Saturday, 10 December 2011

The language of the heart

If we read the works of the Church Fathers, especially the Alexandrians, one of the things we find is a gift of imaginative penetration into the language of symbolism. “Symbolism” here includes not just the humanly constructed symbols of art and poetry and liturgy, but the natural symbols of earth, air, fire and water, and all the forces and dimensions of nature. This tradition within Christianity did not cease with the Patristic Age. It flows down through all the great mystics and doctors of the Church to our own day. It is clearly manifest in the construction of the great cathedrals of Christendom.

If this intuitive vision or “depth-perception” has been neglected, if we are living only on the surface of our faith, if we have not been listening enough to our poets and visionaries, we will find, as we are finding now, that the faith our ancestors professed is easily dislodged as tumbleweed. It has no deep root in us, for we have not grasped its significance as the key to understanding the world – even
the world of everyday life. The Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, a convert to Catholicism, wrote in Religio Poetae (1893),
“I do not see what is to become of popular Religion, parodied and discredited as Christianity is by the ‘religions’ of Atheists, Moralists, Formalists, Philanthropists, Scientists, and Sentimentalists, unless there can be infused into it some increased longing and capacity for real apprehension.” 
He was right, and we have seen exactly what has become of it. He goes on to say that “that which is unseen is known by what is seen”, by natural similitudes or metaphors, and that this is the only true and universal language – “a doctrine destined”, he adds, “to produce some amazing developments of Christianity, which is yet in its infancy, though it seems, as it has always seemed to contemporaries, to be in its decay.” 
“It would be of great use to many if the meaning of a few of the principal of the symbolic words common to all great religions were made a part of religious instruction; though it is wonderful how, by a sort of instinct, some of these keys are discerned and read by the simplest and least instructed of those who, among their low surroundings and labours, lead pure and meditative lives.”
Elaborate educational qualifications are not required; humility and openness of heart, and a closeness to nature, constitute a much more important preparation.

Christian philosophers have spoken of the “natural moral law” that is “written on our hearts”. But less attention has been given to that other universal phenomenon, the language of the heart which is a language of symbols. We need to relearn this language if we are ever to speak of Christ to men and women for whom the Gospels are an alien landscape.

Illustration: a view of Orvieto Cathedral, by Rosie Caldecott.

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