Transcript of “Christian Life and Symbolic Living” by Jonathan Pageau

The church is always higher than everything else in the town. That’s not arbitrary. … It’s the highest thing so that you can see it from wherever you are. There’s one thing so that we can look in that direction, everybody in the town is reminded of what brings them together.

Here’s another transcript. Got most of it pieced together minus a few little bits.  Great lecture by Jonathan Pageau. 


At a high level here are some of my favorite points from this talk:
– Scientists tried to figure out what consciousness was, and realized they don’t really understand anything.
– Humans have a habit of naming things in order to bring it into existence.
– How does an item go from a mere collection of atoms to a thing? I.e. a microphone. the city of Chicago.
– For something to be community there has to be something in common that brings you together
– Churches scale the purpose up to the highest possible purpose.


I’m Father Joshua Caswell. I know many of you here, and we have some visitors as well.
I’m a pastor at St. Johns Cantius Church. Here at St. Johns Cantius Church, we offer the very best of philosophy, catetetics, culture and art. Today’s speaker is certainly one who meets that standard. Jonathan Pageau graduated with distinction from the painting and drawing program at Concordia University in Montreal. During the late 1990’s, quickly disillusioned with contemporary art, he discovered icons and traditional christian images around his own spiritual journey. Rekindling his love of art through the study of traditional forms Jonathan developed a passion for wood carving. Jonathan delivers lectures every year at universities, conferences and other venues around North America. He speaks on art, but mostly on the symbolic structures underlie our experiences of the world. Through his well-known YouTube channel and Podcast, “The Symbolic World” he also furthers the conversation on symbolism, meaning and patterns on everything from movies and icons, to social trends. Yesterday evening he spoke to us about Kanye West’s new albums. Yesterday evening Jonathan presented to the Catholic art guild, and today he shares an overview of his thoughts, “Christian Life and Symbolic Living”. Without further ado, I welcome Jonathan Pageau.


Hello everybody. It was a great evening last night. I got to visit the church. It’s pretty amazing. Very beautiful. There’s something about the groundedness of the church. In a sense there is a folk element to the art. You know these polychromed statues. I love that you have all these polychrome statues. There came to be a hatred of polychrome statues in our age. The color of the altar in the small chapel — the gold—it’s an exuberance. It’s a celebration. It’s that celebratory aspect that I wanted to talk about today.

One of the people don’t realize when you come to church … We come to church for our own reasons. We come to church to commune with god, commune with other people. Have you ever thought about the possibility that when you come to church that you are actually participating in the existence of the world? … Sometimes it sound a bit woo-woo, or just spiritual in a vague sense. We say it, but don’t know what it means. I want to say that technically, almost scientifically, that when you come to church, you participate in the existence of the world.

One of the things that people have realized recently is that the modern world is characterized by science. Science has been (whether it’s true or not) has been a bludgeon the modern world has used to hit at traditional Christianity or religion through all kinds of means.
And one of the things that happened, is the scientists
The scientists talk about the world “out there”
Because they found the mechanical cause of something that somehow it takes away it’s meaning. They did that, and they keep getting deeper into the world, and at some point, “Oh well there’s one thing that we haven’t talked about, there’s one thing we haven’t explained, and that’s consciousness.” We use consciousness, we use intelligence
To smash on Christianity to smash on religion
One thing we haven’t done is try to understand consciousness.
Well maybe we should do that. As they eye started to turn and tried to look back inside, everything started to get very strange. And all the things that looked very stable started to not look as stable as they did before.

As scientists started to analyze human perception, because at some point you realize “Wait a minute, we are people that are looking at the world”
We have to take that into account
The fact that we are the people looking at it, so we have to try to analyze the eye that is looking
And we realize that things are a lot more complicated. It has opened the door to re-understand our religious practices in a way that is surprising to many. One of the things that scientists are realizing when they’re studying consciousness for example, that when we look at the world, we don’t actually see things in themselves. The problem is that things in themselves they scatter into detail. If you really take the time to look at it. Anything! The microphone that’s in front of me has a million details in it. There are millions of aspects just in this microphone. Every little piece of wire, every speck of paint, and then I could go deeper and all the molecules that make it,
all the atoms that make it, it scatters into detail.
Why can I say that this is a microphone? How do I do that? And it’s the same for everything.
Hours and hours
Just the corner of my cuff.
There’s a thousand threads in my cuff, and there’s a thousand little threads in that thread, and it breaks down into detail. How do we know that something is one? It’s not just a microphone, it scales up. How do we know a family is one thing? It’s a bunch of people. What’s the difference between a family and a random group of strangers
How can I say that’s one thing? It’s obviously many things.
How do I know that a city is one thing? How can I say that? How can I say “Chicago” And think that actually exists in the world? How can I say United States of America? What they’re realizing is that what we actually look at

Especially in the way we understand it is that we see purposes, and we have a magic capacity to cohere all the details into unities. And they use a word, they say “Emergence”. There’s all this complexity, and out of this complexity, something emerges as “one”. They don’t understand that!
How is it that there’s a bunch of stuff, and now there’s “one”? How is it that I can say that? And what’s fascinating is that once you understand that, you realize that we are part of how things come together as humans. We are made in the image of god. We believe that as Christians.
There’s a story in Genesis where Adam names the animals. And you can understand it that way.
You have all these things come crawling toward Adam
We have all these beasts, all these things.
That’s that. And that’s that.
He names the animals, and that’s what human beings DO. What scientists are realizing is if it wasn’t for human beings naming things, we’re not quite sure what actually would exist.
It all breaks down into the quantum field or whatever. It all breaks down into the possibility of existence. This all might seem very abstract, but to bring it back to people, because that’s easier for us to understand. What’s the difference between a bunch of people that are in the same space, and a people that actually have group identity? What’s the difference? And the difference is what you’re participating in when you come to church. When you come to church, you have diverse bunch of people. Everybody has their story
Their economic status
This multiplicity that exists
Everyone has their own problems and their own thing. What are we doing when we come to church? To a certain extent, we are setting all that noise aside and we are focusing in together on the same thing. And that’s it. That’s how a community exists. Any community. For something to be a community, there has to be something that brings you in common with the other people in the community. It could be that you collect stamps. Maybe it’s a knitting group—everyone that’s in the knitting group knits. There are all kinds of purposes that can make a group cohere. The thing about the church is that we scale that up to the highest possible purpose. The knitting group is fine, and these little groups are fine, but when we come to church, we’re bringing that up. We’re giving glory to god. We’re worshipping the highest possible thing. Because we’re worshiping the highest possible thing, because we’re all together for the same reason. To acknowledge the highest thing, then it becomes the anchor of reality. You know, if I had said that 100 years ago, a lot of people would have said, “Yeah, yeah, whatever. This is just magical thinking. This is just superstition” No, no, no. We’ve had 100 years now of people that have tried to destroy that. And we’ve seen the result.
The result is, the suburbs. A bunch of houses, spread out on land, with a bunch of highways connecting these houses to strip malls and things. There’s no coherence. Those huge swathes of houses that are out there. People go to malls and big huge groceries stores. They are not communities. And you know what? I live the suburbs myself. I live in the suburbs

One house down, two houses down. I know them say “Hello”, that’s about it. Four houses down? I don’t know them. Let’s take a look at a traditional structure like a medieval town. Or a town 100 years ago in Quebec. (Which used to be the most catholic place in the world, by the way. Not anymore.)
Last year, my family and I were flooded, and we had to move. We moved into this small town called St. Placet. It was like 30 minutes away further out into the boonies. I’ll tell you about this town. The first thing that the town built, was what? The church. The church was built before the town. That is not a rare thing to happen in the history of the west. For the first thing to built is a church.
The church was built for different reasons.
Because a martyr died there
The place of the death of the martyr
Blood of the martyr is the seed of the church. That’s literally how it happens. A martyr dies,
And houses start to build around the church.
And all the sudden people start living
People need to eat, you end up having fields further out. And next to the church because at some point you have a bunch of people.
Build a public square, build a market. Have a government-type building
The center of town that has the church, and all the things that bring us together. The church, the public office, the public space. And the church is always higher than everything else in the town. That’s not arbitrary. … It’s the highest thing so that you can see it from wherever you are. There’s one thing so that we can look in that direction, everybody in the town is reminded of what brings them together. So on Sunday, the whole town comes together, they go to church, they participate in this coming together. You can see it as this onion that gets peeled back. You have outside of the town you have the farmland, then you have the town, then in the middle you have all these public institutions. And then in the church now, you have the nave where we are, then you have the altar, and in the altar,
And on the table of the altar you have the cup. In the cup you have this invisible transformation, you have this spark of divinity, which is the reason why we are there together. How do we know that’s happening? One of the ways we know is it’s the reason we exist as a town. It’s making us with all our differences, all our problems, all our little fights, all of this
All of this which remains there
We say the same words, we pray the same prayers, we all look in the same direction, we are manifesting that unity. It’s so much easier to say that today. Because sadly, we have now seen the opposite. We have seen that when you don’t have that, you have this fragmentation which occurs. We have these people that slip between the cracks. … This is a tough thing to say … Do you think that in this medieval town that something like a school shooter would appear? It’s not possible. The network of knowledge goes all the way to edge of the town
You have this coherent thing which is all participating together, so the anomalies are identified
Everybody is interconnected in a certain way. In a world where you have all these suburban houses sprawled out
No one could slip through the cracks.
And no one notices, at all. And so, I think that’s something we need to remember. Sometimes you don’t wanna come to church. Sometimes you wonder, “Why are we doing this?”
I’m sure none of you ever wonder that. I sometimes have that moment, “Is it really worth it?” The answer is, “Absolutely.” Because what it’s doing to the community and the world, is that these little anchors that are left, it’s also doing it inside you. Right? It’s not just the people that are coming together and looking all in the same direction
Acknowledging, lifting up the highest thing. It’s also happening inside you. Because you’re like the community. You have all these thoughts, you have all these desires
You have all these purposes that are sometimes not in alignment with each other. You have that all in yourselves
What are we doing when we
You look at the altar, and we purposefully try to set straight. To align things in ourselves in worship, we’re bringing our things together. And obviously it’s not 100%, you go back out, and all the sensations are there
At least to reset your alignment. At least to do that every week.
Divine mystery
You are resetting yourself so that you have a little bit alignment to preserve you for the rest of the week. … We know that to be true now because we have seen the opposite. You’ve had periods in your life where you’ve been away from church. Or if you know people who have been away from the church, you see it, the drifting. This falling into this drifting desire to drift — stay amused, stay distracted. It’s there and it’s so strong on the outside. And we all have those sensations as well.
To come together and realign ourselves so that we can have the strength to face the crazy, insane fragmented world that we live in. Like I said, there’s a traditional saying that “The just holds the world together.” The prayers of the saints are that which hold the world together. If we didn’t have the saints, then the world would just fall apart. That is not just a speculative religious thing that doesn’t mean anything. That is really how the world works. Without nodes, without places, without centers, that bring people together, then the world just fragments and falls apart. Let’s be honest, if there ever is a crisis
if there’s a major crisis in our suburbs, and you barely know your neighbor two houses down, what do you think’s gonna happen? It might not pretty. It might be an opportunity, though! It might be an opportunity for people to actually come together.
Because we don’t trust each other.
That is the little encouragement I wanted to give you. As you come to church, and you get dressed up on Sunday morning, you make the effort to drive here that in a way it is not just for you. You are actually holding the world together to the extent that you are participating in this divine mysteries.


Q: Why are cities so important in scripture? How can we reconstitute the medieval city?

A : The story of the city in the scripture is actually an amazing and very important story. The story of the is the story of the fall, actually. If you look at
All the thing we associate
People who found the first city are the descendants of Cain.

Cain actually founds the first city. Then his descendants
Even arts music, are all
Why is that? The reason is that because as a human person fell from the garden, and in the garden Adam and Eve are described as
They were clothed in glory. Their communion with god was sufficient for them. As they got further from the glory of god, then they had to protect themselves from the world. God said
The result is going to be thorns. So they need to protect themselves from the thorns.
What do you do? You make clothes. You put on clothes.
Cain kills his brother and he gets exiled further out. So imagine the garden as a mountain. It’s the best way, because it is a mountain. As they fall, they leave the top of the mountain and go out further.
Cain kills his brother
Go further away from the garden. So he goes away. There’s more and more hostility, what does he do? They had to make communal clothing.
We have personal clothing, and then we have communal clothing.
The city is an image of this fall and the necessity for humans to supplement their existence in order to survive
Grows and grows, and gets bigger and bigger.
Then finally, weapons of war — war, the flood. Bigger and harder and harsher.
And everything,
That is the cycle that you see in scripture in Genesis. We’re going through something similar right now. We’re definitely building up these walls in a rather arrogant fashion because we think that they’re going to protect us.
God takes that and changes it into glory. God is constantly doing that. Taking something that was dead and transforming it.
Filling it with grace. Filling it with life. That’s the story. If you understand that is what god is doing. The temple or tabernacle has the same structure that I told you about. It has a center like the center of the garden, with the glory of god descending in the middle.
Then it has a bunch of veils all the way to the edge.
Animal skins
It’s a representation of the same structure. Then you can add to that, the city of Jerusalem which is around there. So god is taking something that is actually the result of the fall
It’s trying to change it into a glorious thing. That’s why at the end of scripture, the last image that is given to us is a glorious city. It’s a city made of gems and gold. It’s a perfect shape, it’s a bue
It’s a perfect cube
From the garden to the city, that’s the cycle of the fall.
God takes everything that this whole dark world that we have, all of this trash, all of the bad intentions, all of the stuff that we are creating
God has shown us that he can transform it into a glorious thing. So the last image that given in the scripture
A tree that’s in the middle of the city, with the river of life, and around it is the whole city. It’s an image of everything. The church has that structure. That’s why Christian churches were closed.
The church also represents the new Jerusalem.
Apocalyptic vision

The beast chanting the glory of god. It was the 24 elders in their white robes. It was all about the end. The church has that same structure from the garden with the altar
Communion chalice at the center, all the way out to the gargoyles on the outside of the church. The whole world is represented in the way the church is set up. There is nothing that is evil in itself … The problem with evil is always a problem of place. It’s problem trying to put things where they’re not supposed to be.
That’s part of the story. And in the inside you have the glory of god there. The problem is when you try to put the gargoyles in the sanctuary. Don’t do that. (laughs) Does that help? That was a long answer though, sorry.

Question 2

Q: Can you comment on family life, or on traditional practices? Is it relevant to have fasting, lent, and meatless Fridays, chapel veils, that kind of thing?

A : This idea of bringing things together
It’s something don’t like to realize.
Time is a wheel that turns. If you’re not careful, it actually speeds us.
I hope it’s not just me, I don’t know if anyone else as noticed, but time is speeding up. The world is getting fast. The reason it’s getting faster is because of the fact that we have destroyed our markers of time. We have destroyed the things that give quality to time. And that’s what our liturgical calendar does.
If we do not make time for a normal cycle of repentance and celebration … Little deaths and glory. Little moments where you repent and celebrate. If you don’t do that, then time is going to start running away from you.
You’re going to start running like a gerbil in a wheel. …
Having processions, processions are a great way to qualify space.
The idea of remembering saints, remembering Christ. Participating in these rituals that we do
Like fasting, like celebrating
These great ways to qualify and give meaning to time.
We’re holding things together. We’re making things coherent. Because if that breaks away, then
We see everybody rushing around like crazy people, everybody running around like mad people. We’ve lost that sense of being grateful. We remember the saints every day. … Every day is

We’re always celebrating something. And then there’s also the fasting, which is a little death all the time. Add a little bit of repentance and celebration. I don’t want to go into specific thing.
That’s what celebration does. Because what do we celebrate now? What does our world celebrate? Who knows? Rock stars? Celebrities? That’s what we celebrate?
We call them stars, we call them idols. We have all these words that we use
Nothing to celebrate
When you celebrate things that should not be celebrated,
Things that are related to our desires
We have all these words to celebrate
We get pulled, ripped apart.
All of this is ripping people apart. Depending on what they celebrate.
We’re worship creatures. We celebrate things. We venerate things. What are you venerating? That’s why we have to remember. When we celebrate our saints, when we celebrate
Lives as communities
We are remembering, and holding ourselves together.

Question 3

Q : I know you didn’t want to get into anything specific when it came to symbolism. As a new catholic, I’ve never veiled in chapel before. I will today. Can you explain the symbolism of the practice to help me internalize it for my experience today?

A : Wow. The veil? We’re going to talk about that? (laughs) Oh man, talk about a minefield. No, I’m okay to talk about that. I’m going to focus on one reason — there are two reasons—but I’m going to focus on one. Which is easier to focus on. The veil has to do with this mystery.
One of the things that happens with the fall is
We’re away from the garden. We’re removed from the garden. We look at the garden from far away. Now, Christ has given us a way to receive from the holy place. The priest from the altar will bring down the divine presence
In a way that is making us participate in the incarnation itself. From the holy place comes this mystery. But — this is gonna get tough.
In the traditional, ancient church, the holy place
In the Orthodox church we still have veils.
There’s a veil between the nave and the altar. That veil is to help us understand the distance between us and the holiest thing. In the temple, the veil never opened. The veil was closed, and only one person in the entire nation could go once a year
They would have to tie a rope to his ankles
They would have to pull him out because it was so closed off and holy.
We still need the veil. If we don’t have the veil, then we end up mistaking the mystery for something lower that what it really is. … If you don’t have some form of veil between the holiest place and you, that veil must open
In the end, you can get communion in the mail if you’re a certain kind of protestant. They send you little packets with a little bit of wine and bread. You get it in the mail and you can have it at home while you’re watching TV.
If you don’t have that veil, then you end up cheapening the mystery to a point where it doesn’t have any mystery anymore. The veil that St. Paul asks women to wear, that has the same meaning. Because each woman is possibly an image of the mother of god, possibly the image of the virgin. Just like the virgin is veiled,
Each woman has the potential of being that for her husband.
That’s one of the reasons why the veil has existed in Christian tradition. Was to preserve the mystery of the holy place. That is one of the reasons. There’s another reason, but I won’t go into that one.

Question 4

Q : I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and you described the experience perfectly. It’s like you said, it’s just an endless sprawl. It’s like an anti-garden of Eden. There’s not even a hill, it’s just toally flat.
There are churches
Growing up in the 90’s
The mall actually did— it’s not a sanctified place—but it definitely bound me and my friends
(P: The mall’s going away.) What do you see when you’re studying different trends, do you see anything replacing the mall?

A : The way you have to understand it, is that there’s a hierarchy.
You can see it in the medieval orders, where you have those that pray, those that fight, and those that worked.
Those that were merchants, and those that really worked.
You kinda have four classes of people
After that the ones that fight
Then you have the market, then you have the land where people worked.
If you take the church out and say “Eh, we don’t need this! What is it anyway? We just come together and say a bunch of stuff. Let’s take that away.”
We can find identity in our nation.
Let’s ___ around our nation.
We all stand around the flag, and we look at the flag, and we have different celebrations of our nation. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
If you think
“Oh we can find resolution in the market!” So the mall becomes a symbol of the market. The economy is what’s gonna hold us together! We don’t have this identity as a nation anymore,

So we go to the mall, and we’re all together… that’s not gonna hold. You can’t be surprised that the mall’s going away. And there’s all going to end up fragmented, alone on our computers.
Everybody’s looking and trying to figure it out.
Ordering food, even. You don’t have to get out of your house.
You don’t have to leave.
These completely fragmented individuals completely sprawled out
What’s going to replace it? Everybody’s looking to try to figure it out. People are doing weird things to try and figure it out. You know, Star wars, and Marvel movies, and Harry Potter… Everybody’s trying to find some kind of thing that gonna unite them
Political ideology
Giving them purpose, giving them reason.
The last vestige are these weird online communities that are not united in space, but are weirdly united on the internet.
Those people are not gonna help you if you’re in trouble. If you fall into a ditch. I don’t see how those people are really gonna help you.
The only solution — and I say this because I’ve gone through the effort to think of like, “What REALLY is the way? The only way is a return to the church. There’s no other way. And I’m saying this, not just because I’m a Christian. I’m saying this because, this is really how the world works. Without the top part, everything else starts fragment. There’s no way out of it.

Question 5

Q : I’ve watched your commentary on Moana and on sacred femininity. Can you explain that to me?
, and why it’s important to follow the patriarchy.

A : The problem with the idea of patriarchy, is it doesn’t really understand how things work. It doesn’t understand that there’s that which is said, and there’s that which is unsaid.
There’s that which is hierarchy, and that
You need both. The problem happens when one tries to be the other.
You can understand it as the masculine aspect of
Represents the hierarchy. It manifests the hierarchy. You can’t just have hierarchy. It doesn’t work that way. You also need the unsaid, the private, the feminine. The space in the world takes place
The holy place in
That manifests itself as the bringing of potentiality, the questions, the frame of the world, all of these things are what the feminine brings to the world. The problem is that we don’t value that.
The problem is that our society doesn’t value that. The modern world is actually hyper-masculine. The trick, the seduction is that
Convinced the feminine that it has to be like the masculine!
“Get in that hierarchy! Get that high position in a job! You need to scale up the hierarchy of the world, and to be represented in all these aspects of the hierarchy ”
That’s a real problem. The private spaces are shrinking
The private world, the secret world of the family
At an incredible rate.
Marriages are breaking apart, families are being shattered.
We don’t value that place. … People think that I’m somehow promoting the patriarchy. I’m not promoting patriarchy. We need the hierarchy, and we need the space. The problem of the modern world is we haven’t valued the holy place. In the Moana video what I was trying to show in those types of videos
They think that by
Showing her supplant this male character. By removing the normal interaction between the masculine and the feminine.
Feminine space

You’re destroying the world when you’re doing that. Because that’s not how the world works. Does that make sense?

Thank you again.

Image Source : Wikipedia

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