The soul’s origin
At the moment the soul was created, it knew of its Creator. Some Muslims refer to this pre-existent relationship with God as “rúz-i-alast”, or the day when God asked us, “Am I not your Lord?” The Bahá’í Writings likewise mention an earlier time when we knew of God:
O My Friends! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise?1
Our soul is said to be “the first among all created things to declare the excellence of its Creator, the first to recognize His glory, to cleave to His truth, and to bow down in adoration before Him.”2 In essence, the soul of man is a lover, created in a state of primal adoration. We became thus because the Loved One deserves a lover. There is an Islamic tradition that says, “I was a Hidden Treasure. I wished to be made known, and thus I called creation into being in order that I might be known.” In this sense, we are part of a divine cycle of going and returning, in which the Beloved casts out His lovers, and then summons them to return according to their own desire. This “expulsion from paradise”, from our original state, is so that each lover may demonstrate himself by proving his devotion through trial and long-suffering.
His purpose, however, is to enable the pure in spirit and the detached in heart to ascend, by virtue of their own innate powers, unto the shores of the Most Great Ocean, that thereby they who seek the Beauty of the All-Glorious may be distinguished and separated from the wayward and perverse.3
That we began in the divine world, and subsequently “fell” into a condition of material existence – with all its potential for distraction and error – is not only referenced many times in Scripture, but also by some philosophies. Plato describes our original state in quite poetic terms:
… Beauty it was ours to see in all its brightness in those days when, amidst that happy company, we beheld with our eyes that blessed vision, ourselves in the train of Zeus, others following some other god; then were we all initiated into that mystery which is rightly accounted blessed beyond all others; whole and unblemished were we that did celebrate it, untouched by the evils that awaited us in days to come; whole and unblemished likewise, free from all alloy, steadfast and blissful were the spectacles on which we gazed in the moment of final revelation; pure was the light that shone around us, and pure were we, without taint of that prison house which now we are encompassed withal, and call a body, fast bound therein as an oyster in its shell. (Plato)
Since our parentage is divine, being that we were “created in His image”, we long for the divine; since we are lovers, we pine for reunion with our long-lost Love. This is our constant state of being, and all our fundamental motivations stem from it. What differs between individuals is the understanding of how to find what we seek, and whether our vision is clear enough when we do come across it.
The medium of the world
From my own meditations, the soul would seem to be a creature of pure awareness, not having a separate reality to call its own and focus its attention upon. It is aware only of what is real, and this determines the measure of its experience. That is, if our attention is directed toward things that are vain and imaginary, the soul will starve; whereas whenever it comes into contact with reality, it breathes deeply. What it breathes in is brought to it through the medium of perceived existence, just as the sun’s light is brought to the eye reflected from physical objects. The Source is too bright to be seen – beholding it would blind the soul, figuratively speaking – but it remains possible to perceive it in the form of its many reflections, or manifestations.
Each created thing alters the character of those manifestations according to its own quality, just as a red flower makes the light appear red, or a yellow flower, yellow. What both reveal to the soul, however, are differing attributes of a single Light, one Reality. This reality is the soul’s Beloved, and as such causes us joy whenever we see it.
Now the reason wherefore the souls are fain and eager to behold the plain of Truth, and discover it, lies herein – to wit, that the pasturage that is proper to their noblest part comes from that meadow, and the plumage by which they are borne aloft is nourished thereby. (Plato)
If our eyes are closed or confused, even the clearest manifestations of the divine cannot reach the soul. In that state it reaches spiritual death, because it receives no nourishment; for if the soul is to flourish, it must derive sustenance from its Creator. To do this means learning how to commune with the Divine through the medium of life’s experience.
Take beauty, for example. Beauty is an attribute of the One we love, and for this reason beauty seizes us, causes us to pause and wonder. This is a sign that the soul is recognizing its Love, and longing for reunion.
Now, it is quite possible not to see “through” this experience: to think that an object is beautiful by its own power and not because it reflects from another Source. In this case, the individual will attempt to satisfy his desire from the object alone, and will find it worthless and empty. Bahá’u’lláh expresses this phenomenon in these terms:
Break not the bond that uniteth you with your Creator, and be not of those that have erred and strayed from His ways. Verily I say, the world is like the vapor in a desert, which the thirsty dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion. It may, moreover, be likened unto the lifeless image of the beloved whom the lover hath sought and found, in the end, after long search and to his utmost regret, to be such as cannot “fatten nor appease his hunger.”4
The world itself, then, is not the Beloved – but the image of the Beloved is seen in it, as if reflected from a mirror: “The whole universe reflecteth His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth His creatures.” This image allows us to connect, as if sunlight reflected from a mirror were to nourish plants sitting in an otherwise dark room.
The bond of communion
This light that reaches us – the living quality beauty has when we experience it – establishes a link between the lover and his Love, a form of communion. Plato describes this dynamic using the metaphor of growing wings when he talks about how we experience beauty. Note his description of our “vision of the mystery”, which for him relates to the time of our pre-creation, when there was no impediment between ourselves and God:
Now he whose vision of the mystery is long past, or whose purity has been sullied, cannot pass swiftly hence to see beauty’s self yonder, when he beholds that which is called beautiful here; wherefore he looks upon it with no reverence, and surrendering to pleasure he essays to go after the fashion of a four-footed beast, and to beget offspring of the flesh, or consorting with wantonness he has no fear nor shame in running after unnatural pleasure. But when one who is fresh from the mystery, and saw much of the vision, beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes upon him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, and then reverence as at the sight of a god, and but for fear of being deemed a very madman he would offer sacrifice to his beloved, as to a holy image of deity. Next, with the passing of the sudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him. For by reason of the stream of beauty entering in through his eyes there comes a warth, whereby the soul’s plumage is fostered, and with that warmth the roots of the wings are melted, which for long had been so hardened and closed up that nothing could grow; then as the nourishment is poured in the stump of the wing swells and hastens to grow from the root over the whole substance of the soul, for aforetime the whole soul was furnished with wings. (Plato)
Bahá’u’lláh also uses a bird metaphor to describe our earliest condition, and how our capacity to fly requires purity in order to recall that proper state:
Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust.5
The fatal error occurs because the mind mistakes symbol for reality, thinking that raw gold, for example, holds the true meaning of value. From this ignorance it will pile up great stores of wealth, never realizes that it cultivates a long and vitiating poverty.
If the individual recognizes, however, that the signs and tokens of earthly life are like the lines of a love-letter waiting to be read, it completely changes the character of living. If we “read from the attributes the riddle of the Essence”6, as if a communication received by a lover, then there can be an experience of connection. It does not matter, for example, that the sun can never descend to Earth – or it would consume it – the medium of its rays still allows for plants to be nourished by its light. And even if these rays must reflect from various objects to reach the inhabitants of a dark cave, it would still be light and still be nourishing.
What lies beyond
I think this initial life is a place of confinement, like a cave; not because we are not meant for greater places, but because our souls are so tender that a direct revelation would blind them. This blinding would occur because we would have no option but to love Him, to be awed by His glory, and we would never have the chance to prove our devotion by overcoming great doubt in the course of our search.
… were the glory of this station to be revealed unto men to an extent smaller than a needle’s eye, thou wouldst witness them gathering before the threshold of divine mercy and hastening from all sides to the court of nearness in the realms of divine glory. We have concealed it, however, as mentioned before, that those who believe may be distinguished from them that deny, and that those who turn unto God may be discerned from them that turn aside.7
So we start out in this darker place, slowly becoming accustomed to the light, before we step out. We can only have a self during this initial stage of the journey, and so it is only here that we have the chance to sacrifice it for His sake. Once the Beloved becomes clear to our consciousness, there will be no consciousness of anything but:
How can a true lover continue to exist when once the effulgent glories of the Beloved are revealed? How can the shadow endure when once the sun hath shone forth? How can a devoted heart have any being before the existence of the Object of its devotion? Nay, by the One in Whose hand is my soul! In this station, the seeker’s complete surrender and utter effacement before his Creator will be such that, were he to search the East and the West, and traverse land, sea, mountain and plain, he would find no trace of his own self or of any other soul.8
I am not even sure if by “this initial life” I mean our physical life, or the life of unbelief which precedes faith. We might pass through several lives similar to this one before being ready to enter into the full sunlight. But when we do reach that place, the whole scheme will become clear, and the purpose for God’s concealment will be revealed:
And when the sanctified souls rend asunder the veils of all earthly attachments and worldly conditions, and hasten to the stage of gazing on the beauty of the Divine Presence and are honoured by recognizing the Manifestation and are able to witness the splendour of God’s Most Great Sign in their hearts, then will the purpose of creation, which is the knowledge of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, become manifest.9
Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, p.28↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.158-9↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.71↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.328-9↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.327↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Seven Valleys, p.31↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p.76↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p.70-1↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings, p.85↩