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Form and Symbol

There is a tendency among the followers of the New Thought movement to renounce all allegiance to form and symbol, on the ground that they act as barriers to soul development. This is true, in part; yet both form and symbol are necessary, and' must continue to be employed for a very long time.

There is a continual change going on in the human mind that necessitates new forms and new symbols to give expression to changes of thought. The symbol becomes more refined, perhaps, but for an inner condition there must be an outer expression of some sort. We relegate old symbols to the rear when we realize their spiritual import, but we find that new ones take their places. When we learn so to discriminate between subjective states and objective forms as to see their true relation as cause and effect, we will no longer lay stress on the objective side of life. But this will not necessitate our denying the objective side altogether. Realizing the spirit, we will neither discard the letter nor be ruled by it.

The forms and symbols that are necessary to one may not be to another; therefore, it would be well to recognize the fact that each person must determine for himself the value they possess. It would be a great mistake to remove symbolism from the minds of persons that believe it to be essential to their welfare. People unfold to a knowledge of the spirit; but, until this development takes place, they must continue to get their hope and consolation from the letter. It is never profitable or wise to take away anything without giving something better in return; therefore, it is not well to undermine the belief in form and symbolism of one who has not attained to a knowledge of spiritual things.

This subject is of such vast proportions that it is not possible to treat it satisfactorily in the limited space at my disposal. I shall refer only briefly, then, to certain of the great symbols adhered to by the great body of Christians, and to their occult meanings as set forth by those who have made an esoteric study of symbolism.

The Swiss have a saying that “speech is silver; silence is golden.” The sage of Chelsea said: “In a symbol there is concealment, and yet' revelation.” Here, therefore, by silence and speech acting together, comes a double significance. And, if the speech be high and the silence fit and ' noble, how expressive will their union be! Thus in many a painted device, a simple seal-emblem, the commonest truth is proclaimed with new emphasis.

In the symbol proper, there is always, more or less distinctly and directly, some embodiment and revelation of the Infinite. The Infinite is made to blend itself with the finite—to stand visible and, as it were, attainable there.

Symbolism must be viewed from two standpoints, namely, the esoteric and the exoteric. An artist wishes to depict on canvas some lofty ideal that he has conceived in mind. The ideal may be love, faith, hope, or all three. He selects the human form and seeks to portray his ideal through it. In this he succeeds—to his own satisfaction. Now, this picture will always mean more to him than to a person that perceives only a beautiful form. Again, he wishes to depict strength, sublimity, and grandeur, and he paints a mountain whose top towers far beyond the clouds. His picture will always be associated with the ideal he had in mind when he painted it. Another person, viewing it, might see only a lofty mountain and the accompanying effects of clouds and sky, of light and shade.

Now, in both these cases the pictures are symbols; but how differently they are viewed! In one case we get the inner meaning; in the other we perceive only the outer form. Therefore, it becomes necessary, in order that we shall arrive at a knowledge of truth, to have the inner knowledge of the symbol made plain.

Again, we are to look at symbols from another point of view. No matter how sacred a symbol may have been at a certain stage in human development, it loses its power when man has acquired a thorough comprehension of its significance and has risen above its need, or when it has been replaced by a still higher symbol; for every symbol is but the garment of an ideal.

Symbols are the clothing of thought, and thought is continually shaping for itself new clothing. Old forms pass away and are replaced by new; but the persistency with which we cling to all form is a remarkable trait in the human character. Carlyle says:

“The law of Perseverance is among the deepest in man. By nature he hates change; seldom will he quit his old house till it has actually fallen about his ears. Thus have I seen solemnities linger as ceremonies, sacred symbols as idle pageants, to the extent of three hundred years and more after all life and sacredness had evaporated out of them.”

At all times in the history of the planet there have been those who were possessed of deeper spiritual insight than the masses of the world, and it has ever been their desire to transmit the knowledge of which they were possessed to future generations—and almost invariably they have sought to do this through symbolic signs. They knew the significance back of the sign, but the masses have believed in and worshiped the symbols themselves, i. e., have lived in the letter and missed the spirit. When we live to the spirit, we die to the letter; when we are alive to the letter we are dead to the spirit.

Perhaps one of the earliest of religious symbols was that of the cross. The cross of Osiris was one of the most sacred symbols of the ancient Egyptians. It was an indispensable emblem in all religious ceremonial. It meant the pathway to eternal life; the emblem of eternal hope; the mystery of life and death. It also meant the union between man and God. It is said that the early Spanish conquerors in Central and South America were astonished to find the cross an object of religious veneration among the natives. What meaning they attached to it, however, is unknown. Among the Romans its office was a degrading one. Death on the cross was held to be so dishonorable that only slaves and malefactors of the lowest class were subjected to it. 

In the Christian era all this was changed, and the cross again became an object of veneration and worship. The esoteric meaning is as follows: The four points make four angles, dividing the circle into four equal parts. The cross thus portrays a perfect union, balance, equality, and at-one-ment on all four planes—the phenomenal, intellectual, psychical, and celestial or spiritual.

The mystery of the crucifixion is explained as follows (from four different points of view): First, to the natural and actual sense, typifying the crucifixion of the man of God by the world; secondly, to the intellectual and philosophic sense, typifying the crucifixion in man of the lower nature; thirdly, to the personal and sacrificial sense, symbolizing the passion and oblation of the Redeemer; and fourthly, to the celestial and creative sense, representing the oblation of God to the universe. To the crucified, regenerate man, having made at-one-ment throughout his own dual and fourfold nature, this crucifixion is the death of the animal body; the rending of the veil of the flesh; the union of the will. of man with that of God; the coming into accord with the absolute law of love. It is sometimes called the reconciliation, which is but another name for the at-one-ment.

The Serpent has ever been the symbol of wisdom. It is also the symbol of man’s lower nature. The fiery serpent that destroyed the children of Israel in the wilderness symbolizes earthly wisdom, or wisdom acquired through the objective senses; while the serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness symbolizes the higher wisdom, which gives life. In the light of this we can more readily understand the saying of Jesus: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” The serpent with its tail in its mouth signifies eternity—neither beginning nor end.

The symbol of baptism by water is purification, and was used many hundreds of years before John the Baptist. The communion that is celebrated in Christian churches is the intercourse of soul with soul. The body, or “bread,” of which all must partake, corresponds to the word of God. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.” The wine is the divine Will, the life of God, the Love that is to become active within the soul of man. Unless we partake of this bread and wine, we can have no realizing sense of the at-one-ment; we can have no knowledge of man’s sonship to God.

In the world there are two classes of minds—both seeking a knowledge of the Truth. One strives to attain or unfold to truth, the other to acquire it. The one that seeks to attain to it looks from within outward; the one that seeks to acquire it looks from without inward. He that seeks to acquire Truth relies largely on the reasoning faculties of mind; while he that seeks to attain to it relies on the intuitive or spiritual faculties of the soul. One gets the knowledge that comes through objective channels; the other draws direct from the subjective source. The objective deals with forms and symbols, working from form to the “something” that lies beyond. He that lives in the subjective arrives at the true nature of things and sees them in their true relation, knowing the subjective to be cause and the objective effect. He sees from cause to effect, instead of reasoning from effect to cause.

The only reality a symbol possesses is the invisible thought that calls it into existence. Then let us try truly to distinguish between the form and the power that animates it.

“The letter fails, and systems fall,
And every symbol wanes;

The Spirit over-brooding all,
Eternal Love remains.”

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Charles Brodie Patterson

  • Canadian New Thought author
  • Born in Nova Scotia in 1854 and died on June, 22nd 1917

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