Signs of faith

Julia Bowditch looks at how symbols have played a key role in the development of the world's faiths and are still highly relevant to religion today

One Valentine's Day, my friend's husband surprised her with the gift of a red stone, fashioned by the sea into the shape of a heart. Not only did it symbolise love for her but bonded both with a place they enjoyed visiting.

Actions, sounds, objects and metaphoric use of language can all be rich in symbolic meaning in everyday life. They also enhance spiritual understanding and expression.

The cross above a church can be simply a sign to the observer to say the building is a Christian place of worship. To the believer it symbolises the crux of their faith. A secular object, such as the one received by my friend, may have religious significance attributed to it because of certain associations of time and place. For example, a plucked blade of grass, a feather or pebble can be keepsakes handled and viewed to aid concentration and spiritual awareness, especially when praying. The image of a god gives the Hindu the feeling of direct, personal encounter.

The swastika is a 4,000-year-old Hindu symbol of peace and well being, commonly seen on the floor of a temple, on greeting cards and invitation cards, or woven into fabrics. Its misuse by the Nazis in the last century has maligned it as a negative force.

Nothing, though, should distract the Muslim from focusing on Allah during worship. God is in all creation and is perfect. Any living thing made to represent him would be imperfect, and images could become idols, distracting from the glory of Allah. Perfect as an intricately patterned Islamic prayer mat may seem, it will always have a mistake woven into it. Only Allah could do things perfectly and it would be wrong to try to emulate his perfection or reproduce images of people or animals.

Even a single sound can be highly symbolic. "Om" for the Hindu is known as God's utterance at the dawn of time. It means "creation" or "I am" and is chanted at the beginning and end of prayers: "Ommmmmmmmmmm". It represents perfection, so drawing a person close to God.

In the early days of Christianity, when followers of the faith were persecuted, the fish became a secret sign, silent and effective. A Christian would half draw the outline in the dust for another person to complete, adding an eye if they were a fellow believer. It helped the Christian community to continue to worship and survive. The letters of the Greek word for fish, Icthus, were used to stand for "Jesus Christ God's Son Saviour". It lives on today, commonly seen in churches, stained glass and even on cars.

Pictorial images with stories behind them are central to many religions. The shamrock in Christianity represents St Patrick, who used it in pagan Ireland to illustrate the trinity of God. The lotus flower in Buddhism is a reminder to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. This sums up the whole of the religion's teaching, showing how to live in the right way.

When Christians offer each other a sign of peace during a service by shaking hands they are giving and receiving direct messages. However, symbolism in whatever form needs to be unravelled to be fully understood, since symbols emit multiple messages and function on different levels of complexity. Some are not grasped quickly or easily but evoke emotions and thought which stimulate a journey of enquiry.

Julia Bowditch is a former primary school teacher and freelance journalist Email:

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