The First and the Last (1 of 3)

In the Writings there is a quote from the Qur’án mentioned in several places, often in mystical contexts:

He is the First and the Last, the Seen and the Hidden.[^1]

Show how we approach the Hidden

We must be free of the Seen

Moving vision from the Seen to the Hidden

To explore this idea, consider the life-cycle of an oak tree. It begins as an acorn, an oak seed; it first appears as a shoot; becomes a sapling; grows into a strong and fruitful tree; later ages into hardwood; and finally, it ends as a stump over rotting roots. Each of these stages represents the Seen.

Meanwhile, the Hidden is their conceptual sum. This latter might be called “oakness”, as it embraces everything oak-related. Nor can oakness be directly witnessed, since it has no single manifestation. It is acorn and tree both, and neither apart. It is an invisible reality which may only be approached by the mind, never the eye.

Further, while the acorn is the first stage of an oak and the stump is the last – and these two boundaries define the completeness of the tree – they do not divide its selfhood. To explain the totality of a single tree one might say: “An oak is both acorn and stump; all its visible stages, and the concept which unites them.” Put another way: A single oak may hold a particular station in regards to oakness, but oakness embraces both first and last, seen and hidden. Oakness is more complete than anything we will ever see of oak trees. It represents a conceptual unity above and beyond its many manifestations.

Nor can one say that an acorn is inferior in terms of its oakness, only that its manifestation is of lesser degree. Each stage of a tree is as much “oak” as the rest, albeit of varying maturity. If I were to plant an acorn and came back years later to find a sapling, that sapling could say to me, “I am the First!”, since it is the self-same Tree, sprung from that acorn. And it could say, “I am the Last!”, as its future as a stump is certain. It is both Seen, in that it represents a visible form of oakness, and Hidden, since without oakness there could be no oak.

From acorn to tree to stump there is then one being, just as I, the author, account my infancy and childhood with my present self. It does not matter how different in appearance, character or quality these stages might be: we implicitly acknowledge their unity. I could never point to one part of my body and say it is less a part of me than the rest. Being is of either of one whole or it is not a being at all.

In sum, I believe the quotation above declares the Divine Unity, and establishes the Oneness of the Manifestations of God. Similar to what I’ve said about oak trees and oakness, it implicitly makes the following statements:

  • God is made known as the Seen through the being of His Holy Ones;
  • He is a Hidden reality, greater even than the sum of His Manifestations;
  • the First of These, no matter the measure of His light, stands equal in Divinity to the rest;
  • the Last, no matter His greatness, shares identity with the First;
  • His Messengers are of all of one Being, such that none can be regarded as greater or lesser;
  • each came with a Message designed to unfold gradually His hidden Mystery.

I draw these conclusions based on the fact that they ring equally true if I phrase them in terms of oak trees instead, to continue the previous analogy:

  • oakness is made known through the appearence of oak trees;
  • oakness is a hidden ideal, greater the sum of all oak trees past and future;
  • the very first oak, no matter its level of development, is as much an oak as the rest;
  • the last oak, no matter its evolution, shares oakness with the first;
  • all oak trees participate in oakness equally, and none may be considered greater or lesser in this respect;
  • every oak which grows teaches us more about the ideal of oakness.

Any oak tree could state with truth that it represented a fulfillment of oakness, without implying that oakness had in any way been exhausted or could not continue. Likewise, though each Manifestation of God has stated that His message is complete, and the fulfillment of all past religions, it does not mean no future Messenger will be able to state the exact same thing with equal truth.

The meaning of the Divine Unity is that all His Messengers represent a Single, Hidden Being, Whose Truth is inexhaustible. With respect to Him they are of One Reality, just as the acorn and sapling are stages of one tree. And although acorn and sapling have strikingly different characteristics, and the ways of the seed and the tree are utterly dissimilar, so too the Manifestations of God have Each a separate Mission, and speak in a language sometimes at odds with later instances of Their common Self. So too, God’s Faith is one and indivisible, and it is humanity’s challenge to comprehend it as such.

This is the changeless faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.