Were one to truly understand the levels of significance provided by such symbols as are presented in this work, one would indeed be well on the way to grasping the nature and purpose of human life and the meaning of existence as understood by the great esoteric systems of spirituality. We are shown in this volume certain aspects of symbolism as they relate to the Divine, the hierarchy of this universe, the function of man, his faculties and qualities.
Symbolism is defined in a renewed consciousness that everything—numbers, elements, senses, and colors—has a vertical dimension that gives it a divine significance.
What is Symbolism? The answer to this question has been known to challenge altogether man’s life; and ignorance of it can reasonably be said to have produced all the gravest problems of our time. Martin Lings here gives us the answer in the clearest terms, with an unusually wide scope of illustration, a versatility to which the list of the chapters headings bear some witness.
“The answer to the question ‘What is Symbolism?’, if deeply understood, has been known to change altogether a man’s life; and it could indeed be said that most of the problems of the modern world result from ignorance of that answer. As to the past however, there is no traditional doctrine which does not teach that this world is the world of symbols, inasmuch as it contains nothing which is not a symbol. A man should therefore understand at least what that means, not only because he has to live in the herebelow but also and above all because without such understanding he would fail to understand himself, he being the supreme and central symbol in the terrestrial state. Needless to say, this little book does not claim to be exhaustive. Its purpose is to enable the reader to dwell on certain basic aspects of symbolism in relation to the Divinity, the hierarchy of the universe, the function of man, his faculties and his qualities, the conditions to which he is subject, the natural objects which surround him, his works of art, and his final ends, all with reference to the great living religions of the world, and in particular to Christianity and Islam.”
-from the Preface
“The openness of the Eye of the Heart, or the wake of the Heart as many traditions term it, is what distinguishes primordial man —and by extension the Saint—from fallen man. The significance of this inward opening may be understood from the relationship between the sun and the moon which symbolize respectively the Spirit and the Heart: just as the moon looks towards the sun and transmits something of its reflected radiance to the darkness of the night, so the Heart transmits the light of the Spirit to the night of the soul. The Spirit itself lies open to the Supreme Source of all light, thus making, for one whose Heart is awake, a continuity between the Divine Qualities and the soul, a ray which is passed from Them by the Spirit to the Heart, from which it is diffused in a multiple refraction throughout the various channels of the psychic substance.
The virtues which are thereby imprinted on the soul are thus nothing other than projections of the Qualities, and inversely each of these projected images is blessed with intuition of its Divine Archetype. As to the mind, with its reason, imagination and memory, a measure of the ‘moonlight’ which it receives from the Heart is passed on to the senses and through them as far as the outward objects which they see and hear and feel; and at this furthest contact the ray is reversed, for the things of the macrocosm are recognised as symbols, that is, as kindred manifestations of the Hidden Treasure, each of which has its counterpart in the microcosm. Otherwise expressed, for primordial man everything, inward or outward, was transparent: in experiencing a symbol he experienced its Archetype. He was thus able to rejoice in being outwardly surrounded and inwardly adorned by Divine Presences.
The eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree was the attachment to a symbol for its own sake apart from its higher meaning. That violation of the norm barred man’s access to his inward centre, and the consequent blurring of his vision made him no longer able to fulfill adequately his original function as mediator between Heaven and earth. But at the fall of the microcosm, the macrocosm remained unfallen; and though its symbols had become less transparent to man’s perceiving, they retained in themselves their original perfection. Only primordial man does justice to that perfection; but at the same time he is independent of it, in virtue of being himself a symbol of the Divine Essence which is absolutely Independent of the Divine Qualities. Fallen man on the other hand has a lesson to learn from the great outer world which surrounds him, for its symbols offer him an enlightenment which will be of guidance to him on his path of return to what he has lost, inasmuch as their perfection can further the perfecting of their counterparts within him which have suffered from the Fall. The clouds of the macrocosm are never permanent; they come only to go, the luminaries still shine, and the directions of space have lost nothing of their measurelessness. But in fallen man the soul is no longer the vast image of the Infinite that it was created to be, and the inward firmament is veiled. That veiling is the decisive result of the Fall, which did not sever the connection between soul and Spirit, between human perception and the Archetypes, but placed there a barrier that is more or less opaque— increasingly opaque as far as the majority is concerned, this increase being the gradual degeneration which inevitably takes place throughout each cycle of time. But in the context of our theme the barrier can and must be described as more or less transparent, since it would be pointless to speak of symbolism where there cannot be at least some intuition, however faint, of the Archetypes. Moreover the science of symbols is inextricably linked with the path of return which, being against the cyclic current, makes for an increase of transparency.
If the symbols of the macrocosm, taken collectively or separately, are reminders for the spiritual traveller of man’s lost perfection, it might none the less be said that the most direct reminders will be microcosmic, that is, True Man himself, personified by the Prophets, the Saints and, more immediately, by the living Spiritual Master. But although there is no doubt a wealth of truth in this, it would be a simplification to reduce macrocosmic symbols to a second place in any absolute sense as regards their spiritual significance for man, since much will depend on the individual and on circumstances. Moreover otherness, as well as sameness, has its own special impact. The Qur’an affirms the efficacy of both; We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves (xli 153).”
Footnote: The capital letter is used to denote the distinction. Moreover since this centre reflects a whole hierarchy of centres which transcend it, the term Heart is also sometimes used of the Spirit, and ultimately of the Supreme Centre, the Divine Self.