Surrounded by Symbols

“Dad, to you everything’s a symbol.” Our daughter Candy was a teenager when she said this, probably more than a little exasperated by her father’s incessant preachifying, my habit of milking hidden meaning out of just about everything. I thought of her while sitting by myself in church this morning (Joy’s in NW Ireland painting); that’s when the symbolism of our Dublin apartment’s location hit me.

Joy found the place. I have to give her credit yet again for picking the perfect spot. Even she did not realize how good it would be when she booked it, though; she didn’t know until we got here that within five minutes from our front door we can walk through three other symbolic doors: Christ Church Cathedral, City Hall (our address is 36 Parliament Street), and Temple Bar, the famous restaurant-and-pub area. There you have them: three sites dedicated to humanity’s basic needs. Subtract any one of them and you diminish your joie de vivre (your “joy of living” for you English speakers. See, I’m multi-lingual).

Temple Bar speaks to our physical nature. The area is clogged with restaurants and pubs and Saturday night revelry that spills over into all the other nights of the week, nights that start late in the morning, crescendo in the afternoon, and reach full-blown partying when the working day is over. Thus begins what for many is life as it is meant to be enjoyed. It’s the rallying point for people who believe it’s imperative “to eat, drink and make merry, for tomorrow we die.” There’s an excitement about the place, a contagion of laughing and storytelling and music and camaraderie. Once caught up in it you don’t want to leave.

A street in Temple Bar, early Sunday afternoon. You almost cannot see the pavement on Saturday night for the crush of people
A street in Temple Bar early one quiet Sunday afternoon. You almost cannot see the pavement on Saturday night for the crush of people

Puritans may scowl but they cannot stamp out the place. Eating and drinking and the fellowship they engender is too fundamental to be tossed aside–note the role of table fellowship in the New Testament. There needs to be moderation, for sure, but this part of human life won’t be eliminated for the many because of the excesses of the few.

But eating and drinking isn’t enough, is it? It would be, maybe, if we were only physical beings. But we’re more than physical. We are social. Temple Bar touches on that aspect, the fellowship side. Fellowship is all about sharing. There’s a huge difference between the solitary drinker at the end of the bar, drowning his sorrows, seeking escape from the discomforts of human intercourse, and the group in the booth toasting and eating and regaling one another with their favorite tales. They are, for the moment anyway, and in the most elementary way, sharing life.

Across the street just beyond Temple Bar looms City Hall, an imposing eighteenth-century structure of neoclassical design, replete with Greek columns. city-hall-dublin-2It symbolizes (here I go again) government, organized social life at its most serious. It’s a reminder that we are, as Aristotle reminded us a long time ago. political animals. We live in the polis, the city, and for us to live in such close proximity without killing one another we need political organization, where we take responsibility for ourselves and one another. Community life isn’t just about partying. It’s about paving streets and policing them, about enacting laws for the good of all and enforcing them, about providing goods and services and opportunities for the benefit of the whole community. It’s about being good neighbors.  Without community we aren’t fully human; without community we perish.

I’m writing these thoughts in the midst of the most disheartening, most embarrassing, most frightening presidential election campaign year in my lifetime. The polls indicate that our two candidates are the most unpopular since polling began decades ago. Yet one of them will become our leader. Among my friends and family positions have been staked out, sides have been chosen. One cannot convince the other. Feelings have swamped reason. Each side is convinced the other is wrong, even wickedly so. I keep thinking of Winston Churchill’s quip that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. This year we are seeing democracy coming perilously close to its worst behavior. I pray for our country. I pray we’ll return from our partisan name-calling to genuine concern for the whole community called America.

These thoughts were much in my mind as I worshiped this past Sunday morning.

You are right. This is not my picture. Mine suffers a bit by comparison.
You are right. This is not my picture. Mine suffers a bit by comparison.

I went to Christ Church Cathedral, a five-minute walk. It was a special ordination service; a man of Latvian origin was ordained a deacon in the Latvian church in this Irish cathedral. He took his vows in the Latvian tongue; the words were translated into English for the rest of us. We sang “In Christ there is no east nor west, / in him no south nor north /  but one great fellowship of love / throughout the whole wide earth.” I believe in this call to unity. It was refreshing in the midst of this deeply divisive campaign to focus on what (make that who) unites us, who calls us to love one another, to build up and not tear down, to include and not exclude those who are different from us, including those we don’t like, to “love one another just as God loves us.”

The cathedral was full, the music exhilarating. I sat in that ancient building (from the 12th century) observing and participating in rituals from another era, marveling that somehow the church of Christ has held together for nearly 2000 years now. It hasn’t always been holy; in fact, it has often been corrupt, out of touch, at times even cruel. Still people have refused to bury it. Why?

Could it be that in spite of all its obvious flaws, the church responds to and symbolizes (yes, Candy) a deeply felt human yearning? We can party in Temple Bar, but when the party is over and the hangover throbs, we know there has to be more to life than this. And if we sit in the governing chambers of City Hall with colleagues seeking solutions for the challenges that bedevil every conscientious government, solutions that always seem partial and elusive and that create yet more problems, we reach into our depths and up to the heights to find moral and spiritual guidance, trying to touch the eternal even while wrestling with the temporal. Theologian P.T. Forsythe put it this way over a century ago, “Unless there is within us that which is above us, we shall soon yield to that which is about us.” We’ve seen a lot of yielding lately.

So there I sat in the cathedral, surrounded by people who, for one reason or another, like me were looking and listening and thinking and yearning upward. They don’t appear to be particularly spiritual; they may not have even thought very deeply about what their business was in church that day. But they were here. And here they experienced something different, something that seems a little otherworldly, certainly from another time with all these rites and robes and words that you just don’t use in a Temple Bar pub or even in City Hall. Yet there is something renewing, refreshing—reorienting—about the experience. It is as if we have all come to get our bearings, to receive some directions for the road ahead, a little hope that maybe we can, after all, muddle through the mess we’re in, hearing the Gospel message that says God so loved us–us– that Jesus’ sacrifice was for us–all of us. It’s good to be reminded.

Here we dwell, then, Joy and I, surrounded by Dublin’s Temple Bar area, City Hall, and Christ Church Cathedral–symbolic of the physical, the social/political, and the spiritual dimensions of our humanity. Take away any one of them and Dublin would be the poorer. And so would we.


6 thoughts on “Surrounded by Symbols”

  1. So thought provoking and so right on. Thank you! God Bless you both!
    I love your blogs.
    Jann Johnson ….way back here in Lexington, Kentucky

  2. For our sake please do not stop mining all the hidden symbols underneath the surface you can find. They are spiritual gold.

    Interestingly, I had the strangest sense of actually sitting there in that church with you. Why are we so naturally prone to worship in 12th century buildings? Are they symbols of a more reverent time?

  3. Thanks so much for these thoughts – they bring perspective and peace in this contentious time. Keep them coming!

  4. Roy, so glad that Joan got us reading your blog posts. This one particularly hit where my heart has been aching. I didn’t watch the debates, too depressing, and not something I want to dwell upon..stupid and stupider! But I trust in the One who holds this world from flying apart!! Jeanne

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