Arts

SYMBOLS AND SACRAMENTS

SYLLABUS: Before any worthy architecture can arise in the modern world the soul must be aroused.

Architecture is the concrete presentment in space of the soul of a people. If that soul be petty and sordid—”stirred like a child by little things”—no great architecture is possible because great architecture can image only greatness. Before any worthy architecture can arise in the modern world the soul must be aroused. The cannons of Europe are bringing about this awakening. The world—the world of thought and emotion from whence flow acts and events—is no longer decrepit, but like Swedenborg’s angels it is advancing toward the springtide of its youth: down the ringing grooves of change “we sweep into the younger day.”

After the war we are likely to witness an art evolution which will not be restricted to statues and pictures and insincere essays in dry-as-dust architectural styles, but one which will permeate the whole social fabric, and make it palpitate with the rhythm of a younger, a more abundant life. Beauty and mystery will again make their dwelling among men; the Voiceless will speak in music, and the Formless will spin rhythmic patterns on the loom of space. We shall seek and find a new language of symbols to express the joy of the soul, freed from the thrall of an iron age of materialism, and fronting the unimaginable splendors of the spiritual life.

For every æsthetic awakening is the result of a spiritual awakening of some sort. Every great religious movement found an art expression eloquent of it. When religion languished, such things as Versailles and the Paris Opera House were possible, but not such things as the Parthenon, or Notre Dame. The temples of Egypt were built for the celebration of the rites of the religion of Egypt; so also in the case of Greece. Roman architecture was more widely secular, but Rome’s noblest monument, the Pantheon, was a religious edifice. The Moors, inflamed with religious ardor, swept across Europe, blazing their trail with mosques and palaces conceived seemingly in some ecstatic state of dream. The Renaissance, tainted though it was by worldliness, found still its inspiration in sacred themes, and recorded its beginning and its end in two mighty religious monuments: Brunelleschi’s and Michael Angelo’s domical churches, “wrought in a sad sincerity” by deeply religious men. Gothic art is a synonym for mediaeval Christianity; while in the Orient art is scarcely secular at all, but a symbolical language framed and employed for the expression of spiritual ideas.

This law, that spirituality and not materialism distils the precious attar of great art, is permanently true and perennially applicable, for laws of this order do not change from age to age, however various their manifestation. The inference is plain: until we become a religious people great architecture is far from us. We are becoming religious in that broad sense in which churches and creeds, forms and ceremonies, play little part. Ours is the search of the heart for something greater than itself which is still itself; it is the religion of brotherhood, whose creed is love, whose ritual is service.

This transformed and transforming religion of the West, the tardy fruit of the teachings of Christ, now secretly active in the hearts of men, will receive enrichment from many sources. Science will reveal the manner in which the spirit weaves its seven-fold veil of illusion; nature, freshly sensed, will yield new symbols which art will organize into a language; out of the experience of the soul will grow new rituals and observances. But one precious tincture of this new religion our civilization and our past cannot supply; it is the heritage of Asia, cherished in her brooding bosom for uncounted centuries, until, by the operation of the law of cycles, the time should come for the giving of it to the West.

This secret is Yoga, the method of self-development whereby the seeker for union is enabled to perceive the shining of the Inward Light. This is achieved by daily discipline in stilling the mind and directing the consciousness inward instead of outward. The Self is within, and the mind, which is normally centrifugal, must first be arrested, controlled, and then turned back upon itself, and held with perfect steadiness. All this is naively expressed in the Upanishads in the passage, “The Self-existent pierced the openings of the senses so that they turn forward, not backward into himself. Some wise man, however, with eyes closed and wishing for immortality, saw the Self behind.” This stilling of the mind, its subjugation and control whereby it may be concentrated on anything at will, is particularly hard for persons of our race and training, a race the natural direction of whose consciousness is strongly outward, a training in which the practice of introspective meditation finds no place.

Yoga—that “union” which brings inward vision, the contribution of the East to the spiritual life of the West—will bring profound changes into the art of the West, since art springs from consciousness. The consciousness of the West now concerns itself with the visible world almost exclusively, and Western art is therefore characterized by an almost slavish fidelity to the ephemeral appearances of things—the record of particular moods and moments. The consciousness of the East on the other hand, is subjective, introspective. Its art accordingly concerns itself with eternal aspects, with a world of archetypal ideas in which things exist not for their own sake, but as symbols of supernal things. The Oriental artist avoids as far as possible trivial and individual rhythms, seeking always the fundamental rhythm of the larger, deeper life.

Now this quality so earnestly sought and so highly prized in Oriental art, is the very thing which our art and our architecture most conspicuously lack. To the eye sensitive to rhythm, our essays in these fields appear awkward and unconvincing, lacking a certain inevitability. We must restore to art that first great canon of Chinese æsthetics, “Rhythmic vitality, or the life movement of the spirit through the rhythm of things.” It cannot be interjected from the outside, but must be inwardly realized by the “stilling” of the mind above described.

Art cannot dispense with symbolism; as the letters on this page convey thoughts to the mind, so do the things of this world, organized into a language of symbols, speak to the soul through art. But in the building of our towers of Babel, again mankind is stricken with a confusion of tongues. Art has no common language; its symbols are no longer valid, or are no longer understood. This is a condition for which materialism has no remedy, for the reason that materialism sees always the pattern but never that which the pattern represents. We must become spiritually illumined before we can read nature truly, and re-create, from such a reading, fresh and universal symbols for art. This is a task beyond the power of our sad generation, enchained by negative thinking, overshadowed by war, but we can at least glimpse the nature of the reaction between the mystic consciousness and the things of this world which will produce a new language of symbols. The mystic consciousness looks upon nature as an arras embroidered over with symbols of the things it conceals from view. We are ourselves symbols, dwelling in a world of symbols—a world many times removed from that ultimate reality to which all things bear figurative witness; the commonest thing has yet some mystic meaning, and ugliness and vulgarity exist only in the unillumined mind.

What mystic meaning, it may be asked, is contained in such things as a brick, a house, a hat, a pair of shoes? A brick is the ultimate atom of a building; a house is the larger body which man makes for his uses, just as the Self has built its habitation of flesh and bones; hat and shoes are felt and leather insulators with which we seek to cut ourselves off from the currents which flow through earth and air from God. It may be objected that these answers only substitute for the lesser symbol a greater, but this is inevitable: if for the greater symbol were named one still more abstract and inclusive, the ultimate verity would be as far from affirmation as before. There is nothing of which the human mind can conceive that is not a symbol of something greater and higher than itself.

The dictionary defines a symbol as “something that stands for something else and serves to represent it, or to bring to mind one or more of its qualities.” Now this world is a reflection of a higher world, and that of a higher world still, and so on. Accordingly, everything is a symbol of something higher, since by reflecting, it “stands for, and serves to represent it,” and the thing symbolized, being itself a reflection, is, by the same token, itself a symbol. By reiterated repetitions of this reflecting process throughout the numberless planes and sub-planes of nature, each thing becomes a symbol, not of one thing only, but of many things, all intimately correlated, and this gives rise to those underlying analogies, those “secret subterranean passages between matter and soul” which have ever been the especial preoccupation of the poet and the mystic, but which may one day become the subject of serious examination by scientific men.

Let us briefly pass in review the various terms of such an ascending series of symbols: members of one family, they might be called, since they follow a single line of descent.

Take gold: as a thing in itself, without any symbolical significance, it is a metallic element, having a characteristic yellow color, very heavy, very soft, the most ductile, malleable, and indestructible of metals. In its minted form it is the life force of the body economic, since on its abundance and free circulation the well-being of that body depends; it is that for which all men strive and contend, because without it they cannot comfortably live. This, then, is gold in its first and lowest symbolical aspect: a life principle, a motive force in human affairs. But it is not gold which has gained for man his lordship over nature; it is fire, the yellow gold, not of the earth, but of the air,—cities and civilizations, arts and industries, have ever followed the camp fire of the pioneer. Sunlight comes next in sequence—sunlight, which focussed in a burning glass, spontaneously produces flame. The world subsists on sunlight; all animate creation grows by it, and languishes without it, as the prosperity of cities waxes or wanes with the presence or absence of a supply of gold. The magnetic force of the sun, specialized as prana (which is not the breath which goes up and the breath which goes down, but that other, in which the two repose), fulfils the same function in the human body as does gold in civilization, sunlight in nature: its abundance makes for health, its meagreness for enervation. Higher than prana is the mind, that golden sceptre of man’s dominion, the Promethean gift of fire with which he menaces the empire of the gods. Higher still, in the soul, love is the motive force, the conqueror: a “heart of gold” is one warmed and lighted by love. Still other is the desire of the spirit, which no human affection satisfies, but truth only, the Golden Person, the Light of the World, the very Godhead itself. Thus there is earthy, airy, etheric gold; gold as intellect, gold as love, gold as truth; from the curse of the world, the cause of a thousand crimes, there ascends a Jacob’s Ladder of symbols to divinity itself, whereby men may learn that God works by sacrifice: that His universe is itself His broken body. As gold in the purse, fire on the forge, sunlight for the eyes, breath in the body, knowledge in the mind, love in the heart, and wisdom in the understanding, He draws all men unto Him, teaching them the wise use of wealth, the mastery over nature, the care of the body, the cultivation of the mind, the love of wife and child and neighbour, and, last lesson of all, He teaches them that in industry, in science, in art, in sympathy and understanding, He it is they are all the while knowing, loving, becoming; and that even when they flee Him, His are the wings—

“When me they fly, I am the wings.”

This attempt to define gold as a symbol ends with the indication of an ubiquitous and immanent divinity in everything. Thus it is always: in attempting to dislodge a single voussoir from the arch of truth, the temple itself is shaken, so cunningly are the stones fitted together. All roads lead to Rome, and every symbol is a key to the Great Mystery: for example, read in the light of these correspondences, the alchemist’s transmutation of base metals into gold, is seen to be the sublimation of man’s lower nature into “that highest golden sheath, which is Brahman.”

Keeping the first sequence clearly in mind, let us now attempt to trace another, parallel to it: the feminine of which the first may be considered the corresponding masculine. Silver is a white, ductile metallic element. In coinage it is the synonym for ready cash,—gold in the bank is silver in the pocket; hence, in a sense, silver is the reflection, or the second power of gold. Just as ruddy gold is correlated with fire, so is pale silver with water; and as fire is affiliated with the sun, so do the waters of the earth follow the moon in her courses. The golden sun, the silver moon: these commonly employed descriptive adjectives themselves supply the correlation we are seeking; another indication of its validity lies in the fact that one of the characteristics of water is its power of reflecting; that moonlight is reflected sunlight. If gold is the mind, silver is the body, in which the mind is imaged, objectified; if gold is flamelike love, silver is brooding affection; and in the highest regions of consciousness, beauty is the feminine or form side of truth—its silver mirror.

There are two forces in the world, one of projection, the other of recall; two states, activity and rest. Nature, with tireless ingenuity, everywhere publishes this fact: in bursting bud and falling seed, in the updrawn waters and the descending rain; throw a stone into the air, and when the impulse is exhausted, gravity brings it to earth again. In civilized society these centrifugal and centripetal forces find expression in the anarchic and radical spirit which breaks down and re-forms existing institutions, and in the conservative spirit which preserves and upbuilds by gradual accretion; they are analogous to igneous and to aqueous action in the formation and upbuilding of the earth itself, and find their prototype again in man and woman: man, the warrior, who prevails by the active exercise of his powers, and woman, “the treasury of the continued race,” who conquers by continual quietness. Man and woman symbolize forces centrifugal and centripetal not alone in their inner nature, and in the social and economic functions peculiar to each, but in their physical aspects and peculiarities as well, for man is small of flank and broad of shoulder, with relatively large extremities, i.e., centrifugal: while woman is formed with broad hips, narrow shoulders, and small feet and hands, i.e., centripetal. Woman’s instinctive and unconscious gestures are towards herself, man’s are away from himself. The physiologist might hold that the anatomical differences between the sexes result from their difference in function in the reproduction and conservation of the race, and this is a true view, but the lesser truth need not necessarily exclude the greater. As Chesterton says, “Something in the evil spirit of our time forces people always to pretend to have found some material and mechanical explanation.” Such would have us believe, with Schopenhauer and Bernard Shaw, that the lover’s delight in the beauty of his mistress dwells solely in his instinctive perception of her fitness to be the mother of his child. This is undoubtedly a factor in the glamour woman casts on man, but there are other factors too, higher as well as lower, corresponding to different departments of our manifold nature. First of all, there is mere physical attraction: to the man physical, woman is a cup of delight; next, there is emotional love, whereby woman appeals through her need of protection, her power of tenderness; on the mental plane she is man’s intellectual companion, his masculine reason would supplement itself with her feminine intuition; he recognizes in her an objectification, in some sort, of his own soul, his spirit’s bride, predestined throughout the ages; while the god within him perceives her to be that portion of himself which he put forth before the world was, to be the mother, not alone of human children, but of all those myriad forms, within which entering, “as in a sheath, a knife,” he becomes the Enjoyer, and realizes, vividly and concretely, his bliss, his wisdom, and his power.

Adam and Eve, and the tree in the midst of the garden! After man and woman, a tree is perhaps the most significant symbol in the world: every tree is the Tree of Life in the sense that it is a representation of universal becoming. To say that all things have for their mother prakriti, undifferentiated substance, and for their father purusha, the creative fire, is vague and metaphysical, and conveys little meaning to our image-bred, image-fed minds; on the physical plane we can only learn these transcendental truths by means of symbols, and so to each of us is given a human father and a human mother from whose relation to one another and to oneself may be learned our relation to nature, the universal mother, and to that immortal spirit which is the father of us all. We are given, moreover, the symbol of the tree, which, rooted in the earth, its mother, and nourished by her juices, strives ever upward towards its father, the sun. The mathematician may be able to demonstrate, as a result of a lifetime of hard thinking, that unity and infinity are but two aspects of one thing; this is not clear to ordinary minds, but made concrete in the tree—unity in the trunk, infinity in the foliage—any one is able to understand it. We perceive that all things grow as a tree grows, from unity to multiplicity, from simplicity and strength to beauty and fineness. The generation of the line from the point, the plane from the line, and from the plane, the solid, is a matter, again, which chiefly interests the geometrician, but the inevitable sequence stands revealed in seed, stem, leaf, and fruit: a point, a line, a surface, and a sphere. There is another order of truths, also, which a tree teaches: the renewal of its life each year is a symbol of the reincarnation of the soul, teaching that life is never-ending climax, and that what appears to be cessation is merely a change of state. A tree grows great by being firmly rooted; we too, though children of the air, need the earth, and grow by good deeds, hidden, like the roots of the tree, out of sight; for the tree, rain and sunshine: for the soul, tears and laughter thrill the imprisoned spirit into conscious life.

We love and understand the trees because we have ourselves passed through their evolution, and they survive in us still, for the arterial and nervous systems are trees, the roots of one in the heart, of the other in the brain. Has not our body its trunk, bearing aloft the head, like a flower: a cup to hold the precious juices of the brain? Has not that trunk its tapering limbs which ramify into hands and feet, and these into fingers and toes, after the manner of the twigs and branches of a tree?

Closely related to symbolism is sacramentalism; the man who sees nature as a book of symbols is likely to regard life as a sacrament. Because this is a point of view vitalizing to art let us glance at the sacramental life, divorced from the forms and observances of any specific religion.

This life consists in the habitual perception of an ulterior meaning, a hidden beauty and significance in the objects, acts, and events of every day. Though binding us to a sensuous existence, these nevertheless contain within themselves the power of emancipating us from it: over and above their immediate use, their pleasure or their profit, they have a hidden meaning which contains some healing message for the soul.

A classic example of a sacrament, not alone in the ordinary meaning of the term, but in the special sense above defined, is the Holy Communion of the Christian Church. Its origin is a matter of common knowledge. On the evening of the night in which He was betrayed, Jesus and His disciples were gathered together for the feast of the Passover. Aware of His impending betrayal, and desirous of impressing powerfully upon His chosen followers the nature and purpose of His sacrifice, Jesus ordained a sacrament out of the simple materials of the repast. He took bread and broke it, and gave to each a piece as the symbol of His broken body; and to each He passed a cup of wine, as a symbol of His poured-out blood. In this act, as in the washing of the disciples’ feet on the same occasion, He made His ministrations to the needs of men’s bodies an allegory of His greater ministration to the needs of their souls.

The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is of such beauty and power that it has persisted even to the present day. It lacks, however, the element of universality—at least by other than Christians its universality would be denied. Let us seek, therefore some all-embracing symbol to illustrate the sacramental view of life.

Perhaps marriage is such a symbol. The public avowal of love between a man and woman, their mutual assumption of the attendant privileges, duties and responsibilities are matters so pregnant with consequences to them and to the race that by all right-thinking people marriage is regarded as a high and holy thing; its sacramental character is felt and acknowledged even by those who would be puzzled to tell the reason why.

The reason is involved in the answer to the question, “Of what is marriage a symbol?” The most obvious answer, and doubtless the best one, is found in the well known and much abused doctrine, common to every religion, of the spiritual marriage between God and the soul. What Christians call the Mystic Way, and Buddhists the Path comprises those changes in consciousness through which every soul passes on its way to perfection. When the personal life is conceived of as an allegory of this inner, intense, super-mundane life, it assumes a sacramental character. With strange unanimity, followers of the Mystic Way have given the name of marriage to that memorable experience in “the flight of the Alone to the Alone,” when the soul, after trials and purgations, enters into indissoluble union with the spirit, that divine, creative principle whereby it is made fruitful for this world. Marriage, then, however dear and close the union, is the symbol of a union dearer and closer, for it is the fair prophecy that on some higher arc of the evolutionary spiral, the soul will meet its immortal lover and be initiated into divine mysteries.

As an example of the power of symbols to induce those changes of consciousness whereby the soul is prepared for this union, it is recorded that an eminent scientist was moved to alter his entire mode of life on reflecting, while in his bath one morning, that though each day he was at such pains to make clean his body, he made no similar purgation of his mind and heart. The idea appealed to him so profoundly that he began to practise the higher cleanliness from that day forth.

If it be true, as has been said, that ordinary life in the world is a training school for a life more real and more sublime, then everything pertaining to life in the world must possess a sacramental character, and possess it inherently, and not merely by imputation. Let us discover, then, if we can, some of the larger meanings latent in little things.

When at the end of a cloudy day the sun bursts forth in splendor and sets red in the west, it is a sign to the weather-wise that the next day will be fair. To the devotee of the sacramental life it holds a richer promise. To him the sun is a symbol of the love of God; the clouds, those worldly preoccupations of his own which hide its face from him. This purely physical phenomenon, therefore, which brings to most men a scarcely noticed augmentation of heat and light, and an indication of fair weather on the morrow, induces in the mystic an ineffable sense of divine immanence and beneficence, and an assurance of their continuance beyond the dark night of the death of the body.

When the sacramentalist goes swimming in the sea he enjoys to the full the attendant physical exhilaration, but a greater joy flows from the thought that he is back with his great Sea-Mother—that feminine principle of which the sea is the perfect symbol, since water brings all things to birth and nurtures them. When at the end of a day he lays aside his clothes—that two-dimensional sheath of the three-dimensional body—it is in full assurance that his body in turn will be abandoned by the inwardly retreating consciousness, and that he will range wherever he wills during the hours of sleep, clothed in his subtle four-dimensional body, related to the physical body as that is related to the clothes it wears.

To every sincere seeker nature reveals her secrets, but since men differ in their curiosities she reveals different things to different men. All are rewarded for their devotion in accordance with their interests and desires, but woman-like, nature reveals herself most fully to him who worships not the fair form of her, but her soul. This favored lover is the mystic; for ever seeking instruction in things spiritual, he perceives in nature an allegory of the soul, and interprets her symbols in terms of the sacramental life.

The brook, pursuing its tortuous and stony pathway in untiring effort to reach its gravitational centre, is a symbol of the Pilgrim’s progress, impelled by love to seek God within his heart. The modest daisy by the roadside, and the wanton sunflower in the garden alike seek to image the sun, the god of their worship, a core of seeds and fringe of petals representing their best effort to mimic the flaming disc and far-flung corona of the sun. Man seeks less ardently, and so more ineffectively in his will and imagination to image God. In the reverent study of insect and animal life we gain some hint of what we have been and what we may become—something corresponding to the grub, a burrowing thing; to the caterpillar, a crawling thing; and finally to the butterfly, a radiant winged creature.

After this fashion then does he who has embraced the sacramental life come to perceive in the “sensuous manifold” of nature, that one divine Reality which ever seeks to instruct him in supermundane wisdom, and to woo him to superhuman blessedness and peace. In time, this reading of earth in terms of heaven, becomes a settled habit. Then, in Emerson’s phrase, he has hitched his wagon to a star, and changed his grocer’s cart into a chariot of the sun.

The reader may perhaps fail to perceive the bearing of this long discussion of symbols and sacraments upon the subject of art and architecture, but in the mind of the author the correlation is plain. There can be no great art without religion: religion begins in consciousness as a mystic experience, it flows thence into symbols and sacraments, and these in turn are precipitated by the artist into ponderable forms of beauty. Unless the artist himself participates in this mystic experience, life’s deeper meanings will escape him, and the work of his hands will have no special significance. Until it can be said of every artist

“Himself from God he could not free,”

there will be no art worthy of the name.


SOURCE: ARCHITECTURE AND DEMOCRACY BY CLAUDE BRAGDON F.A.I.A. [1918 ]

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