Saturday, January 9, 2016

Herbs and Trees

 Crabapple tree, Tallman State Park
 Palisades, New York
photograph by the author

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is greater than the herbs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.

—Matthew 13:31-32, new King James version

Readers will have to forgive the fact that the mustard plant is out of season. I could have taken a photograph from my library or the Internet, but this crabapple tree conveys a good impression for this diary entry.

The field in this parable is our inner life. Our inner life is like a field in that it needs to be prepared before seeds are sown, it must be tended, plowed, and the seeds must be sewn at the right moment— once again, appropriate to the season.

 At first, the kingdom of heaven within our inner life is a tiny thing, which needs to be nourished and nurtured in order to grow. The analogy here is quite important, because if we look at the mustard plant — or any other plants — we see that it occupies the intersection of levels. It grows within the meeting point between the soil and the air. It grows roots, tiny little roots, deep down into the soil of Being. 

In the case of the soul— for which this parable is an analogy—these roots are real things which can be felt within the body if they are growing or transmitting material in the same way that the roots of plants transmit nutrients and water. In this way every cell becomes alive with the food that is transmitted through the roots, and not only the cells of the physical being, but the cells of the spiritual being, are also fed.

The organic sense of being develops when the inward spiritual awakening first takes place within the sensation on this lower level of the cells. This is when we can first understand how roots grow in us like a mustard plant. We ought to sense this always and everywhere.

At the same time, higher influences come down from above — the influences of Love and of Wisdom — and are gathered for energy, in the same way that heat and light are gathered by plants and used in order to help them grow.  So Love and Wisdom flow down into us from above, if we are receptive, and enliven our being — making "everything more vivid," as Gurdjieff told his pupils. The higher energy of Divine Influence has this extraordinary enlivening property.

 So the kingdom of heaven grows within us like a mustard seed, acquiring a physical materiality

This is an important point, because one can use it to understand what one does not understand. If one doesn't understand the physical materiality of this mustard plant, if one does not organically sense its presence within oneself both in the roots that it plants in the soil of Being and the light that it gathers from above, then one can be certain one has not understood well yet, and that one must work inwardly much more, and in a new and different way. 

So if the language sounds strange, or the parable sounds like an analogy about our psychology, then one can know one hasn't properly understood yet.  The inward understanding of the kingdom of heaven — the sensation of its physical presence and its higher influence—has to become as real, organic, and concrete as the roundness, the color, and even the very taste of a mustard seed.

 In this sense, we ought to stop thinking about the kingdom of heaven as though it were "someplace out there" in outer space. Its influences, rather, grow directly within us; and it gives a home for angelic forces (the birds of the air) to rest in once it grows to sufficient size.

The parable says that the kingdom of heaven becomes a tree. We should remember that this is a substantial transformation, because mustard itself is an herb. When the parable says that when it is grown it is greater than the herbs, it means that it undergoes a transformation from its original nature into a different and higher nature.   It is on the order of water changing into wine.

That is the purpose of our effort to grow the kingdom of heaven within ourselves and receive a finer and higher material; we are hoping that the herb within us — an annual which dies at the end of every year — will transform into the perennial strength of the tree. 

It's an analogy, in other words, for forming a soul that has a durable quality.

 In wrapping this up, the following observation from Swedenborg is perhaps appropriate:

Faith in God enters us on a pathway that comes down from above, from the soul into the higher reaches of the intellect. Concepts of God enter us on a pathway that comes up from below, because the intellect takes them in from the revealed Word through our bodily senses. In midintellect the different inflows come together. There an earthly faith, which is mere belief, becomes a spiritual faith, which is actual acknowledgment. The human intellect, then, is a kind of trading floor on which exchanges occur.

— Emmanuelle Swedenborg, True Christianity, page 13


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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