During Lent this year the lectionary readings from the Hebrew scriptures take the church week by week through covenants in our holy history. This Sunday the church offers us consideration of the rainbow-sign of the covenant with Noah. It is worth taking time with patristic and medieval typologies of the Ark itself: the Church is the Ark. Lent is the Ark. Wisdom is the Ark. Even our heart is the Ark – a place of safety and yet a place of transformation. Enclosed and tossed upon turbulent seas of sin and chaos and culture, these 40 days of Lent give the Christian a time of growing, transformation, renewing of our lives from the core of our hearts. Thus, we emerge from Lent and Holy Week to face again the uncreated Light of the Resurrection, the hint of which we observed at the Transfiguration.
But we have to prepare rigorously to meet this new Light. And so we make our way into the desert, or seal ourselves up into the ark to practice a 40 day "Night of Purification" in this Season of the Soul. -Suzanne
From the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols
In Christian tradition the Ark was one of the richest sources of symbolism.Noah’s Ark stood as the symbol of the house protected by God preserving all living things.The Ark of the covenant was the symbol of God’s presence among his chosen people, a portable sanctuary, the pledge of the covenant between God and his people, and, finally, it was the symbol of the Church.It is clad in the triple symbolic meaning of the New Covenant, which is universal and eternal; of the new presence, which is ‘read”, and of the new ark of salvation, no longer from the Flood but from sin.It is the Church. The new Ark, available to all for the salvation of the world…. The Ark of the Heart is analogous with that most secret place within the Temple where sacrifice was offered, that is to say, with the Holy of Holies.The Ark always retains a mysterious character.Jung finds the image of the mother’s breast in it, the sea into which the Sun is swallowed, only to rise again. It is also the alchemical still in which base metals are transmuted.It is also the Holy Grail.The heart as an ark or a still is a persistent symbol.Man’s heart is the vessel in which the human in transmuted into the divine.
The Ark is a symbol of the treasure chest, the treasure being knowledge and life.It is the principle of individual preservation and resurrection…
The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbrant, translated by John Buchanan-Brown
Nave as Ark
The Nave (Latin navis, ship) is the long narrow central part of a church.Looking up into, say, a Gothic cathedral, the curved ceiling looks like the hull of a ship. The Church is the Ark, protecting her people from the chaotic waters of the world. Or, the waters can be thought of as Baptism (1 Peter 3:20-21).
Nave, St. John the Divine, NYC, looking back toward the entrance and rose window
The multi-layered arks also imply the journey of the soul, usually described as the three-fold "ways" of purgation, illumination, and union. The three tiered ark is also a symbol of the Trinity.
a cleaner rendering of Caedmon, 11th century, Bodleian Library
An ark can be a place where a person in prayer goes to his or her storehouse of memory – collections of scripture, holy reading, observations, inventive fruits of previous meditations. It is in this sense that Hugh of St. Victor describes the storehouse of memory for meditation use.
This ark is like to an apothecary’s shop, filled with a variety of all delights. You will seek nothing in it which you will not find, and when you find one thing, you will see many more disclosed to you.Here are bountifully contained the universal works of our salvation from the beginning of the world until the end, and here is contained the condition of the universal Church.Here the narratives of historical events are woven together, here the mysteries of the sacraments are found, here are laid out the successive stages of responses, judgments, meditations, contemplations, of good works, virtues, and rewards. Hugh of St. Victor, Quoted in The Book of Memory, p.43 Mary Carruthers.
More on Hugh of St.Victor’s “picture” of Noah’s Ark. Excerpt from Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200
The basic structure of Hugh’s Ark pictura is a three-tiered set of rectangular boxes: the arca as a “chest,” a pun which associates the Genesis Ark with the Ark of the Covenant, described in Exodus, for which God also gave measurements and in which were stored the texts of the Law (on which the righteous man meditates day and night, according to Psalm 1). The mental painting is driven by sound-associations, homophones and polysemous words as much as it is by coloring and shape.Puns transform the treasure chest of memory into the salvational ark of Noah, into a treasure chest (the ark of Moses) that contains the matter of salvation (God’s law) which, stored in the chest of memory and thus available for meditation, will redeem and save, as the citadel (arc-) of “Jerusalem” will save God’s people – provided they remember to “measure the pattern.” And the triple tiering of the Ark, as Hugh paints its mental image, fashions – literally –this triple pun on arca (Noah’s ark, Moses’ ark, Jersualem ark) from the material in the “ark” of his memory.Hugh’s pictura Archae is a picture constructed by puns.
From the Zohar
Even as a very young child, the story of eight worthy people floating safely above a deluge destroying life and humanity disturbed me. What I sensed of God did not seem consonant with purposeful destruction. I love the way the wandering rabbis in the Zohar solve this problem.
How did the Blessed Holy One respond when Noah came out of the ark and saw the whole world destroyed and began to cry over the holocaust? Noah said, "Master of the world, You are called Compassionate! You should have shown compassion for Your creatures!" The Blessed Holy One answered him, "Foolish shepherd! Now you say this, but not when I spoke to you tenderly, saying 'Make yourself an ark of gopher wood ... As for Me, I am about to bring the Flood ... to destroy all flesh' ... I lingered with you spoke to you at length so that you would ask for mercy for the world! But as soon as you heard that you would be safe in the ark, the evil of the world did not touch your heart. You built the ark and saved yourself. Now that the world has been destroyed you open your mouth to utter questions and pleas?"
The rabbis discuss how both Abraham (Genesis 18:20-23) and Moses (Exodus 32:8,11,32) argued, cajoled, and bargained with God, thus saving the men and women of their generations.
And Noah? The Blessed Holy One lingered with him and spoke many words to him; perhaps he would ask for mercy for his generation. But he did not care and did not ask for mercy. He just built the ark and the whole world was destroyed.
Zohar: The Book of Enlightenment 13th century Daniel Chanan Matt, translator and editor, Paulist Press edition pp.58-9