person in black long sleeve shirt holding brown wooden cross

On Symbol

Cornelia van Voorst

July 24, 2022

Convergence Creative Prayer- July 24, 2022- Cornelia van Voorst

In her book The Artist’s Rule, Christine Valters Paintner explains how the Christian Mystical tradition has two main ways to encounter the divine:

The first, is the kataphatic tradition- the way of images. It is a process of coming to know God through symbols, art, movement, song, sculpture, architecture, and drama. The kataphatic path honors the ways in which the sacred is revealed through the sensual dimension of this world.

The second is the apophatic tradition, “the way of unknowing.” This is the path of contemplative prayer, of moving beyond image and word to silence and allowing for the presence of God beyond words and images.  The apophatic way honors how the sacred is more vast than the language and images human beings use to explain their experience of the divine.

During the Reformation, Protestantism rejected and gutted these traditions.  Britain saw the greatest destruction of sacred art in history. The Netherlands had 90% of its sacred art destroyed. Monasteries and Abbeys were dismantled and abandoned all over Northern Europe. Monastery life with its focus on contemplative prayer and expressions of divine encounter through art, were no longer a source of spiritual nourishment for Christian communities.

Today we are in need of a revival of the kataphatic tradition.

In the last few decades, the Contemplative tradition has been revived and has found its way back into Protestant church life.  Today we are in need of a revival of the kataphatic tradition. Convergence seems to be part of that revival. Both the kataphatic and apophatic are vital for Christian spirituality; one leads to the other, like breathing in and out.

Being connected to our experience of the divine through a contemplative practice allows art to emerge from a heart centered encounter with Christ. A commitment to an artistic practice allows that encounter to be expressed in the world with imagination and vitality. Through symbol we can communicate visually when what we are discussing is beyond words.

Sign and Symbol

Sometimes we mistake a sign for a symbol. A sign has a concise singular meaning which is unambiguous. Symbol is metaphorical. A symbol is where the seen and unseen, the silent and spoken, physical and spiritual, conscious and unconscious meet. Metaphor and symbol are markers and portals on the surface of life speaking of and leading us to the depth of the sacred that our conscious selves don’t always comprehend. 


Sometimes what was once symbolic is reduced to being a sign. This is what has happened to the image of the cross. While the Cross still has symbolic meaning for Christians, for many the cross has become a sign, one that might evoke negative ideas and experiences.

And yet the church did not always use the cross as the defining symbol of the Christian faith. What symbol might we use the explain our faith to someone for whom the cross has stopped being a way into understanding Christ? How might we revitalize what the cross means to us personally?

1) Draw a cross large enough to write in the four quadrants. The aim of this exercise is to recognize the many layers of meaning the cross might have for us and others.
In the top right-hand quadrant write down words of what the image of the cross reminds you of. In the lower right-hand quadrant write down words that describe how you feel about the cross. For the top left quadrant write down words that describe how other might feel about the cross. For the lower left quadrant write down words that describe what you were taught about the cross.

In the group, we each shared words from one of the quadrants.

2) REFLECT – Now that you have some words that give some insight to what you think and feel about the symbol and have considered how others might think and feel about it, look on the internet, your photo gallery, create a collage or draw images that might translate these words and convey what the cross means to you.

In our group we shared these images and talked about their meaning. It allows us to get to know how each person thinks and feels about their faith without using religious jargon or cliche. These images have personal symbolic resonance for us and might also be helpful in explaining to others what our faith means.

Flowers in Vases, Cornelia van Voorst
Flowers in Vases, Collage, Cornelia van Voorst

Send us a photo of your collage. We’d love to see what you came up with!

Cornelia van Voorst leads Creative Prayer online every third Sunday for Convergence. Cornelia is a contemporary artist with a studio practice in Victoria, BC, Canada. Her theopoetic work is expressed through visual art, curating, writing and speaking. Learn more about Cornelia and our 5:00 PM Sunday sessions here…

You can also learn more about Cornelia and her art through her website and find her on Instagram @vanvoorst_cornelia or Facebook: Cornelia van Voorst