Detail from The Garden of Earthly Delights
by Hieronymus Bosch
Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
—Mark 8:37, King James Bible
We come back today to this poignant remark, but first, a comment on this simple little element from the Garden of Earthly Delights, which has an entire parable in it.
The pink stem of this blossom represents divine influence, a thin thread that gives birth to a material element (the blue sepals); these initially protect the bud of the flower.
This particular image was very carefully chosen. If we count the sepals, we see that there are seven of them, representing the law of seven. (the plant we are looking at is, in other words, a polymerous one, with seven whorls in the form of a spiral.)
By now, in this element of the painting, they have already given birth to a handsome pink flower, representing the birth and (here) maturation of the soul within life. Note that all of the blue berries, which represent the material world and all the elements in it, spill out of the pink flower — the soul. In other words, the world does not contain the soul — the soul contains the world.
Yet the world is a dangerous thing; it has birthed several red fruits of temptation along with the ordinary blue worldly berries. The allegory here is one of the subordinate nature of the world to the soul. The elaborate stamens which gracefully protrude from the flower represent the potential for further fertilization and fecundity, which is the domain and prerogative of the soul—not the earthly berries, which we can see are just going to lie in the ground and rot.
One can take the statement about what a man gives an exchange from his soul from both the inner and the outer point of view. The overall inference from the passage is that a man may well trade away his soul for the world, definitely a losing proposition. We are left to ask ourselves: what could possibly be worth a deal with the devil of that kind? Yet if we believe in the world, the soul is a trivial thing of little value in relationship to the riches of the world. It is only through an organic awakening of sensation that we begin to understand how extraordinarily precious and unusual the soul is, and how deeply it can inwardly form our life so that everything is new and quite different than we thought it was. An awakening of this kind creates an inversion of value which can only be understood through actual participation, not reading about it.
Yet the soul is given to us by God; and if we are going to give anything in exchange for it, we owe He who gives it to us. Taken with the rest of the passage, we see that we pay with the world; we "lose" the world, we abandon it and turn instead towards God. This abandonment is a spiritual abandonment, because we are unable to materially and physically abandon the world without dying. Instead, we inhabit the world willingly and wholeheartedly, while at the same time rejecting it with the critical faculty of our spiritual insight.
This is not an unloving or a cruel rejection; it is not an insensitive rejection. The rejection is objective, that is, it rejects the world in favor of our inward being, which is now no longer a psychological condition, but an organic one. One needs to understand this quite practically.
It is a tricky thing to say "no" to everything and not be caught by that so that it becomes an act of destruction and negativity. The ordinary self takes this action very easily and uses it for its own purposes; and, in point of fact, it's quite necessary to use this action in an ordinary way at times.
This is why I need to become quite intimate with myself, very critical and intelligent in my inward observation, and quite discriminating in my understanding of the difference between the critical mind of the inward soul and the critical mind of the outward self.
They are definitely not the same thing.
Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.