January 6, 2021

The Rev. George Yandell, Rector

Images, Signs, Symbols

Raised in the Church, I’ve been surrounded by symbols and icons, although I didn’t realize that’s what they were early on. I do remember the language of the ‘Offices of Instruction’ my comrades and I had to memorize in 6th grade Confirmation classes. When the question was put before us by Mr. Garner, our rector, “What is the outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper,” we had to reply, “The outward part or sign of the Lord’s Supper is, Bread and Wine, which the Lord hath commanded to be received.”

Then he asked us, “What is the inward part, or thing signified?” We answered by rote, “The inward part, or thing signified, is the Body and Blood of Christ, which are spiritually taken and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.”

There were about 35 of us in that Confirmation class. How Mr. Garner survived us I do not know. I do recall loads of questions about ‘things signified.’ I know now that the capacity to ‘grok’ symbols usually doesn’t arise in young people until age 10 or older. (‘Grok’ was coined by Robert Heinlein in his landmark book Stranger in a Strange Land. It meant something like getting inside a thing, knowing it mystically, completely.)

Flash forward. In the fall of 1985, I was persuaded to start a Centerpoint class in the parish I was serving in Memphis. Six people signed up. I ordered the curriculum and accompanying cassette tapes and started the sessions. Soon we realized that we needed to do background reading. One of the books suggested in the curriculum was Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C. G. Jung by Jolande Jacobi. It sounded good, so I bought it. I was way out of my depth reading most of it. But I did get hooked by this passage: “Whenever a suitable situation of consciousness is present, its “dynamic nucleus” is ready to actualize itself and manifest itself as a symbol.” … “The symbols it creates are always grounded in the unconscious archetype, but their manifest forms are molded by the ideas acquired by the conscious mind.”

It meant to me that symbols can bridge between the unconscious self and the conscious workaday life one lives. Starting at around age two, children can begin developing symbolic thought, allowing them to improve language, imagination, and memory skills. Children later begin to use symbolic play (“playing pretend”), draw pictures, and talk about things that happened in the past. Around the age of 12 when they begin thinking in abstract ways, they can attach more meaning to symbols. Symbols can gain power in us and with others in groups. Symbols activate us to strive for deeper connections with the world around us, and the people with whom we live. They ‘signify’ (like the Body and Blood of Christ) something deeper.

The Cross became a symbol of depth meaning for many of us. I was taught most Episcopal Churches use ‘naked crosses’ to emphasize both death and resurrection. Jesus crucified and Christ victorious all at once. Other symbols that embedded in me were American flags, the raised right hand three-finger Boy Scout salute while saying the scout law. And the VW logo on the hood of my first car (1962 red, heavily used bug- it made me feel part of a large sort of cult). The symbols that gain meaning in us can bond us to codes of conduct, manners of living, and can raise us to new levels of consciousness when they gain deeper meanings in us.

A striking piece of knowing came from the Centerpoint classes- some symbols emanate from the Collective Unconscious- they are pan-cultural, and often rise in the dreams of people who know nothing of the content the dreams express.

The figure of Mercury/Hermes in Roman/Greek mythologies has a striking parallel in the Navajo emergence myth. Coyote is the trickster that is always nipping around the fringes, agitating people. Coyote causes people to rise, to strive, to move up and out into higher levels of consciousness.

Jesus is that figure for many of us. He agitates, inspires, and drives us to seek higher levels of being with the other entities around us. I’ve taken to sitting with an icon of Jesus striding forward with a stylized cross over his shoulder. A priest friend gave it to me years ago. In saying a breath prayer while gazing into the icon, I’ve felt tugs at my heart. They seem to be responding to the forward movement of the resurrected Jesus. I’m glad for that. G. Yandell