this point it's probably best to interject a disclaimer: I generally accept the likelihood of there being some natural virtue in the herbalist of old, in the martial arts and yoga, in acupuncture and the mind-boggling things chiropractors sometimes do, and the like. In such cases, it's often difficult to separate the superstition from the real value, and the relationship between some of these practices and the Church is complex (as exemplified by this somewhat long but interesting document on Eastern forms of prayer). The Church, though, is certainly not as quick as the rationalist to treat it all as useless myth.

On the other hand, I doubt very much you'll get anything better than the broken clock principle from your newspaper's horoscope page. But I do believe this:
"And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years..."—Genesis 1:14
and this:
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' "—Matthew 2:1-2
What do those things mean, exactly? Some of it's a mystery, and I'm all right with that. But the Scriptures weren't afraid to speak of it, weren't afraid even to underline an occult practice as a way which, once at least, led to the worship of the Christ.

Twelve hundred years later, the bishops and artisans of Siena weren't afraid to carve Hermes Trismegistus into the magnificent floors of the duomo (cathedral), alongside depictions of Absalom hanging by his hair, the slaughter of the innocents, and the Rota Fortunae.

I could go on talking, I suppose, but G.K. Chesterton always says it better.
There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other. Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals—even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan ideal will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again....

My objection to Mr. Lowes Dickinson and the reassertors of the pagan ideal is, then, this. I accuse them of ignoring definite human discoveries in the moral world, discoveries as definite, though not as material, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood.... If he likes, let him ignore these great historic mysteries—the mystery of charity, the mystery of chivalry, the mystery of faith. If he likes, let him ignore the plough or the printing-press. But if we do revive and pursue the pagan ideal of a simple and rational self-completion we shall end—where Paganism ended. I do not mean that we shall end in destruction. I mean that we shall end in Christianity.—Heretics, Ch. 12


  1. I love Chesterton! Just thought I'd share that...

  2. So, this just appeared in my Google Reader from The Rabbit Room:
    "Magic in the Wind" ( http://www.rabbitroom.com/2012/06/magic-in-the-wind/ )

    Seems apropos to the discussion, no? Jenna, I think I have memory that says you follow TRR too, so you are probably reading this piece as I type this, but I wanted to make sure the link existed somewhere in the blogalectic just in case. :)

    1. Very apropos, Donna! I don't always read through the Rabbit Room posts because they tend long, so I'm glad you pointed it out. It's a great piece, and I strongly sympathize.


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