On Facing the Impossible - Symbolic Action

By Fr. Bede McGregor O.P.
Spiritual Director to the Legion of Mary
On Facing the Impossible - Symbolic Action

In this year of going back to basics, I think I should offer a reflection on the principle of Symbolic Action. Sooner or later any legionary or any praesidium that is doing any serious apostolic work will run into difficulties and even apparently impossible situations. When things are at their worse is when the Legion is called to be at her best. So let us reflect for a little while on how the Legion faces the impossible.

Pope John Paul II frequently refers to Our Lady as the first evangeliser. It is easy to see why. It is Mary who brings Jesus into the world and into the lives of each one of us. Without her there would be no Jesus because that is the way that the Holy Trinity has designed the whole economy of salvation. It would be a most profound deprivation to be ignorant of Mary and the place that God has given her in the lives of each one of us. She is the Mother of the Good News and it is difficult to think of any effort at evangelisation without her. This is one of the most treasured convictions of the Legion. But we must also become more and more aware that Mary is the first one to be evangelised and allow ourselves like her and with her to be evangelised.

One of the great truths branded on the soul of Mary at the Annunciation of the Good News of the coming of God in human flesh was that nothing is impossible to God. This truth is an essential element in the mind and spirit of Mary. Therefore it must be essential to the Legion of Mary that we face every apparent or objectively real impossibility with the mind and heart of Mary. It is this spirit that lies behind the famous Legion formula of Symbolic Action. It is particularly true when it comes to the salvation of souls. Nothing is impossible to God when it comes to working for the salvation of even the most hardened sinner. We cannot stop and give up and say we have done enough when it comes to the eternal destination of a soul.

Before going into the question of dealing with seemingly impossible people or situations the Handbook makes a pivotal point: “It is a fundamental Legion principle that into every work should be thrown the best that we can give. Simple or difficult, it must be done in the spirit of Mary.” This does not mean that we act with grim and anxiety laden effort but with a determination that arises from deep love for Mary and always in her company.

There are some works that only seem impossible but in reality are not so. They only require genuine effort and relentless perseverance. But sometimes we are faced with works which are really impossible, that is, they are beyond all purely human effort. In these cases we bring in the principle of symbolic action again and again and leave the rest to God. Nothing is impossible to Him. But we must play our part. The important thing about symbolic action is that it must be action and the best we can do in any situation. Of course we must pray too and without ceasing but we must also act, at least make some gesture or symbolic act. It would be a strange thing to pray to God for help and make no effort to do anything. With God and our effort absolutely nothing is impossible. The word impossible has no place in the Legion vocabulary. But we must try not to block God’s grace by our lack of effort.

The Handbook puts it this way: “Both naturally and supernaturally the repudiation of impossibility is the key to the possible. That attitude alone can solve the problems. It can go further, for definitely it is a hearing of the Gospel cry that with God no work shall be impossible.” It should follow that every praesidium should undertake some symbolic action. It is this type of action that demonstrates the faith and courage of the members and prevents the praesidium from lapsing into mediocrity or worse.

Let me end by quoting a few more very familiar snippets from the Handbook: “Every impossibility is divisible into thirty-nine steps, of which each step is possible … observe the stress is on action. No matter what may be the degree of difficulty, a step must be taken. Of course, the step should be as effective as it can be. But if an effective step is not in view, then we must take a less effective one. And if the latter not be available, then some active gesture (that is, not merely a prayer) must be made which, though of no apparent practical value, at least tends towards or has some relation to the objective. This final challenging gesture is what the Legion has been called ‘Symbolic Action’. Recourse to it would explode the impossibility, which is of our imagining. And on the other hand, it enters in the spirit of faith into dramatic conflict with genuine impossibility.”

In this context look once more at the symbolic action of Mary at Cana. The wine had run out at the wedding and only large jars of water were available. In this impossible situation Mary turns to the waiters and says those immortal words: “Do whatever he tells you”. The impossible was obliterated.