Every morning, when my wife leaves for work, our daughter Ariel climbs up on a rock we have in the front yard and watches her go. Sun, rain, snow or sleet, Ariel plans to say goodbye from the rock.
The reason? Ariel used to say goodbye by running along the street waving as people pulled out of our neighborhood. We did not think this was the safest approach, and beside that, it required that one of us go outside and watch her. (She is, after all, only six.) One morning, I took her and put her on the rock and told her that it was the ‘goodbye rock’ and that if she said goodbye from this rock, people would always return.
Now, make no mistake about it, Ariel is as cynical as I am; and she knows that no chunk of granite is going to guarantee the return of loved ones. But it gave her a place to focus her passion for her mommy and other people who have to leave. It gave her something material, physical, that represents her desire for their return.
This is the power of symbol. This is the reason why I often advocate a return to a more symbolic liturgy in the church. It is not because I think these symbols mean anything in themselves. It is because I believe (along with Peter Abelard) that we can charge symbols with meaning which makes them powerful in our lives.
It is the same as the pillars and altars built in the Hebrew Scriptures. In themselves, they possessed no mystical power. But as material reminders, as places that they could charge with meaning, they became powerful parts of their spiritual journey.
Symbol is not a crutch. Symbol is an aid. Whether the symbol is an icon or a cross or a liturgical element, symbol strengthens our belief in the substance.