It is time to out myself: I have been a symbolic thinker all my life. In fact I find it very hard not to look at things in a symbolic way. If I’m out for a walk and see a flock of birds in the air, I will automatically decide which one is most like me and follow how it flies, how it relates to the others, where in the flock it chooses to place itself… I can find symbolic meaning in colours, lines, bits of rubbish I find in the street, random words on a page or images that crop up in my dreams. As I’ve got older I’ve realised that most people don’t look at the world this way all the time, but also what a helpful thing it has been for me in my life to do so. Searching for (and exploring) symbols is one of the key ways I discover and make meaning in my life. Some symbols recur lots of times over the years, pointing me towards greater understanding – not only of myself – but of the divine, of other people and of important truths about the human spiritual journey.
As you can imagine, as someone who finds symbolic meaning everywhere, it can be a bit overwhelming when you’re faced with a powerful symbol which speaks to millions. There are loads of symbols out there, but we might as well start with the Big One for a post-evangelical: the cross.
As a christian this symbol comes very heavy-laden. It comes full of significance, power, beauty and truth, but also bearing layers of hidden assumptions and beliefs, some of which it is painful to probe and to bring to the surface.
In this post I’m going to suggest some ways in which you might like to explore the symbol of the cross. The aim is that once you’ve worked through the exercises you will have thought more deeply about what this symbol means for you, but will also have experienced the symbol in a deeper way. The exercises are designed to help you respond to the symbol at the heart and gut level as well as with your head.
Before you start this exercise, you might like to find a space where you won’t be disturbed and to spend a little time becoming still and quiet. You can do all of the stages sitting quietly with your eyes shut, but you might find it helpful to have a journal and pen with you and to make notes as you work your way through.
In your mind’s eye, try and picture a simple wooden cross. To start off with, explore your thoughts about this symbol. These can be your current thoughts, or things you have believed about this symbol in the past. Jot down in your journal all the associations you have with the cross and all the things you have been told you must believe about it. You might write down verses from the bible that you associate with the cross or sermon illustrations you have seen and heard. Which thoughts are loudest and clearest in your head? Which seem most confused?
Next move on to any questions you have about the cross. Don’t judge your questions (or yourself for asking them!). You might like to write them down and then draft some possible answers (again not worrying for the moment whether or not you think they are correct, just allowing yourself to think more freely). For example you might write:
Question: What does it mean that ‘christ died once for all upon the cross’?
Answer: Christ died for everyone so they all have to believe and accept that and turn to him and ask for forgiveness and then they’ll be saved.
Answer: Christ died for everyone, so everyone is saved.
Answer: Christ died for everyone so we are all saved even if we don’t want to be.
Answer: Christ died for all – for all people, for all insects, for all mountains and universes…
For the next stage of the exercise you are trying to move out of your head and to become more aware of your heart, feelings and emotions. You could just shut your eyes, or you might find it helpful to place one hand gently over your heart and the other in front of your ribcage. Picture the image of the cross again and explore how you feel about the symbol. Which emotions arise in you as you picture it? This is quite hard to do at first, but rather than just labelling your feeling or emotion with a word and then thinking about the word, try to allow yourself to feel the feeling as fully as you can. Give yourself time to feel all that comes up as you dwell on the symbol of the cross. Once you sense that this part of the exercise has been completed, note down the feelings you experienced (guilt? anxiety? gratitude? exasperation? boredom? love?).
For the final stage you are going to explore your gut reaction to the symbol. Once more, sit still with your eyes shut. Become aware of your feet planted firmly on the ground and your body supported by the chair on which you are sitting. Breathe deeply and then picture the cross once more. Try to hold the symbol in your mind as you bring your attention and awareness up through your body, starting at your feet and working up towards your head. Whenever your attention wanders, try to picture the symbol once more. Become aware of any areas of tension in your body or any other sensations you notice as you focus on the cross. Once more, write down your reactions in your journal.
Once you have finished all the stages of the exercise, think back through what you have done, or read through your notes. What stands out for you most strongly from the experience? Were you able to be present to your feelings and body as well as your mind? What have you learned about what the symbol of the cross means for you? What areas do you need to give more thought and attention to?
This exercise is related to an earlier one I discussed here. If you haven’t got much time to invest, or aren’t able to move around much, it is possible to find suitable photos for this exercise by doing a google image search, but if you are able to take the pictures yourself you’ll probably find it more rewarding.
All you need to do is to keep a camera with you as you go out and about: take a photo whenever you notice a symbol of the cross which attracts or repels you. Some of your photos may be of crosses on churches, headstones or jewellery, but once you start looking out for them you will see crosses everywhere: as details on buildings, in trees, as patterns on the pavement…
Add to your collection of photos whenever the symbol attracts your attention and then keep the pictures in a folder until you’re ready to have a go at the next exercise.
Once you have a collection of photos of the cross, look through them and choose 3 or 4 which particularly stand out for you. It may be that you think they are the most beautiful images, the most disturbing or the most thought-provoking.
You might like to print these images out, or to look at them on a screen. Spend time looking at each image and then try to uncover your head, heart and gut reactions as you did in the first exercise. You are no longer looking at the symbol of the cross in general, but are trying to find out what this specific image has to show you. It might help you to see more clearly things you believe about the divine, or show you aspects of your own character and spiritual journey.
Here are my responses to one of the photos I have taken:
Head: I think the image is very beautiful. It looks almost Japanese in style and I am drawn to its simplicity and regularity. The flower-like patterns coming out of the base of the cross suggest growth and movement, but overall it makes me think calm thoughts… However, part of me wishes the tap was turned on and there was water gushing out so that it would look more life-giving and alive. Perhaps it is too self-contained and ‘held back’? Hmmm…bit like me, maybe?
Heart: Calm, serenity, beauty, stillness… This image is speaking to the part of me that is drawn to minimalism, that wants to pare down all extraneous ‘stuff’ and just be left with what is essential and meaningful. But I also feel drawn to the exploding flower patterns on the tiles. It is almost as though the hands were reaching out from a calm centre and then all of this stuff is bursting out, unrestrained. I go back into my head and wonder if this is about the impact of christ’s crucifixion rippling out through history… Suddenly I feel fearful. The fear attaches to having started a blog and posting about things which matter so deeply to me and to other people. I fear sending things out into the world which will have a life of their own, which may be misunderstood, or ridiculed, or make other people angry. Part of me feels that I would like to withdraw back into my quiet centre (which to be honest isn’t always that quiet or centered!) and not take any risks.
Gut: I feel tense in my stomach. My muscles feel tight and I realise I am anxious. The anxiety is about showing this to the world – putting stuff ‘out there’ – rather than the image itself. I sit with the anxiety for a while and eventually it passes. I can choose to be more connected, to reach out more, even though it makes me feel uncomfortable…
Now try this exercise with some of the photos you have taken. Explore your head, heart and gut reactions to your own images or ones you’ve found on-line. If you haven’t got round to finding those yet, you could reflect on any of my photos in this post:
I’m very aware that the images I have chosen speak to the issues I face as a human being at the moment: they are very much about me as an individual, how and what I try to communicate and my own private journey with the divine. I know that there will be people reading this who choose very different images and will have responses which touch on injustice, pain, inequality and the plight of people in very difficult circumstances. Others of you will come up with responses which have never crossed my mind, heart or body!
Please feel free to comment and perhaps link your own images to what you write so that we can see how deeply and widely this symbol speaks to us.