Symbols symbolize — says Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Objects, ideas, and rituals are meaningful. No one can say exactly what they symbolize. Religious symbols evoke memories, emotions, sensations — some shared, others highly personal. If you insist on a single correct interpretation, you reduce the symbol to a mere “sign.” A cipher, a picture, a solved code.
An experiential approach to religious symbol
Depth psychologist Lionel Corbett also prefers an experiential approach to understanding human spirituality. Let’s not start, he says, with a doctrine or a tradition that supplies a set of symbols. Instead, let’s see what imagery people use to describe powerful experiences. Experiences of dreams, visions, or insights charged with high emotion. Moments that lead beyond what is already known or understood. Glimpses of higher realities.
Teachers of religion, Corbett suggests, should learn to use an experiential approach. Children’s spirituality is active and imaginative. Their ordinary perception is often mystical. With teachers’ help, young students could infuse religious symbols with emotion. But children are often forced into closed religious systems. They learn to parrot signs, rather than invest in symbols. As a result, many grow up to leave their tradition. Many turn away from religion altogether.
Last night, Hoffman and Corbett invaded my dream. Twisted it until it expressed their view: if the symbols of your childhood tradition don’t speak to you, be honest with yourself. Linger in your own experience and learn what moves you. Then, with personal spirituality in hand, revisit your tradition.
A symbol within a dream
I dream: I am part of a little Torah study group, four people or so. We meet around a table in a tiny room with lots of windows. The group doesn’t give me much insight. Still, one participant seems to get a lot out of the meetings. She always speaks intensely about the readings and shares her personal insights.
One day, when it’s time for group, I take a walk around campus instead, chatting with a few young adults. Our conversation is lively. Much more enjoyable than the study group. Still, I head towards the group meeting. I’m aware that I am quite late. And I worry they will feel that my lateness is disrespectful.
I get into an elevator to ride down to the meeting room. The wood-panelled elevator is old, slow and small. Suddenly I hear the sound of a kitten meowing! One wall of the elevator has a built-in bench. I lift its cover and there is the kitten. It’s a long-haired calico. Big enough to leave mom and be adopted. So I pick her up in my arms. I feel uplifted – and anxious about my new responsibility to care for her. Kitty and I go to the meeting together.
A cat symbol, explained
The long haired calico kitten reminds me of my late cat Yogi. Yogi was a devoted friend, a peacemaker, and an adventurer. She had amazing inter-feline social skills. Although she lived a full 20 years, I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. So I met her in my dreams.
At night, Yogi and I would travel through ordinary and fantastic dreamscapes. Yogi was always the guide. When I dreamed myself lost in a train station, Dream Yogi would lead me to the right platform. If I misplaced a precious dream object, Dream Yogi would show it to me. Dream Yogi was a kind of inner GPS: a divine figure I could trust. She taught me how to have faith in the future.
But the kitten in the elevator is not Yogi. This kitten is newly born. I’m on my way to a spiritually uninspiring religious group. But kitten calls out to me. She is a symbol of new perspective and possibility. I take her to the meeting with me. And suddenly I feel inspired.
And here they are, Hoffman and Corbett, at work in my dream! As Hoffman says, symbols symbolize. A kitten hints at spiritual rebirth. As Corbett says, emotionally charged symbols bring religion to life. If I bring my personal symbols to my study group, I will learn so much more!
Image: Keely cat at 8 weeks. Photo by Hillary Kaplan.