(Brief expositions on the nature, significance, and utility of Symbols used
in religion, philosophy, science and art)
1. Sacred Symbols
Iamblichus, is his book on the “Mysteries”, affirms that the Divine is present to whatever is adapted and in sympathy with God and His Celestial Hosts.
And it matters not how slight may be the degree of sympathy and adaptation, it still may serve as a point of contact for supernal influences.
A Sacred Symbol is a connecting or focussing point, the effectiveness of which increases with its continued proper use.
In the absolute sense, neither the divine influence, on the one hand, nor the human soul, on the other hand, is dependent upon any external symbol for the manifestation of sacred sympathy. Therefore, religious symbols are not absolutely necessary. But in the relative sense the Soul stands in need of an outer medium through which to actualize its inner relations with the Powers Above. Hence, in so far as Symbols serve this purpose, they are relative necessities.
Real Sacred Symbols are not merely arbitrary, accidental, and conventional, but they possess a universal and natural significance which is independent of any particular and artificial meaning arising from the association of time, and place, and circumstance. This is because such symbols are intrinsic as well as extrinsic.
A true Symbol is an extrinsic expression or representation of an intrinsic idea; using the word “idea” in its Platonic connotation, signifying a subjective, causal paradigm, type, or image. Hence to know this idea is to know the inherent meaning of a symbol, and vice versa.
All things possessing real innate significance are Symbols. Thus, in a certain sense, every “thing” is a symbol, and every symbol is a “thing”. But some things are natural symbols, whereas others are artificial. All Sacred Symbols fall into these two classes; the former being more intrinsic in value, while the latter are more extrinsic.
For instance, a Circle is not naturally and intrinsically a symbol of Eternity; but artificially and extrinsically it is one of the most expressive that could be employed to denote the Beginningless and Endless.
Natural Sacred Symbols
Nature herself, since she is called the Infallible Book of God, is necessarily a Sacred Symbol, for all that she is, or even can be, expresses some aspect of Divine power. Therefore everything in Nature has some sacred significance, when considered in its relations with the All-wise Creator.
Some examples of Natural Sacred Symbols are:-
(1) Fire In all its forms fire has sacred affinities. Hence the Fire-worshippers of old. And it was not without reason that primitive races regarded the Solar Orb of Fire as Deity itself.
The intrinsic heat of fire is significant of the warmth of the deific life and love, without which all creation would perish.
The extrinsic light of fire is symbolical of that Light which for ever shines, even in the Darkness. All luminaries are indeed radiations – proximate or remote – from the One Great Light of all lights.
Each of the manifold colours of the one light has – intrinsically and extrinsically – a real and natural signification, because the spectrum has septenary correspondences on all planes. In religious use white, which strictly speaking is not a colour but the synthesis of all colours, is associated with purity and joy; red (rose) with fire and love; green with hope; blue with devotion; purple with penitence; and so on.
(2) Water Even as the light, heat, and force of physical fire has sacred and spiritual analogies, so too has water its natural symbolical affinities.
It is the ever-flowing vehicle which thrills with divine life, for it is that same primeval moisture of the Deep, over which the Spirit of God moved in the very beginning.
By sacred sympathy, holy water may be efficacious in purifying acts of the devout Soul.
Incidentally, other liquids as well as water have sacred associations – for instance, the religious use of oil.
(3) Perfumes All the fragrant odours of Nature are pregnant symbols. Hence the age-long religious use of Incenses, with which the perfumes ascending from the Soul’s prayers and devotions may intermingle as they rise up to the throne of Deity.
(4) Substances In accordance with the Law of Correspondence, all real substances have both a spiritual as well as a material bsis, hence they become sacred when used regularly for sacramental purposes. Thus they are by no means mere empty forms, but in very deed are charged with ineffable influences. The use of sacred corn, consecrated earth (salt), and the sacramental honey of Mithra are instances of the natural sacred symbolism of substances.
Artificial Sacred Symbols
Because man himself is a Symbol – extrinsically human, but intrinsically divine – his religious works of art are sacrosanct.
The universal worship of God by all peoples, in all times, has produced an immense system of artificial Symbols. They serve mankind as objects, vehicles, or channels for entering into relationship with the Supernal.
Some examples of the utility of these symbols are:-
(1) For entering the Divine Presence Sacred Places by constant use become representative of the Shekinah, the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle of God with man, the Altar of the Lord, where the Divine Presence rests and may verily be felt.
Places of worship of every description – with all their beautiful and appropriate adornments and appurtenances – are sacred Symbols. Their innermost sanctuaries inspire reverential awe, for they speak not only to the mind but also to the heart.
(2) For invoking Divine Power and Protection In a similar way various articles, figures, emblems, and vestments become fraught with potent meaning; – for example the Cross, in all its forms – the Christian Crucifix, the Egyptian Ankh, the Greek Gammadion, the Oriental Swastika, and so on.
(3) For receiving Divine Life and Grace By sacramental acts, not only signs, gestures, and words, but also objects, food, and drink (in religious or in simple domestic life) are made symbolical as means of participating in the Divine Grace; hence the use of bread and wine, which is not confined to the Christian Mysteries, but has parallels in nearly all the Ancient Mysteries.
Platonism as a Discipline
“Platonism is a Method of Discipline rather than the designation of a System. Its aim is to bring out into bold relief that Philosophy which embraces the higher nature of man within its scope, unfolds the mysteries of the interior being, and renders us awake to everything essential to human well-being.
The faith of all ages, the most ancient as well as the present, however diverse in form, has always been the same in essence. In every creed the effort to realize the the Truth is manifest; and every worship is the aspiration for the purer and more excellent.
It is therefore only when symbols supersede substance, and external rites veil their own true scope and meaning, that we have any occasion to withhold countenance from them. Even history becomes untrue when its occurrences are described in actual disregard of the inspiring principles of action; and that science is radically at fault which ignores the Supreme Intellect.
If Platonism has seemed to place a low estimate upon what is usually regarded as practical and scientific knowledge, it always contemplates the Truth which transcends it. It gathers the Wisdom of the more ancient schools and nations together with the learning of more modern centuries, with the purpose of extracting what is precious from all. It is a proving as well as a prizing of all things. It teaches how to discriminate the permanent from the changing; that which is, from that which seems; the mathematic and absolute, from the the geometric and relative; mind, in its integrity, from instinct and the lower understanding. It essays to make us acquainted with our true selfhood, to familiarize us with Reason – the raying forth of Divinity into human consciousness; to bring us to the knowledge of Truth, and to awaken in us that longing which is never satisfied except at that Fountain.
It is the province of this Philosophy to place at their true value the whole body of facts accumulated from the world’s experience, and to render them useful. The moral sentiments, which have sometimes been described as resting on those accumulations, like islands on reefs of coral-accretion from the oceans bottom, it proves to be at-one with what our Souls have brought with them from the Eternal World. We have but to winnow away the chaff and foreign seeds in order to have the pure grain.
This philosophic discipline unfolds the interior nature of the Soul; arouses the dormant truth there inhumed; brings into activity the spiritual faculty; and enables us to peruse the Arcana of the higher life. It discloses the absolute identity of Truth as a Divine Presence and manifestation in every people, a pure Ideal in every faith, an overhanging sky over every lofty human aspiration.
– T. M. Johnson, in “The Platonist”, January 1884