I Saw the Sign – Our Sunday Visitor

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Scott Richert (New)As I sit here in the darkness of OSV Chapel, the light of the sanctuary lamp grows brighter with each passing moment. I know the scientific explanation for the phenomenon I observe: after turning off all the artificial lights, my pupils dilated to let in more light. The lamp, the only remaining light source, naturally appears brighter and brighter as my eyes adjust to the dark.

And yet: What I experience is a light going from the left side of the sanctuary towards the center, gradually illuminating the crucifix, the visible sign of Christ’s sacrifice, and below the tabernacle, which contains both another sign and the reality it signifies. Obscured from my sight when I first turned off the light, the two now dominate my vision, and the lamp that illuminates them melts away. If the candle didn’t flicker when the air in the sanctuary stirs, I might even forget it’s here.

The sanctuary lamp is a sign of the sacrifice before me. The purpose of a sign is to attract the thoughts of the beholder to the reality it signifies. Feeling my eyes drawn to the tabernacle, feeling my soul responding to the real presence of Christ within, I know the candle is doing its job well.

As Catholics, each of us is a sign of that same real presence – or at least we should be. “Thou art the light of the world” shining in the darkness to draw the thoughts and imaginations of our fellow human beings to the source of that light, Christ himself.

I wrote in my last column about the struggles that many of us face over time as we try to hold in our wills and imaginations the experience of Christ truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. The late Catholic novelist Walker Percy was also a philosopher whose main interest was semiotics, the theory of signs. He wrote, not only in his philosophical essays, but in novels such as “Love in the Ruins” and “The Thanatos Syndrome”, about the condition of modern man, whose thoughts have detached themselves from the reality and for whom, therefore, certain signs mean more. They become, in the words of Owen Barfield, the philosopher friend of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, “idols” because they no longer have any meaning beyond the thing itself. When we see the sanctuary lamp as a simple candle and do not perceive it as a sign, when we see the light extending from the candle to the tabernacle as a natural process and we do not perceive the sign there gradually illuminating what it means, we find ourselves deeply immersed in the peculiar idolatry of the modern age.

Or rather, we do not find ourselves, because, as I wrote earlier, we too are supposed to be signs, and in our idolatry we cannot see that. If we cannot perceive the sanctuary lamp as a sign of the Real Presence which the flame is meant to signify, even though intellectually we know that this is the sole purpose for which the candle was not only lit but even created, what is the likelihood that we will see ourselves as signs and understand why we were created, take Christ’s words to heart, spend our days shining in the darkness, illuminating Christ’s continued presence in this world?

Is it any wonder that when modern man lost the sense of the Real Presence of Christ, he also lost the sense of himself? Much of modern literature, modern philosophy, the entire self-care and self-help industry is based on our desire to regain our sense of self. What if the way to regain a true sense of self, however, was not to turn ourselves into idols but to recognize that we too were created to be signs of the mystery that we perceive and receive in the light of sanctuary lamp?

Scott P. Richert is editor for OSV.

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