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When the symbols of faith are more than symbols

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Jane was facing a life-altering, heart-wrenching decision with her husband unresponsive in intensive care. She sought spiritual support- a chapel or place of quiet refuge to connect with her source of guidance, and to pray. The space was anything but comforting. It was a sterile, bright, all-beige space stuck to the side of a busy surgical waiting area, with what might be described as tan fabric conference-room chairs, with some ficus trees stuck in the corner. There were no symbols. Confused, she found herself distraught and abandoned. When she brought this up to management, the response was, ‘God is everywhere, and doesn’t need symbols to be talked with/through. Some prefer a prayer rug. A Catholic in your tradition might be used to stained glass windows, or light candles, but building code doesn’t allow that, and it isn’t necessary.’

Other hospitals might show a wheel or graphic with many symbols of faith-to show welcome- from the hand associated with the Jain tradition to the cross of Christianity, to the crescent and star of Islam. Some healthcare settings have symbols or photos/art and stories framed in the corridors leading to the ‘worship’ space. Others use clerestory lighting or places of calm with a fountain, plants, tropical fish, or other calming elements from nature with which nearly every religious tradition – and not, can relate to. Some choose a Zen-like simplicity, others ban representations. Symbols are subjective, but there are other cues which transcend the ordinary and invite calm. Brain-body responds even at the chemical and cellular level to design stimuli.

A large children’s hospital entire corridor system is more than a space to merely move through, and provides natural inspiration with windows, views of the outdoors and sky, happy murals of meadows, trees and sculpture gardens of whimsy, butterflies, birds, flowers and growing things and an aquarium. It is inspiring and whispers of hope, and healing through color and symbol. Have you seen children’s drawing, adolescent artwork? Ask children from the world’s cultures and traditions to draw images that connect them with peace, ‘God’, or faith and see which symbols and images inspire. It might be a rainbow, sun, star, lake, or ocean- unlike the Star of David associated with Judaism, lotus associated with Buddhism, yin-yang circle associated with Taoism, Om symbol associated with Hinduism, Khanda emblem associated with Sikhism, or something else. Often adults draw outdoor vistas when describing where they felt closest to ‘God’. What would help Jane feel better . . . and John, and Amina, and Ahmed, Dev and Ming? What would that place look like?

Inspiration for this post: “The(se) techniques for using drawings to explore the unconscious have been developed over many decades by Carl Jung’s student Susan Bach, and by Gregg Furth and others. I learned them from Dr. Kubler-Ross, and as I applied them in my practice, I saw that there were patterns of color symbolism and that time sequences of past, present, and future wwere often revealed. However, I saw that the symbol associations were often as complex and revealing as dreams. . . . . Like Jung, I believe that the mind has available to it the experience of all previous life. That is why people sometimes dream in languages consciously unknown to them, or in a universal language of symbols whose meanings they do not know when awake. Drawings are easier to interpret, because the symbolism is generally simpler, more closely related to everyday life, and can be directed to a specific theme.” Pp 157-159 Love, Medicine & Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel, M.D.

A Few Resources:

World Religions by John Bowker DK Publishing

Signs & Symbols by Clare Gibson, Barnes & Noble Publishing

Encyclopedia of World Mythology Ed Arthur Cotterell, Parragon

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