Symbolic loss

I found my wedding ring today about noon.

It’s been missing for 10 days. I only ever take it off when I’m putting something slippery or sticky all over my hands. In this case it was shampoo to wash my children’s hair with, and I set it right beside the bathtub, but I forgot to put it back on when I was done. When I came back for it it was missing.

I was acutely aware of its absence. I kept dreaming I’d found it, and I noticed every roundish, shiny thing out of the corner of my eyes, always checking to see if it was the ring. When I saw my husband’s ring sitting on the counter, my heart would leap for a moment and then fall. Yesterday the skin on my finger started breaking out where I’d been unconsciously rubbing it.

Contemporary Catholic sacramental theology thinks and talks a lot about symbol. Karl Rahner discusses how every real symbol (not merely an arbitrary sign) makes the thing it symbolizes present in a real way, and not just abstractly present, but present for those to whom the symbol is addressed. (See a post of mine here for more.) Louis-Marie Chauvet points out that in every symbolic presence it is important that the thing symbolized is not only present, but also, in a way, absent: we cannot manipulate or control God through the symbols given to save us (a great mercy, in my opinion).

But the best description, in my opinion, comes from the theologically-inclined Catholic philosopher Jean-Luc Marion. In the second volume of his phenomenology of givenness, Being Given, he considers the wedding ring as an example of how part of the symbolic power of our symbols comes from the fact that they refuse to be what they symbolize (I know one or two of you are starting to have heart palpitations about Eucharistic presence, but transubstantiation is a special and complicated case; just stick to the wedding ring for now and I promise to talk about Eucharist another time):

The wedding ring . . . attests that the Other has given himself . . . to me in giving me this object, and reciprocally; but the two gifts (the ring and the Other) never coincide. . . . By contrast, the ring attests the gift that I became in receiving (that of) the Other precisely because in reality it is not equal to it, but offers the symbolic index of this gift, without common measure with what is nevertheless shown in it (Marion, Being Given, 105).

In other words, as I go on to put it in Efficacious Engagement:

This excellent example demonstrates that the symbolic reduction of the gift occurs because the gift does not (yet) exist: the gift of self enacted in the marriage ceremony and in the life of commitment to the partner cannot be made available to the receiver because it is not present to the giver. The self offered in marriage never exists when it is given. It can, perhaps, come to exist only because it has already been given (Efficacious Engagement, around p. 174).

In more concrete terms, the ring I lost was superficially replaceable: here is one that looks exactly like it did when it was new, for example. What it symbolizes, of course, Matt’s gift of his life to and for me and my gift of myself to him, is certainly not replaceable (nor did I lose it in losing the ring). As Marion says, the ring was significant not because it was exactly the thing I want, but because it represented to us the gifts we hope to become for one another. The absence of the ring, for a short time, became an even more poignant symbol of my marriage, and the sore spot I rubbed into my finger was, in a sense, a physical symbol of its absence. But there is such a thing, I think, as too many symbolic removes!

This ring has a history wound up with it, 10 years of visible and invisible bumps, important memories. I lost it under a deck on my first anniversary but regained it due to the intervention of a Good Samaritan with a cordless drill willing to tamper with federal property. I dropped it in the snow by the side of the road in Chicago, too, where it evaded recapture for a few hours. More importantly, Matt put it on my finger after it had been blessed on our wedding day; I would never wear a replacement unless it had been blessed and given in a renewal of vows. As we looked through the house for it, we talked about these things, a liturgy of the word of sorts.

Now it has a new story. My daughter, Juliana, was the probable culprit for its disappearance. Since she’s only two though, it’s hard to get a full response to “where’s Mommy’s ring?” She kept pointing to a shelf in my closet, where there was no ring of any sort. No doubt she put it there once, and it fell through (the shelves are wire), which she remembered without knowing what she’d done with it after that. I finally went through the rest of the upstairs thinking about all the places, were I a small child, that I might put a ring. When I looked under her dresser, I found it, amid a cluster of other girlish treasures: barrettes, a small flashlight, a couple of stuffed animals.

Now it’s back on my finger, again part of the sacramental body we build together in marriage. Thanks be to God.


    1. Most toilets have a kink designed to catch small objects. Your old ring might still be there and could be retrieved by a plumber. Then you could dispose of it in a grand ritual. (Do church annulments have the option of a ritual for such things?)

  1. Barry – recall, the ring did not fall off, she took it off. Not something most of us would do often, but there are times when it’s the best choice. Working around rotating machinery, for example.

    1. Or kneading bread dough. I have discovered that getting bread dough out of those fiddly little braid interstices is almost impossible.

      The ring fits fine, but perhaps this episode will tighten my memory up a bit.

      1. I don’t have that particular issue, as my wedding ring is a plain band, but yes, I can certainly see the point. I wear a school ring that is more intricate, and it comes off much more often.

  2. This post is really helping me with my thesis 🙂 as I’m getting a better understanding of symbol. I was made more aware of Rahner’s thoughts on symbol, and you clarified a point of confusion I was having about Marion, even though in my thesis I don’t really utilize Marion’s ideas about symbol. The hard part in thinking about this for my thesis is that I think all 3 authors you cite have good insights about symbols and their function. It’s odd to say Rahner has a practical approach to anything, but his approach to symbol emphasizes how symbols make a reality present. In the case of your ring, the ring acts as a symbol of a continuing commitment between you and Matt, by making your lived reality present through symbol. (This is the reality I want to emphasize in my thesis that symbols present themselves and thus are really present.)

    However, I do also like how Chauvet and Marion emphasize more ambiguity in thinking about symbols. Because in sacramental theology, it is problematic if x symbol is always supposed to elicit x grace, as it limits God’s ability to act in the world. Chauvet’s strength is that he prevents issues of magical sacraments and earning our own salvation.

    Marion’s strength is his ability to be ambiguous, yet inspire hope for fulfillment of the commitment of the sacrament of marriage. His theology is centered on what is present and not present at the same time by citing hope. So in that way the symbol is always present, yet never fully present, like Rahner would cite. I also like you accentuate that you can’t receive another self but in the gift the self becomes more real (not fully real), there is still some ambiguity there.

    So all three authors have points worth pulling from their work, and I’m glad you drew those ideas out for us. (And I’m glad my thesis is not on Eucharistic theology because transubstantiation and postmodernism becomes muddled for me at points.) Glad you found your ring 🙂 Enjoy the symbol that’s hoping… 🙂

  3. My husband is constantly working with machinery, so he rarely wears his ring around home because it would be a safety hazard. However, when he goes on the road, the ring comes off his key chain and on to his finger. We laugh and point out that he’s doing it all wrong!

  4. Kim, you know how much I love symbolic absence. I’m sorry you experienced that solicitude while the ring was missing, but it is amazing how the feeling of the absence of the symbol calls to mind so poignantly what the symbol itself is meant to symbolize. I’m glad that you were able to recognize the grace in that experience and share it with us. Hopefully, you’ll only experience that powerful reminder when you take off your ring and then put it back on.

    And, yes, the Eucharist is a special case but I do hope that you will return to this point and instruct us on the real absence that accompanies real presence in the symbolic mediation of the Eucharist. After all, you did promise.

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