The Symbols of the Church
by Maurice Dilasser
A Liturgical Press Book
reviewed by Catherine Fournier
It sounds like a kind of circular reasoning to say that we use symbols because they're symbols. It might be better to say that we use symbols - and symbols are used as symbols - because they are universally understood images that tell a story, impart a message or teach a lesson. An understanding of the power of symbols is at the heart of the expression, "A picture is worth a thousand words." So when we decorate our homes, our public buildings, our clothing and our churches, we naturally turn to symbols to add meaning and beauty to what is already there.
I have always been too embarrassed to ask why some holy cards show a skull at the base of the Cross, what a bleeding stag represents in iconography, or whether columns in churches had a symbolic meaning or merely held the roof up. Not only does Symbols of the Church answer these perplexing questions, it explains what a "thurifer" is, traces the history of liturgical vestments, and explains the significance of church architecture. The book would make an good companion to "Geometry of Love" by Margaret Visser - both cover approximately the same field of material in very different ways.
Beautifully illustrated with photographs of churches, icons, vessels, paintings, and statues and originally written in French, the book was translated by Mary Cabrini Durkin, O.S.U., Madeleine Beaumont and Caroline Morson. The book retains a French flavor, both an excellent and a problematic thing.
First, the excellence. The phrasing and tone still has a French accent, and the photographs and other images are mostly of French churches, both old and new. This foreign flavor reinforces the universal nature of the Catholic Church and the language of symbols and can serve as a subtle broadening of horizons for the sometimes parochial North American mind.
On the other hand, while syncretism (viewing all thought and all religions as equal) is by no means an exclusive element of French theology, the French tone lends an air of academic respectability to passages that for example identify pagan symbols and myths as "a preparation for the actions of the Savior," and the Egyptian god Osiris with "the Word-Light who brings light into the darkness."
Modern theology (originally mandated to explain the people's faith to the people) deliberately stands separate from any real practice or understanding of faith, in the same way that modern art deliberately sets out to divorce itself from universal symbols. Both eventually lapse into barren and self-indulgent meaninglessness. Exposure to modern theology can be hazardous to your spiritual health.
Catholic parents need to approach these concepts with caution and discretion. Their children's young minds need to be 'inoculated' against error lest they fall victim at their first exposure, yet can not be abandoned to it to make their own way.
Essentially, they need vaccinations - carefully measured and controlled exposure to the "germs" - supported with good spiritual health and nutrition. A Catholic home library, therefore, needs a wide range of materials available for teaching, with a majority of solid orthodox material and a variety of problem texts for comparison. The children are not allowed free rein among all the books but rather given material according to their age and maturity.
Though it demonstrates some questionable theology, Symbols of the Church is not a theology book. It's a dictionary, an encyclopedia of the symbols of the Christian world, a glossary of architectural terms and a guide book to sacred vestments and vessels. It answers virtually any question about churches, Christian symbols and ritual. Each entry is brief, giving just enough information to satisfy curiosity, yet hinting at extensive research and reams of knowledge omitted for space considerations. Generous and lush illustrations demonstrate how symbols have been used in the past and are used in the same ways today.
As a resource or reference book for school projects and family discussions, it would be a valuable addition to any Catholic home library. (Problem passages can be removed, covered with black marker or left to initiate discussion.) Children between the ages of four and ten will be entranced and fascinated by the beautiful pictures, between the ages of ten and sixteen should be encouraged to question anything they read, and older will enjoy browsing through the reams of information in the book.