Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
- Charles Baudelaire
While attending the Science and Nonduality Conference some time ago, I happened to meet one of the leading theologians of the 21st Century, Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest who founded the Center for Contemplation and Action.
Father Rohr gave a stunning exposition of Christianity’s single most arcane doctrine, that of the Trinity. He simply explained it as a divine dance: Three distinct aspects of God interplay, pulling us in as the audience. Father Rohr pointed to a Russian painting depicting the Three Divine Persons seated at the table, the fourth chair empty, waiting for you and me to sit down and commune with Them.
Father Rohr turned to me and hinted, “It’s all a metaphor.” All the most sophisticated philosophical and theological concepts are but symbols for that which escapes human expression. As Joseph Campbell put it, “The best things can’t be said; the second best are apt to be misunderstood. All the rest is what we talk about.”
A metaphor is a figure of speech where something concrete is used to characterize that which is abstract. A simile makes the comparison explicit. For example, in the Gospel of John, Jesus Christ declared, “I am the Bread of Life,” and “I am the Water of Life.” He could have put it, “I am like living bread. I am like living water.” But that would have totally spoiled the dramatic effect.
A metaphor uses heightened language to drive us to a whole new understanding. When Christ proclaimed, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He was speaking as an Incarnation, not simply as Jesus of Nazareth.
It is harder to realize that even the Mass is a metaphor. “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus was saying in an unforgettable way, “If you want to follow Me, you must BECOME ME.” That this point was not fully understood by His generation or any subsequent generation is made clear by the way, even today, religious people shrink from the realization that they are inherently divine.
Over the course of a lifetime, Joseph Campbell systematically studied every mythology and cosmology he could get his hands on. One lesson emerged above all others. You must make a clear distinction between the local culture, the tribal, and the universal. To confuse the two is to undermine its potential to reveal the divine.
He quoted Adolph Bastian in referring to a symbol being “transparent to the Transcendent.” Any image of the Transcendent Mystery can become a stumbling block when we fail to see it as a symbol. When we are conscious of an image as being but a symbol. It becomes transparent to the Transcendent.
When we think of God as a Father seated on a throne throwing thunderbolts down on us, we ruin an image that leads to the realization that we “live and move and have our being” in Him. God, seen as a Father, is majestic. While we are in awe, we need not fear Him. This applies to every tradition. For example, the Buddha provoked people to awaken. This was not to awaken from physical sleep. It was to awaken from a spiritual stupor and come to terms with Ultimate Truth.
We grew up in an age that prizes science and technology above all else. The philosophical mantle is Rational Empiricism. Only that which can be measured, repeated, documented and publically verifiable is deemed scientific. Taken to an extreme, only that which the senses register can be real. The most precious things in life, such as Love, Truth and Beauty are simply irrelevant.
Science and technology have made our lives immeasurably better on the physical plane. For that, we must all be thankful. However, they can’t really touch eternity and infinity. They are confined to time and space.
Einstein realized that the physicist’s best friend was not his rational intellect, but his imagination. His own imagination led to the breakthrough of the Theory of Relativity.
When we discover the limits of the scientific method, when we let go of the presumption that reality can then be defined once and for all by words and numbers, we are no longer its slave. The scientific method becomes our faithful servant. Only mysticism can pierce that barrier. We must move from reason to intuition, the sixth sense.
Poetry is the language of feeling and intuition. We sense our world, not only with our eyes, ears and hands, but with our heart. We get a feeling that something is about to occur without anyone having to tell us. We simply see with our inner eyes and ears.
Poems use metaphor heavily to convey evanescent moods that hint at something transcendent. To borrow from one of my own poems:
"When you brake my breath, I wonder what thunder surrounds the centuries."
Here, “braking” breath is not literal. However, when you totally fall for someone, it leaves you breathless. The inner encounter with your true love might as well be “thunder” that resonates through the centuries.
Poetry comes closest, along with music and art, in using language to overcome language. The greatest theology and philosophy will always fall short. The greatest truths are expressed in poetry, such as “The Lord is my shepherd,” which is frequently recited on death beds. Nothing quite captures our willingness to throw all ultimate concern onto our Source.
When we want to merge with the Truth, we will find nothing even comes close to the direct experience of divine love. It is one of those experiences that defies explanation. Romantic and sexual love lead us very close to the divine. The world is a friendly place, and you can see beauty in everything.
Divine love is impartial to friend or foe. You become a channel for a love to flow through you that you know is not really yours. You don’t merely feel love, you become that love. We see it in Mahayana Buddhism where the monks declare, “Though the flames of hell be infinite, I vow to extinguish every one of them.” We see it in the cross of Christianity where the Master forgave the very people mocking Him.
Love reveals the very essence of God in a way that any human can understand. This is why the way of devotion is always more popular than the way of intellect. In truth, you can’t really have jyana yoga without bhakti yoga. You feel a profound sense of gratitude for the guru. You can never really repay the one who opened you up to enlightenment. All you can do in return is do whatever you can to enlighten others.
We do walk through a forest of symbols, every single day. When we recognize it, this can be liberating. Symbols are a wonderful, irreplaceable tool. We might reduce life to a dream or a story. In truth, it is very much like both. But life is still LIFE. We could say life is a dance, a play or even a movie. It is most definitely like all three of these. YET LIFE IS LIFE.
Life is Not a Problem to Be Solved, but a Reality to Be Experienced.
- Soren Kierkegaard