By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
A well-worn preacher’s tale runs as follows. One day a woman known for being a gossip in a village parish discovered to her remorse that a story she had told about another parishioner was in fact the converse of what she had believed to be true. Losing sleep the night of this revelation, to her credit, the next day she appeared in the queue for the Mystery of Penance. That day hearing the Confessions of the Faithful, was a wise old priest – a clergyman who had served numerous parishes, both in the city and in the country. In walked the woman – and stood near the priest before an icon of Christ. Soon she began to pour out her troubled conscience. The priest listened intently; his eyes half-closed – only a wrinkle or two on his face changing shape as she spoke. The priest asked the woman to carry out a form of penance in contrition for her uncharitable act. Obedient, the woman went home to her farm on the outskirts of the village. She walked into her bedroom, and pulled off the bed the fullest pillow, stuffed to the very seams with feathers. Then into the kitchen she walked. With knife in one hand, and her pillow in the other, the woman walked to the back of her property, and cut open her pillow; dropping the knife she shook the contents onto the breeze. The next Sunday, she approached the priest after the Divine Liturgy – telling him that she had carried out his instructions to the letter. “But why”, she asked, “did you ask of me to do this?” “Ah”, replied the priest, “I wanted you to learn from your sin”. “But learn what?” the woman quizzed. “Tell me”, the priest asked, “What happened after you poured the feathers from the pillow”. “Father, you know what happened – they spread to the four corners of my property – blown by the breeze – they probably are now resting on the dome of the next village’s Church.” The wise priest looked at the woman and asked: “So, if I was to ask you to find all these feathers and fill the pillow once more – could you do it?” “It is impossible”, the woman meekly retorted”. “So it is with gossip, good woman”, the priest softly replied. “Remember this. Once the gossip is said – it spreads – where it rests, only God knows. It blows along supported by the breeze of the ill-will of people, and can never be caught. Go away and try and speak ill no more!”
Symbols form an important and intricate part of both religious belief and practice. For those who believe in God – a Being beyond the total comprehension of a finite intellect – symbols give humanity a language by which to open a door to the human spirit, an avenue by which to dispel some of the darkness caused by the great cloud of unknowing, that is the shadow of God. Even those who are only vaguely familiar with Christianity recognize in the baptismal font, or the Signing of the Cross, that these objects and actions are connected to a perceived sacredness – they herald a belief in a Higher Reality; they are an attempt to signify the Real Presence of God in the life of human history.
However for symbols to bring light to the spiritual life – they must be understood – and for understanding to occur, the process of education is paramount. Without the pre-requisite knowledge, symbolic actions and sacred objects, become mere gimmicks, cultural transmission, and fashion items. No symbol can capture the heart, mind and spirit if the language they speak has been forgotten, or misplaced. The best symbols are therefore those that are universal – easily recognized – poignant by their ability to be fathomed readily. Christ’s parables are brilliant in their simplicity – the entire world can comprehend their message; for they discuss matters referring to the human heart. A father longs for his wayward son; a poor widow loses her coins; a man is set upon by thieves and is passed by. None of these people may have existed – but the stories capture our imagination – for they are symbolic of something that we know to be true. No father wants to see his son destitute – and we long for the eventual parental embrace when the prodigal child returns; we all know poor women who are widowed – and we want them to find the means to survive, as their dead husbands would have wished; we all know of some innocent who has been unjustly injured – we see it every day on our television screens – and we long for someone, perhaps ourselves to have compassion on them, and offer succour.
In the opening vignette about the gossiping woman our religious imagination is captured, because we know of people who gossip – we ourselves may have been caught out. It is because of this fact, that we listen to such a story, that not only accuses the woman, but accuses us. We picture her farm, we picture in our minds – the colour of the pillow, the shape and size of the pillow – the age of the priest, the priest’s house, and where and when did he first develop this symbol to emphasize the evil of slander. We do all this, because we want to know more. The parables that Christ taught, have for two thousand years, been not only retold – but they have inspired artists and writers, and composers and religious leaders. We also wait for the story’s end – because we want to feel something; we want this imaginary character to speak to us – we want to know how we would have acted in the circumstance; we want to share the metanoia – because deep in our hearts we know that the message is true; and when we think of the thousands of feathers that are flying around her farm; we think also about the many times we have spread rumours or gossiped, and as we reflect we think where these tales of ours are being told now – and how they may have been altered to make their taste the more spicy.
A religion survives only if the message can be proven to be relevant, across the Ages. When Christ spoke to the crowds – he spoke of that which was tangible to them. If we are to convince others that indeed God came to be one like us – we must not speak in a language, only for the angels to understand – but we must speak in a manner, that a fisherman, an accountant, a physician, even a prostitute can fathom. Such a language can only be spoken, from the heart to the mind – for the heart that loves the audience, will do everything to encourage the mind, to seek a language to convey the message. We must choose our symbols well – when we speak – when we celebrate the Liturgy – when we evangelize. What is most important, is not to show the world that we are intellectually Divine – but Divinely intellectual; first and foremost by knowing our audience. In this, Christ was the undisputed Master of Teaching; carrying within himself a message of incomparable magnitude – but using the language of the most common of men.