©2019 by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project.

The War on Symbolism

ALICE VON HILDEBRAND

 

Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition

Winter 2006

According to Plato, "Any change except to eliminate an evil, is an evil." It is easy to caricature this assertion and label Plato a hopeless conservative opposed to any kind of progress, a man stubbornly attached to a past he irrationally idealized.

 

Instead, I propose that Plato's claim is to be interpreted in the light of his philosophy as a whole. My reading is that Plato warns us of the danger of irreverently rejecting the wisdom and experiences of our predecessors on the grounds that they are merely old or allegedly obsolete. Lamenting the spiritual, intellectual, and artistic decline that he witnessed in his old age, Plato remarked that in Athens's heyday "reverence was our queen and mistress."

 

Certainly Plato does not reject any improvement, for example, a response to a legitimate need that arises because of changing circumstances. Nor does he reject the normal growth of things from one stage to another. What he is trying to impress upon us is that we should have respect for the wisdom acquired by our ancestors and refrain from discarding our spiritual, intellectual and social heritage, instead of assuming arrogantly, in an Hegelian spirit, that to move forward guarantees improvement. Plato's works were written some twenty-four centuries ago, and yet much of their contents has a freshness and vitality that explains why pride of place is still given to him among the very great thinkers of the world.

 

Our society, inebriated by its mind-boggling technological accomplishments, is constantly threatened by the arrogance inherent in material success. Thus, some “modern people” think: "Our ancestors were children; we are mature. Man has finally come of age. There is nothing that sooner or later cannot come under his control." The last fifty years have witnessed changes that affect our lives so radically—landing on the moon, the atomic bomb (man's revenge that he cannot create: he can now destroy with his own “Fiat”), television, computers, supersonic planes, and the Internet,—that we are all tempted to believe ourselves superior to our ancestors. Many scientists are in a state of hubris that usually antagonizes wisdom and can lead to disaster.

 

It is one thing to achieve an ever-greater control over the material world, but another to have the wisdom to put these discoveries at the service of the good. One could raise the troublesome question of whether scientific conquests do not often militate against true wisdom. What the contemporary world, rich in technological feats, lacks is wisdom. Science aims at achieving through knowledge an ever-greater dominion over the material world; the love of wisdom (philosophia) is to shed light on the key questions of human existence; such as the existence of God or immortal souls, the meaning of human life, the meaning of moral good and evil, and the like. These are questions that science cannot answer because it cannot even raise them. Its perimeter is limited to the material universe. Our society offers a depressing discrepancy between our scientific conquests and - to reference Gabriel Marcel - our steady devaluation of human life, which is less and less appreciated as a gift. This state of moral disarray finds its expression in the demoralizing literature which has flowered in the twentieth century. Kafka, Camus, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald come to mind here. We are suffering from a "sickness unto death"—namely despair, to refer to Kierkegaard's great work.

 

The danger that characterizes our society is the tacit assumption that change by its very nature guarantees betterment. New means better. Lack of respect for old age and adulation of youth—so typical of our society—are expressions of this same ethos. Traditionally white hair was respectable: today, people seem to be ashamed of their closeness to eternal youth. We try to hide it much as we try to hide physical defects and blemishes. After the age of thirty-five, most women (and many men now follow suit) owe it to themselves to dye their hair. The "world" would brand them as "badly groomed" if they showed streaks of gray in their hair.

 

By contrast, in ancient Rome one had to be a senex (“an old man”) to be member of the Senate. According to Indian customs, the chief was always a man whose age inspired respect: he was the one whose wisdom, based on experience, was respected and heeded. He was the one consulted in times of crisis. In Greek tragedies, white hair is treated with respect. The same sentiment is expressed in the Old Testament.

 

Our present philosophy of life, which glorifies youth and novelty, creates a state of instability that is one of the diseases afflicting our society; we have no roots. What Plato calls “the golden cord of tradition” has been ruptured.

 

This ethos assumes much weight when it affects a sacred tradition. It is here that the words of Plato reveal their wisdom. I am referring to changes that have been introduced in Catholic life since Vatican II. Those of us who are now elderly remember vividly that priests were identifiable not only because of their Roman collars and dark suits, but also because of their tonsures. The latter had a clear symbolic meaning: the fact that part of the priest's hair was shaved indicated his total donation to God. After Vatican II, this long standing tradition was abolished. I do not recall that a convincing reason was given for this change, but somehow the special dignity of the priesthood was no longer honored by a visible sign.

 

Before ascending to the altar for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, priests had to don seven pieces of clothing, each one of which symbolized a step in a particular scene of Christ's ascent to Golgotha, where the ultimate sacrifice of the God-man for our redemption took place. These symbols have been powerfully highlighted in von Cochem 's book The Amazing Catholic Mass. Today many of them have been eliminated. It is most unlikely

that young priests know either their names or their symbolic meanings. What is particularly regrettable is that priests are likely to be much less conscious of the fact that Holy Mass is essentially a non bloody re-enactment of the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, a fact of which the priestly vestments they were wearing physically and forcefully reminded them.

 

Whereas in the so-called Tridentine liturgy the priest stood first at the foot of the altar—once again symbolizing the way of the Cross toward the hill of Calvary—in the Novus Ordo liturgy, he immediately faces the congregation. The steps have been eliminated. And yet, how deeply meaningful and symbolic were these steps:  powerful expressions of the virtue of discretio, which teaches us that before reaching a noble goal, we should beware of rushing to it without proper preparation.

 

Another significant change is the abolition of minor orders. Up until Vatican II, there were seven steps leading to the priesthood: porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte, and then subdeacon, deacon, and finally the holy sacrament of the priesthood, in which a human creature is granted the unfathomable privilege of representing Christ and of changing bread and wine into the holy Body and Blood of the Savior of the world. These seven steps had a deep meaning: inspired by a sentiment of sacred discretio, the Church in her wisdom reminded the candidate to the priesthood of the awesomeness of each step he was about to take. Whether in universities or in the military, we note grades of dignity. It was thus highly appropriate that the ascension to the highest dignity ever given to man should be marked by several degrees, each one of them granting the seminarian a more intimate participation in the mystery of Holy Mass. Once again, this tradition, rich in symbolic meaning, has been eliminated.

 

It is also regrettable that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is now celebrated on a table: the piece of furniture used for meals. An altar, on the contrary, was exclusively used for sacrifices, as clearly stated in the Old Testament.

 

Another important change is that priests now face their congregations, whereas for centuries they were facing east. The east is loaded with symbolic meaning: the sun rises from the east, and Christ is called the sol justitiae (Sun of Righteousness). He is the light: the lumen Christi. Once again, a profound symbol was discarded.

 

Still another break with tradition is the elimination of the altar rails in Catholic churches. For centuries, people knelt while receiving holy Communion, and kneeling in our culture is the most perfect expression of an adoring posture: that is, a bodily duplication of the proper posture of the soul. Why this change was introduced (at great financial cost) is difficult to understand, but unfortunately it is not the only case in which symbolism has been eliminated.

 

Symbolism plays a central role in religious life. A symbol is a material object that represents, or stands for, a spiritual reality. The symbol partakes of the dignity of this invisible reality and makes it physically present. Its purpose is to establish a harmony between the soul and the body of the faithful, the spiritual and the material. For the posture of the body is bound to have an influence on the soul, just as the inner attitude of the soul calls for an adequate bodily expression. All of us know that if we were privileged to have a supernatural vision, we would immediately kneel and even prostrate ourselves. We only need to read the New Testament: when Christ performed a miracle, its beneficiary prostrated himself and adored him.

 

The kneeling posture when the faithful recite the words “et incarnatus est” (and became flesh) in the Creed and the beating of one's breast in the Confiteor are powerful expressions of one's adoration and one's sinfulness, respectively. Today, the number of times that a priest bows or genuflects in front of the altar has been substantially reduced. And yet repetition is of great significance in religious life. The “Mea culpa” used to be repeated three times. The “Dominus vobiscum” is like a sweet refrain that keeps reminding us of the living participation of the faithful in the Holy Sacrifice taking place on what should be an altar. The value of repetition becomes obvious when we compare a sentence communicating information (today is Saturday), and one which conveys an affective content (today is the Feast of All Souls). In the first case, repetition is inane once the message has been perceived. In the second case, repetition is never "repetitious"; it is old and always new, as St. Augustine said. What would we think of a husband who never told his wife that he loved her, on the ground that she had already received this "information" when he asked her to marry him? The sweet words "I love you" are never old: each one of them is a new blossom on the tree of love. The Bible and the liturgy illustrate this powerfully: holy, holy, holy, sanctus, sanctus, sanctus. In heaven, the whole choir of the blessed ones will eternally sing God's praise, without ever exhausting its plenitude. How deeply meaningful it was that the celebrant first prayed the Confiteor, followed by the faithful acknowledging their guilt to him—who, while performing the Sacred Mystery, is in persona Christi—and not to their brothers and sisters as is the practice today.

 

Another change that has had an upsetting effect on many faithful is that Catholics are now permitted to eat meat on Fridays. Until Vatican II, Friday was a day of abstinence, reminding the faithful that Christ died for us on that fateful day. It was therefore deeply symbolic that Friday should be a day of penance, and that this should be expressed by our abstaining from meat. Pope Paul VI, who introduced this change, did remind the faithful that they should make some sacrifice of their own choice, but alas, how many young people (victims of a deplorable education in so-called Catholic schools) even know the meaning of the word sacrifice? The  awareness of one's sinfulness and a joyful willingness to make sacrifices are so essential to Catholic life that its total elimination was bound to have negative consequences on the religious lives of the faithful. That is true of the clergy as well: penance, abstinence, fasting, hairshirts and the discipline have been eliminated or reduced to a minimum in most seminaries.

 

The abolition of the index is also relevant in this regard. For centuries, the Church as a vigilant mother warned her children that certain books contained poisonous doctrine, either in faith or in morals. When a bottle contains toxic material, the law orders that that fact be indicated on the label: “Do not drink, do not inhale, do not eat”. The obvious reason is protection of the non-initiated. The same thing applies in the intellectual and religious spheres. Most men are likely to be misled by brilliance, novelty, dynamism, and by what Dietrich von Hildebrand called "false depth." Kant's works are not easy reading. Many are those who assume that the very obscurity of his formulations constitutes proof that he is communicating a message of great importance that we do not understand because of its "depth," whereas in fact his abstruse formulations often hide confusions and ambiguities. How many of us, if not protected by special graces and having a legitimate reason for doing so, can read scandalous books without being affected by their contents? Priests, because of their role as confessors, must be acquainted with all the ugly traps into which mean can and do fall; for this reason the Church, in her motherly concern, reminds us that our intellects have been weakened by original sin. Our intellects are not "perverted," as Calvin claimed, and can still distinguish between true and false, good and evil, but this clarity of vision presupposes a fundamental attitude of humility. Just as we should remember that we are sinners, we should also remember that our intellectual faculties are limited. An attitude of humility never hurts. This was one of the precious messages of the great sage Socrates: "I know that I know not." This, of course, should not be interpreted as skepticism or intellectual despair, but rather as a reminder that the safest way of avoiding errors is to remember that we are prone to fall into them if we are not humbly vigilant.

 

Why this safeguard was abolished by Paul VI is not very clear. The pope told us that he trusted the intellectual maturity of Catholics, but to assume that one is mature is one of the typical marks of immaturity. In his holy rule, St. Benedict writes that when a monastery is facing important or even secondary decisions the abbot should ask the advice of the whole community and make up his mind only after having listened carefully to the various opinions offered for his consideration. One of the great temptations of modem man, inebriated by the technological  achievements of the 20th century, is that he is constantly exposed to the danger of believing that, given time, he can become God. Once again, the Greeks proved their wisdom: they considered hubris as a classical temptation likely to bring man to a tragic downfall. This is a subtle repetition of the temptation that the Evil One presented to Eve: “Thou shalt be like God” (without God’s help).

 

The New Testament is truly—to quote Roy Schoeman— “post-Messianic Judaism”; for the Incarnation not only fulfills Judaism, but also opens up new vistas that were either only in a seminal stage in the Old Testament or could not be realized without the divine miracle of the Incarnation. That the Second Person of the Holy Trinity should become man is something—to quote Kierkegaard—that never entered man's head. It is and can only be a divine "invention." For man's craving is always to go higher, so to speak. God, on the contrary, chose to assume the form of a slave, teaching us thereby that the message of the Gospel is incomprehensible to him who refuses to acknowledge that it should be read on one's knees, in an attitude of total receptivity and humility. Intellectual arrogance inevitably makes one blind, for many "brilliant" intellectuals have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear. A high I.Q is not necessarily an advantage from a religious point of view, for the divine message is best understood by the little ones who become like children and acknowledge that without God's help, they can do Nothing.

 

No doubt the numerous changes that have been introduced in the Church over the course of the past forty years have confused many of the faithful. One judges a tree by its fruits. Maybe we should rediscover the beauty and religious import of past customs that have been discarded in the turmoil that characterized the post-Vatican II years.

 

What attitude should a true son of the Church adopt? As St. Paul instructs us, "Test all things, keep what is good." May contemporary man understand that message.