In the latest installment of his series “From the Chapel,” OSV publisher Scott Richert writes…
From the Chapel — March 31: Signs, symbols and reality
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” (Ps 42:2-3).
The deer, I learned from St. John Climacus in “The Ladder of Divine Ascent,” was seen by Christians up through his time (the seventh century) as a symbol of virtue, in part because people believed that a deer could suck a snake — a symbol of vice and of demons — up out of its den in the ground and swallow it whole.
That deer don’t actually do that is beside the point. In the modern age, men have come to view natural phenomena in the most materialistic of terms. Even if deer did suck snakes out of the ground and swallow them whole, we’d find video of the event on YouTube or the National Geographic channel to be fascinating, but our minds would never go where St. John’s, and the minds of hundreds of thousands of Christians before him, went.
The Canadian novelist Robertson Davies once wrote that young children are “literal-minded toughs.” The ability to find symbolism in things, to see signs that point beyond what we visibly observe, is a sign of intellectual depth, a well-developed imagination. It takes time for children to develop such an imagination. Increasingly, because of the bareness of a culture shorn of the richness of Christianity, fewer and fewer do.
Yesterday, I mentioned that one of my running routes takes me through one of Huntington’s larger cemeteries. Three times in the last week, I have seen white-tailed deer standing among the tombs or in the woods just outside of the graveyard. With St. John’s words echoing in my mind, I was struck with a sense of them ministering to the dead, drawing the snakes of unexpiated sin up through the ground, in cooperation with the prayers of Christians for the souls in purgatory.
Today, though, the deer were not there, and I was surprised to note how much I missed them. Walking through the cemetery, offering the prayer “Eternal Rest,” I kept looking back to where they should have been — that is, where I had seen them before.
And suddenly, they became a different kind of symbol, a sign of a deeper reality, as they were for the psalmist in Psalm 42:
“Those times I recall as I pour out my soul, When I would cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One, to the house of God, Amid loud cries of thanksgiving, with the multitude keeping festival” (Ps 42:5).
When this pandemic has subsided, we will one day again “cross over to the shrine of the Mighty One” and “enter and see the face of God.” Until then, like this majestic creature who longs for water while its very presence points toward its Creator, our souls will long for God.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.