People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves without wondering. (St. Augustine)
The need to find answers lies deep within us; the desire to search for answers to the cosmic mystery lies at the root of our being. As seekers of truth, however, the questions we ask often lead us in the wrong direction; they seldom lead us back to starting points. Genuine seekers need to resolve the mystery of their own identity which must be the point of departure for any true search in the understanding of the self. If we want to understand ourselves as seekers in pursuit of the essential knowledge of God, then we need to have an image of the seeker that can clearly identify the true nature of that inner witness. To echo the sentiment of St. Augustine of Hippo, it is time to start wondering, as we pass ourselves by.
The beauty of natural and traditional symbols lies not in their physical manifestation but in their participation in the truth. They have the ability to create an image in the mind that does not fade but grows stronger with time until its meaning becomes “second nature” to the aspiring soul and its message as heart-warming as a burning ember. As natural symbols of an unseen reality, they give evidence of the signature of God and serve as celestial archetypes reminding humanity of a truth that is greater than themselves and their world. The natural symbols of the tree or the horizon exist as a formal expression of the natural order that is timeless, inexhaustible in terms of their meaning and beyond human reach in terms of their ownership. They serve humanity as a talisman that has powerful energy as a remembrance of truth and are fixed on the plate of the mind like the woodcuts of one’s first primer. In their capacity as pictographs of an unseen dimension, they convey a universal meaning of causes and consequences that might otherwise be difficult to grasp.
We need the metaphysical symbols of Nature to serve as a mental icon in the remembrance of what is most fundamental in our lives and most essential in our nature. The force of their insight and the sacred sentiments they contain will ultimately find their correspondence within the mind and heart, pouring into the human being something of the grandeur and mystery of Nature. In reading the messages of natural symbols, we can become a living flame, an open door to a higher consciousness, or an inner horizon of an unseen higher order.
There is a mystery in both the human condition and the natural order waiting to be revealed. There is that mysterious j’en sais quoi within the human being who harbors a secret revelation that gathers but never materializes, like the gathering clouds of a summer storm that taunts the sensibility on the distant horizon, but never actually happens. We may imagine ourselves well placed within the parameters of this world until suddenly a door opens to a higher consciousness that provides a brief glimpse beyond the edge of the horizon. We may think of the human heart as a sacred niche harboring deep subterranean sentiments. Whether we as seekers witness within ourselves the noble elements of a tree, feel the vibrations of some solitary bell, or understand the human form to be a sacred work of art, we can build a small collection of sovereign images that are meaningful because they contain a truth that is difficult to deny.
There may come a time when we are so immersed in intimacy with the Divinity that we no longer need symbolic images to remind us of who we are and what we need to accomplish. For now, we need to examine the hidden messages behind certain symbols for their ability to shed light on the true nature of the seeker and the driving forces behind the quest. Traditional symbols are not isolated forms of nature placed on the earth as quaint scenery to satisfy human eyes and provide delight to our senses. They live free and eternal, fulfilling the destiny of the spirit that lives within them. They draw us with their beauty and noble presence into communion with a life force far greater than ourselves. They animate the world of nature and touch humankind with the magic wand of their living spirit.
The goal is to see God everywhere and in seeing, to remember the Divinity and to have faith. Climb a tree and feel its good tidings. Step into the river and feel the strength of its current. Look to the heavens and see reflected in the night sky the city of God. Allow the peace of Nature and its sublime tranquility to flow into you as sunshine flows through trees and moonlight reflects on the bay. There is an ancient message within nature that answers every question and that transcends every problem. We need to understand that the symbols of nature are in us and we are in them. Nothing is disconnected and the communion we instinctively feel with nature is the product of an ancient mode of being that finds its origin within the “unmoved Center” that, radiating outwards, is the “ancestor from which all things come.”
I am a sculpture
The human body, as a symbolic image par excellence, expresses a sacred message in which a divine thought cast into a human form became a living sculpture fashioned by the Hand of God and vivified with the Breath of the Compassionate. Of all the living creatures on earth, only the human being is the photogenic synthesis of the Lord and Master. As men and women within the earthly framework, humans represent the very picture of a living form that is awaiting the incandescence of the angelic persona embedded within their pure, primordial nature. Nothing else in the creation, and especially not our "near cousins" the apes, can equal this statement.
The various aspects of the human body come together in a serene image that reflects the creative wisdom of the Hand of God. In concept and execution, the human frame expresses balance and rhythm through the image and movement of its statuesque body, whose vertical stance and erect posture point heavenward like a living, breathing tree in motion. Human beings project the highest possible aspiration of any living being and their role as God’s representatives on earth begins to trace a portrait of God’s thinking creation through the heraldic image of the noble head and expressive face that crown the stately torso.
Beyond the human image and physical form of the human being lies the meaningful portrayal of a man or a woman in prayer. The body language conveys its own ritual message, with hands folded and cupped, or raised in veneration or supplication; the body bowing in ritual prostration, sitting in the cross-legged lotus position or kneeling down in humility on bended knee. Such an image has a value that is mysteriously akin to a work of sacred art in terms of impression and overall effect, thereby becoming a living expression of a higher reality and encapsulating, as in a holy sigh, a sacred emotion into a physical or audible form. A man or a woman with head bowed in prayer becomes in effect a human work of sacred art, a living poem, or a sanctified block of breathing, living sculpture. The human being in a sacred posture of prayer is, above all, an image of serenity and peace, a statement of sincerity and yearning, and a fitting portrayal in living form of the human aspiration of the seeker.
To see a man or a woman is to see human aspiration cast into a physical form. To observe a person in prayer is to observe a living sculpture in representation of the Absolute and the Infinite. What am I as a human being if not a living sculpture whose life has the potential to become a perennial prayer and whose sacred form has the capacity to walk and talk with God.
I am a bell
According to the verses of the Quranic revelation, the creation of the universe and everything in it began with a single sound. The inaudible was made audible, the invisible was made visible, and the intangible was made tangible. We can trace our origins back to a single sound sent forth as a Divine Command with the words kun (“be"), followed by fa yakoon ("and it becomes” [19: 35]). All of creation can be reduced to a sacred primordial sound, a cosmic utterance that translates vibration into the creation of the visible, audible and tangible world. With reference to origins, revelation identifies humans as vibratory matter with the words “sounding clay” molded into the shape of a human person. Energy, sound, and vibration come together at the Command of the Lord to infiltrate a clay and water mixture that becomes animated by the breath of the Compassionate and the spirit of God to become the repository of the human soul.
Beyond the physical borders of things, there is a vibratory quality to every created thing that manifests as the harmonious interaction of energy captured in physical form. The more in tune the physical form is with its natural energies, the higher the expression of its spirituality. The challenge of modern-day seekers is to recapture the experience of higher realities and a sense of the sacred through spiritual practices and disciplines. We must somehow raise our consciousness and harmonize the vibration of our atomic and electrical energies in order to reflect the higher realities.
I am the instrument through which the spirit of God resonates. We are played upon like a flute or a violin to send forth cosmic music in human form. As we raise our living consciousness of the true reality through a sense of the sacred Presence, the invisible strings within are pulled tight and we are played upon by the Grand Music Maker, thus disclosing through the fine-tuning of our being the presence of God. In the words of Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), ”We are played on like a pipe; our breath is not our own.” There is a unity within our humanity that belies our limitations and bespeaks of a mystery that lies far beyond the known self. Strike me with the vision of the Sublime and that vision will reverberate within my being as a realized knowledge. I will be left ringing for the rest of my days. All my life I have been a bell and never knew it until that moment when I was lifted and struck by the Hand of the Divinity.
I am a tree
The primordial quality of a tree conveys a unique message to humans. Trees contain an expression of soul that forms a correspondence between the living tree and the living person that highlights unity between the human soul and the realm of Nature. The great inscrutable oaks of the forest pour something of their mystery into the human heart.
Trees are the silent sentinels of the earth. They watch over the earth and contribute to the harmony of nature with their calm and stately repose. Cultures may fade and entire civilizations may crumble without disturbing their magnificent self containment. They give every appearance of being immortal. In order to die a natural death, a tree needs an abundance of time and nature holds no surprises for them that they cannot bear. Some trees were in their prime when Christ walked the earth. No other thing in nature has looked down upon the passing of the centuries as these regal monarchs of the great primeval forests. There is a message in a forest cathedral that speaks directly to our inner soul. Indeed, the heart song of the tree is never as plain as when it sings its message of nobility and endurance within the human breast.
Trees make us better people; perhaps it is the tree in us. They have qualities we wish to emulate: they radiate beauty and convey strength. They wave and sing to the wind and in their natural movements, they prostrate and bow in praise of God. Their very existence is a form of worship and a testament to the presence of a conscious Reality. If we could describe the heart of the human in the same manner as we describe the heart of the forest, we would be enriched indeed and would never stray very far from the impulses of a pious person who maintains a consciousness of God through constant prayer and praise.
The heart of the forest inspires reverence and awe. It radiates its character of sublime wilderness and conveys its feeling of a wild inviolability to all who enter its confines. One walks softly within the calm of its sublime depths as if in some vast hall pervaded by the deepest solemnities Nature has to offer. Every tree seems to have a spiritual quality; every branch and leaf reaches upward towards the heavens as if to uphold the sky with the consciousness of God. These age old patriarchs never cease their worship and praise but are forever conscious of the Divinity within the confines of their own sacred nature. Would that we could emulate the tree and be a tree in our own right.
In walking through the grandeur of a forest wood, I feel myself shedding the turmoil of my days. A feeling of melancholy has come and gone; the frustration of my efforts no longer finds firm ground; the petty miseries that punctuate my days disappear with the passing wind. The rays of light find their way through the branches and leaves to cast their warm glow onto the forest floor like a torch from heaven. The trees of the forest stand tall and lend something of their calm, ennobling grace. Through their act of giving, they become a part of me and I become a part of them, a living, walking, breathing tree, a pillar of strength, rooted to the earth but standing tall. Like trees we become immortal with a vision that leads us beyond the stars.
I am a door
According to Thomas Merton, at the center of our being resides an absolute “point of nothingness” that is untouched by the world and uncorrupted by its earthly sentiments. At the center of our being lies a portal of pure truth that is in God’s possession as a rough cut of the soul we are destined to become. The sense of the inner gateway comes upon us unexpectedly. A person may be walking through a forest or driving through a desert plain when suddenly the sensation arises that a great door has opened within the mind and heart that leads beyond the normal course of human consciousness.
As modern-day seekers, we need to search for the secret door within us that once opened gives access to the experience of the universal Mystery. When people – traditional, modern or otherwise – look reflectively at the dark mystery of the night sky and contemplate its mysterious presence, a new door opens for the human spirit that permits men and women universally to be inexplicably touched by what they gaze upon. For a brief moment, the depths of night provide us with a glimpse of ourselves through the mirror of the deep, dark universe, revealing an image of curious pilgrims voyaging beyond the celestial horizon on an eternal sea of space and time. The human mind cannot fathom the broad implications of such a sight, but the human spirit can gaze into this mirror of darkness and see the same truth that animates all the world.
If such a door could go by another name, it would be consciousness. Human consciousness contains the possibility to become that open door. Its power to enlarge and enlighten our minds will lead us into the next age of humankind. Through the power of the ‘third eye” of consciousness, we can identify ourselves, not in terms of physical matter in a precarious alliance with human reason. Only human consciousness will give modern seekers the temerity of mind to resolve the fundamental mystery that lies at the core of the existential life experience. Only the release of a higher intuitive knowledge has the power to open the invisible doorway of our being, a doorway that once opened becomes the “sun door” to a transcending and trans-luminescent world. By passing through such a door, the soul may advance beyond the reality that it knows to a reality that it will come to experience as the true source of knowledge in the Spirit of God and His abiding Presence.
I am a niche
Deep within the human entity lies a niche or a holy cave that serves as the venue for the fusion of knowledge and love. This secret niche is the symbolic touchstone of all spiritual knowledge and all sacred sentiment that makes itself known to the higher faculties of mind in order to communicate with and ultimately worship the Divinity.
The heart has traditionally been portrayed as a holy sanctuary of reflected light and a hidden cave in which lies sequestered all essential knowledge, all sacred emotion, and all intimate love in a manner that permits people to transcend their fragmented earthly likeness for a complete understanding that summarizes the meaning of their being. As such, the heart’s rarefied vision of the world has an inverse application that through the filter of an intuitive knowledge literally changes the phenomenal world from the brute physical matter that it appears to be into a living reality that it is by virtue of its connection to the knowledge of the Universal Reality.
Beyond the image of the cardiac heart lies the symbol of the inner sanctum, or the “other heart”, that has virtually been forgotten by humanity during these times by virtue of the importance that has been invested in the brain—what the modern mind considers the faculty of intelligence together with the faculty of reason through which the intelligence can be expressed during these times. This other heart, the forgotten one, serves as the vital center of the human being, the seat of intelligence and intellection, the niche of holy sentiments, the source of affection and love, the repository and sanctuary of the inner self, and ultimately the faculty of synthesis, creating through knowledge and love the totality of what we claim to be the humanity of our being.
The human heart establishes its signature and utters its true st word by being the symbol of a spiritual center and vertical axis upon which knowledge and love ascend heavenward. As the symbolic image of centrality, the force of its symbolic presence draws upon far deeper reserves within the soul. As such, the heart is the center not only of the bodily individuality, but also the center of the integral individuality, or the human being known and realized on both physical and spiritual modes of expression. To say that our heart is not in some thought or action means it is alien to our instinctive nature. To say that a person is “all heart” means that we offer the best of ourselves in keeping with the purest impulses of the soul.
As sacred crypt of the knowledge of God and prayer niche of the most profound aspirations, the symbol of the heart focuses on the idea of a “place” deep within where something preternatural “happens”, where a realization of the numinous quality of life casts its glow across the field of our perceptions, where the knowledge of God burns as an inner flame and the presence of God is experienced in the heat of its afterglow. As the seat of the intelligence and the locus of centrality, the heart symbolizes an inner sanctum whose inward space offers a world without limits and a universe of infinite possibility. It is a sanctuary of knowledge tempered by feelings of love, a holy niche where the most sacred aspirations can be expressed and where an abiding intimacy with the Divinity can be experienced. As inner abode, the human heart is the place where intelligence finds its home and where human intimacy with the Divinity makes itself felt as the ultimate expression of the seeker’s relationship with the highest reality imaginable.
I am a horizon
Within the Islamic tradition, the Quran clearly states that the source of all essential knowledge lies on the distant horizon and in the near horizon of the self. Both horizons represent a kind of isthmus and passageway between outer and inner worlds. The distant earthly horizon signifies the terminus of the known world that marks the end of knowledge and the beginning of mystery. The near horizon of the self represents a rift within that separates the human world from the world of higher Spirit. Both horizons imply the possibility of a knowledge that finds its origin in the Absolute Truth and traces its roots back to the Divine Source.
To look at the distant horizon with its split image of heaven and earth is to gaze at the duality of the world. To gaze at the near horizon of the inner self is to bear witness to the duality that exists within us as the existential reality of our being. Heaven and earth, matter and spirit, body and soul, good and evil: These are the existential polarities that highlight the separation of two alien worlds that exist within the human being as a near horizon and manifest symbolically on the periphery of the world as the distant horizon. The image of the horizon, as a sacred, macrocosmic symbol par excellence, is the remembrance of the unity of separate worlds that in appearance are two but in truth are one, for as the Quran repeatedly asserts, there is but one Reality and there is only one God.
As individuals, we are living out the complexities of a split image that is embedded within our beings and reflected within the very framework of the creation. Heaven and earth come together at the seam of the horizon, as though it were traced across this great celestial divide with the ink of the Divine Pen. Body, soul and spirit constitute the totality of the human entity, but the thin line of the near horizon cuts across our being with the invisible blade of the Divinity, creating a definitive chasm between the known and unknown self, thus establishing the need for the seeker within.
The resolution to life's perennial mystery lies just beyond the near horizon of the self and the distant horizon encircling the known world. Modern seekers need to open their minds and hearts to the message of this traditional symbol. “Soon We shall show them Our signs on the horizon and within their own souls until it becomes clear to them that this is the Truth” (41: 53). The answer to the cosmic question lies at the center and on the edge, at the center of the human being and on the edge of the known world. The certainty that we desperately desire is never fully at hand, and neither is the happiness and peace that is a latent promise of the human condition; but the knowledge we need to fulfil the human vocation lies within the inmost depths of our being and on the horizon of the known world.
The inner horizon marks the defining edge within the human being; in the realm of “beyond” resides the mystique of a deep, dark secret. The horizon invites, challenges, and ultimately excludes us with the questions it raises and the answers it withholds, serving as a cosmic divide between terrestrial and celestial worlds. As such, it remains the perennial and permanent image of the fundamental duality that defines this world. The horizon beckons humankind as the first tier of the unseen reality. It cuts across the divided self of our consciousness just as it tears through the reality of this world with its promise of other worlds and alternative realities. The horizon forms the circumference of the known world and marks the Great Celestial Divide that exists between Heaven and Earth.
The message of the horizon remains forever twofold. While the horizon sets limits and serves as the hem of the world, this graphic image makes the earth appear within the universe as a seamless whole whose symbolic imagery remembers the unity that exists as the central and unifying reality of the Divinity. Transcendence awaits us on the other side of the horizon. It is always there, alluring the mind with its message of promise and hope. Similarly, the possibility of transcendence lies within our beings and expresses itself as a fundamental human impulse to yearn for the greater whole that overlays the divided self. It desires to climb out of and reach beyond the limiting confines of the individual ego, enclosed as it is in its own centralizing egocentricity, in order to arrive at the center of the self, the center of the world, indeed the Center of the Universe.
A final frontier still exists for humanity to explore and its wonder and mystery are not to be found in the depths of outer space; there are journeys yet for the seeker to take through the inner space of the human consciousness that will far surpass any earthly journey; a state of spiritual wilderness continues to exist that beckons the seeker within each of us with its mystique of adventure and its primordial holy quality. The fine line of the horizon still marks the terminus of the known world beyond which lies a mystery, a secret and a promise of fulfillment that has intrigued people down through the ages and will continue to do so as long as the image of the frontier, the sacred journey, and the distant horizon attract our spiritual sensibility. In fact, the mind, heart and soul are already situated within that frontier, at the threshold of a spiritual wilderness, on a very specific journey and within view of a horizon that actually suspends the seeker between two worlds. This is the journey of the modern day seeker of truth, who walks through the interior of his own being in search of “the one thing needful”, and once found, passes across the borderland of the inner self, to arrive at a horizon that is no longer near or distant, but virtual, giving entry into the mythical realm of “beyond”.
"Look to the stars. . . . Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which men have been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile." Selected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Larzer Ziff (ed.), New York, Penguin Books, 1982, p. 207.