A study of the landscape symbolism of the Bible
as it relates to the spiritual journey

1996, 1997, 1999, 2001 by Ann K Elliott





Part I


Each of our lives began
in an edenic womb

of unconscious wholeness.


The Womb of Eden

Eden was a protected enclosure. Within the verdant garden's boundaries God's first children lived without fear of bodily harm or the pressures of necessity. They lived in a paradise of contentment and comfort. For companionship Adam and Eve had one another and God. For amusement they had the friendly animals. For nourishment they had but to pluck the sweet fruit of their choice. The idyllic innocence of their beginning was the kind we would wish for every child.

In truth, life began for each of us within an enclosure comparable to Eden. The maternal womb provided for our every need. There we knew contentment and comfort, until the time came when we had outgrown our protective walls. Then the necessity for expansion pressed in upon us. Instead of a place of comfort the womb became a constraining vise. A principle of life was at work. An inherent wisdom had taken over to apply increasingly greater pressure against the uterine limitations that now had become barriers to further growth and therefore to life itself. As with Adam and Eve, so for each of us the time came when we had outgrown our primal maternal paradise. We, too, had to suffer the trauma of expulsion into a larger and ultimately more needful and demanding world.

The story of physical birth, of psychological birth, and of spiritual birth all follow a similar pattern. Psychologically, we are born again and again. In fact, as someone has observed: "We cannot be born enough." Spiritually, too, the need is to die, again and again, in order to be born anew in spirit."


O Felix Culpa

The story of Eden is about alienation from an original Whole of which we were an unconscious part. That Whole was God. What follows, from Genesis to Revelations, concerns humanity's long trek back into relationship with God, but with the difference that the longed-for return is to a fully conscious union. The longing impels the journey. As pilgrims we move from one stage to the next. The journey progresses according to the intensity of our desire. Saints are those who, having gone before us, desired God the most. In their union with God they increased the attraction of the Whole towards which humanity, as an evolutionary necessity, is being drawn. Or so has Teilhard de Chardin envisioned in his The Phenomenon of Man, and also St Paul in his Epistles.

What happened in Eden--the unfortunate event that caused the estrangement--turned out to be the "necessary sin" by which humanity would become aware of its need to be found, redeemed, and reunited with God.

O truly necessary sin of Adam,
which the death of Christ has blotted out!
O happy fault
that merited such and so great a redeemer!(1)

How often it happens that some painful event or realization turns out to be the very means by which our desire for a closer union with God is rekindled. Often, too, in human relationships it takes a crisis to deepen the roots of love. Our souls grow also through the pain of crises. In the life of the soul times come when we begin to sense, in some area of life, the acute pain of unfulfillment. Some neglected or unknown part of oneself presses to be born. If the inner voice is ignored, something in us is in danger of dying. In this way we sin against our innermost Self. But if we "go with the pain," this may jeopardize another aspect of our life. In becoming conscious of our own needs we are in danger of going unconscious where the needs of others are concerned. Preoccupied with self we loose touch with the deep ties by which we are bound one to another. In this way we sin against others. In truth, times come when we are compelled to grow. Grow or die. The paradox of life is death. But in a relationship, when we exert self-will we drive a wedge between ourselves and the other. In seeking to fulfill our own needs we bring upon ourselves the pain of alienation, thus exchanging one pain for another. Of necessity we sin, alternately against ourselves and others. Again and again, in our struggles with self-will and the "necessary sins" by which we grow, we come face to face with our own need for redemption. In seeking forgiveness we find release. In acknowledging our need we are renewed. In newness of life we can once again give to both ourselves and to others. In doing so we offer a part of ourselves as a sacrifice. Like obedience, sacrifice is not sacrifice unless it goes against self-will. But when it does it brings the power of atonement down into human lives in order for human life to be lifted to a higher level.


The Image of the Whole

The biblical story of redemption begins in a garden. The design of this garden is an image of wholeness. The dynamics of the design express what it is to be a truly whole human being.

"Yahweh God," the account begins, "planted a garden in Eden which is in the East." Symbolically East points to an inner, non-physical level of reality. With this one word we are alerted to the symbolic meaning of the story. It is where the journey towards wholeness begins.

In the center of the garden was a fountain. Beside the fountain God planted two trees. And from the fountain four rivers flowed, fanning out so as to water the entire surrounding land. First the one, then the two, then the four. This numeric pattern coincides with the way a mandala is drawn. John Sanford points out that

A mandala is a concentric design that represents or symbolizes wholeness. In a mandala everything is grouped around a center. The shape of the mandala is circular, or, sometimes, square. In a circle, every point on the circumference is equidistant from the center, so the shape of the circle suggests balance and completeness.

. . . Because of the mandala shape of the garden, we are met immediately with the suggestion that the story is about wholeness--how man was originally contained within it, but then fell away from it.(2)

A garden itself symbolizes the kind of environment in which reconciliation can take place and therefore consciousness evolve. This is because

The garden is the place where nature is subdued, ordered, selected and enclosed. Hence, it is a symbol of consciousness as opposed to the forest, which is the unconscious . . . .(3)

By design a mandala is enclosed, selected and ordered. In a mandala everything is subject to its center and all the parts are in a balanced and complementary relationship to each other. Additionally, all are encircled and included within the circumference of the design as a whole. The progressions of a mandalic design are illustrated in Figure 1: first the point of origin (a) around which the circle is defined (b); then its division into two (c), and then into four (d). The familiar yin/yang symbol (e) is another way a circle can be divided equally in two, and when this again is divided in two (f) the final progression illustrates the dynamic, outwardly expanding movement of the "four rivers" by which the whole of the territory of Eden was made "fertile."

A mandala emulates what it is to be fully alive with energy flowing between all of the parts that make up the whole of who we are. When energy is blocked in any given area, then that part of the whole is not, for all purposes, alive. Though physically alive there are those who appear to be spiritually dead: though mentally active some persons appear to have been rendered emotionally dead. Yet God, if the mystics are right, is alive in all of creation and the mystical journey is towards this realization. Self realization is a waking up to the flow of spirit in every part of our lives, and to ourselves as integral parts of the all that God is. The lives of the mystics suggest that desire for God, and to live unceasingly in God's presence, is what empowers the spiritual life. A continuous "circumambulation" of spiritual energy is said, in the East, to be the "secret of the golden flower," and to result in the creation of the "spiritual" or "diamond" body. Biblical symbolism, when taken as a whole, is about the process that reawakens the soul to its oneness with God. Mandalas are symbolic of the process. The more complex or compound the mandala the more progressed the process symbolized.


The Balanced Wheel

The one word that describes a mandala is balance. In the final verses of the Paradiso, Dante tells of his vision of the Whole as a golden-centered white rose whose unfolding petals represent the souls of those who have "returned" to "conscious innocence." In essence Dante's vision is the same as the "golden flower" of China, and the "thousand-petaled lotus" of India. Entranced, Dante experiences himself

. . . being turned
instinct and intellect balanced equally
as in a wheel whose motion nothing jars.(4)

Walter Russell was a Twentieth Century mystic and scientist. As recorded in his Message of the Divine Iliad, he was told that if God could only give humankind one word that word would be balance. If it would take two words those two would be rhythmic balance. And if three words were required they would be rhythmically balanced interchange.(5)

When we have come to know ourselves as part of that rhythmically-balanced "wheel whose motion nothing jars," then we will be home. We will have returned to the Whole. We will have attained union with God and know ourselves as inseparable from the All that God is. The question is, how do we get there? "There is but one possible way," wrote English mystic William Law, "and that way is the desire of the soul turned toward God."(6)


The Fountain in the Center

Just as balance is implicit to wholeness, so is movement within the whole. Just as Dante's mandala moved, so does the one described as the garden. Just as the garden is circular, so, according to tradition, is the form of the human soul. And just as the garden has a center so, in the New Testament, Christ is the center from which living waters flow.

Jung suggested that the center of the human psyche corresponds to the image of God in which we are created. He called this center the Self and thought of it as a fountain of living water from which four rivers flow. The symbolism of Eden corresponds to what Jung discovered to be the quaternal structure of the human psyche with its center as the source from which every area of life is meant to be energized and made fruitful. Referring to the centered-in-Christ Self, Jesus said to the woman at the well:

Whoever drinks this water will get thirsty again; but anyone who drinks the water that I shall give will never be thirsty again: the water that I shall give will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life.(7)


Eden's Four Rivers

Jung made the observation that "In the history of symbols, quaternity is the unfolding of unity."(8)When we stand still in the center of a circle we are in relationship to four points on the circumference: one that is before us, one behind us, one to our left and one to our right. We are most visually aware of the one directly before us, and only peripherally so of what is to our left and right. But in order to know what is behind us we have to rely on other means of perception, such as the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. According to Jung, when an "unconscious content enters the sphere of consciousness" it already has split into four "by virtue of the four basic functions of consciousness." The content presenting itself

is perceived as something that exists (sensation); it is recognized as this and distinguished from that (thinking); it is evaluated as pleasant or unpleasant, etc. (feeling); and finally, intuition tells us where it came from and where it is going.(9)

Jung was in no way limiting to four the ways humans function, but rather comparing consciousness to the cardinal points of a compass, and freedom of function to an agility of consciousness that allows a person to be moved by the spirit in any direction appropriate. When this is so, then a person's entire life--mind, body, soul and spirit--are in the kind of balanced, harmonious relationship that the four centrifugally-spiraling rivers out from Eden's central fountain symbolize. Figure 2, from a medieval Celtic manuscript, reflects this truth.

Figure 2

A river to be a river has to flow. Flow suggests a dynamic, empowering force that causes things to move, such as the force of gravity by which the four rivers of Eden are moved out over the entire fields of Eden, making them fertile and productive. It would seem then that Eden, according to the dynamic symmetry of its four rivers, was never intended to be a static state of bliss, but rather a living, moving, revolving, evolving reality empowered by a dynamism that flows out from a central point and from which life itself, the Tree of Life, springs forth. Jung made reference to Eden's rivers when he wrote:

For the Church Fathers Christ is the source, and Paradise means the ground of the soul from which the fourfold river of the Logos bubbles forth.(10)


The Heaven-Earth Axis

If four rivers, depicted as two crossing axes, divide Eden's horizontal plane, its vertical dimension, the Heaven/Earth connection, is defined by a third axis. In drawing a circle the circumference is scribed around its center, but symbolically considered a circle is a flat representation of a sphere, and in order to represent a sphere the central axis around which it rotates must somehow be inferred. The graphic motif that most simply expresses three axes is shown in Figure 3: The "X" represents earth divided by two horizontal axes; the "I" stands for the vertical axis by which heaven and earth are spanned. These same three axes encompassed by a circle form the ancient "sun wheel," a motif adopted by gnosticism to mean Jesu (I) Christo (X) the sun (O) of God."

To early philosophers the Tree (or axis) of Life was the lifeline of the spherical soul. One very early source in elaborating on this theme compared the soul "to the sphere of the moon, but . . . furnished on all sides with eyes."(11)

Similarly, the Garden in Eden is an image of the soul at its point of origin when it was in an undifferentiated relationship to the whole, and therefore "furnished on all sides with eyes." Taken altogether the symbolism of Eden describes the original inner landscape of the soul at the beginning of its journey into consciousness. As with every child in his or her outward-bound journey through life, the soul foregoes (forgets) its original state of unity. But in doing so begins a journey back that is a knowing return to the Whole.


The Eternal Return

Another place the message of eternal return is found is in the two-way interchanging spiral motifs of peoples all over the world. The spirals in Figure 4 are from Petrie's source book.(12)

As a general interpretation Cirlot defines the spiral as a "schematic image of the evolution of the universe." He adds:

In the Egyptian system of hieroglyphs the spiral . . . denotes cosmic forms in motion, or the relationship between unity and multiplicity.(13)

Also concerning the double spiral, Cirlot suggests these are the "flattened projection of the two halves of the egg of the world,"(14)Today we tend to look upon these designs which date back to Megalithic times as "primitive art." But it is more likely that to those who chiseled them in stone their art was also their religion. And as religious symbols they evoked in peoples of the past a feeling of being in relationship with the cosmos.

As an experiment, using your finger tip, trace the outline of Figure 5, moving back and forth from the center of one spiral to the center of the other, and from the other back to the one, repeating the movement until you sense its centering, balancing, calming effect. Next, with eyes still on the motif and using both hands and arms, trace its outline in the air.

Seeing Ambidextrously

In the evolution of consciousness perception into the nature of reality changes. This can be a problem for those who regard themselves as called to maintain the status quo. In Jesus' day the Pharisees were the keepers of the Mosaic Law. Today we would call them "Bible thumpers." But their fundamentalism blinded them to the law of the Spirit and thus they became breakers of the higher law. Jesus, on the other hand, understood the effectual operation of the higher law. "I have come not to abolish [the law and the prophets] but to fulfill them."(15)In his obedience to the higher law he fulfilled the lesser law. From his consciousness of unity with the Father he could say that to see the action of the one--the Son--was to see the action of the other--the Father. This, however, so offended the Pharisees that they felt compelled to undermine what they considered a threat to the Mosaic Law. Today human nature is not that much different but we do have language and more general insight into the workings of the human psyche. Therefore we can recognize that it was not the Law but their egocentricity that was threatened. Self-honesty tells us that we react similarly when the "masks" we wear, in order to pretend to be what we are not, are threatened.

To unmask ourselves so as to stand naked-faced before ourselves is shadow work. This means facing up to the evil proportioned us as our share of the dark aspect of human nature. To shine the light of consciousness into our own dark inner recesses is to do our share of transforming the collective. This seeing through the false image was what the Pharisees couldn't bring themselves to do. They couldn't "own" their own shadow. So they opposed it "out there." Here, in the area of shadow work, is where it becomes necessary to think paradoxically, to see as Jesus did, even as to how intentionally-directed evil can serve God's ultimate purpose. Referring to "The Miracle of Paradox" Robert Johnson notes that:

To transfer our energy from opposition to paradox is a very large leap in evolution. To engage in opposition is to be ground to bits by the insolubility of life's problems and events.(16)

To see paradoxically is to see the opposing sides as the parts of a whole: now this, now that; holding one view in the left-hand and the other in the right-hand; then bringing the two together as the left and the right of the whole.

To be able to take hold, however lightly, of two seemingly opposing points of view opens us to what Nahum Stiskin, in his book The Looking-Glass God, describes as a way of seeing the two faces--the front and the back--of the one ultimate reality.(17)Stiskin refers his readers to another book, The Ambidextrous Universe,(18)which concept is illustrated in Figure 6.

Using the four rivers of Eden as an image, imagine a sphere divided at its equator and as having an exact center that is shared by both left and right hemispheres. Then imagine the four rivers flowing out from this shared center into both hemispheres so as to appear in mirror-opposite relationship. The rivers to the left flow clockwise; and those to the right flow counterclockwise--the two in seemingly opposite directions. But if the two hemispheres are next imagined to fold back into the one sphere from which they were originally divided, then their oppositeness--their ambidexterity--disappears. Multiplicity is swallowed up in unity. The divided is reunited.


All Is Well

When, due to something we have done or left undone, we are left with a sense of separation either from God or others, we experience a sense of loss. But when we turn from moving away to moving back into relationship, then joy returns: "the rivers clap their hands, and . . . the hills ring out."(19)Moreover, there is something about an act of reconciliation that enables us to move beyond where we previously were. Through an act of self-will we fell away, maybe even necessarily so, but in returning we find that our consciousness has leaped over former obstacles.

For a number of years I was estranged from the Church. Then, after my mother's death, I began longing for "Mother Church" into whose arms I had been born and whose memories for me were happy. One day I heard an inner voice speak resolutely. "I'm going back," it said. And when I did I experienced a sense of well-being, a welling up of joy. Before leaving the Church I had come to see it as full of faults and imperfections. In the intervening years I had done some "shadow work" of my own so that on returning I found myself more at peace with imperfection, both in myself and others.

The most essential meaning of the familiar four-armed whirling cross, the same motif as Eden's rivers, is "All is well" . According to Pennick this ancient and universal design symbolizes "the rotation of the heavens about the central axis of the world," an orderedness that communicates "God is in his heavens, all is well in the world."(20)So it is with ourselves when we feel contained within the all-embracing arms of God and know ourselves to be part of his all-encompassing universe.

For some the symbols and rituals of the Church have lost their meaning, but for others the Church still can be a nurturing connection to the maternal heart of God. In offering unconditional love the Church fulfills her feminine role. For others the Church is a connection to a loving father and offers the stability of tradition and an opportunity to grow through serving others. For the soul to have a sense of well-being both kinds of love--that of a mother's and that of a father's--are necessary.

The "all is well" whirling crosses in Figure 7 are from church graffiti of English medieval origin. They are similar to the Hopi "Kachina" symbolism in which the arms sometimes are shown moving clockwise and sometimes counterclockwise, the former "showing affinity" with the sun, the masculine, and the latter with the earth, the feminine.

The Fulcrum of All Things

There is a further symbolic relevance to Eden's four horizontally-flowing rivers when we consider the center from which they flow as the earth-to-heaven axis of the garden. As already shown in Figure 3, the three crossing axes form the oldest known symbolic monogram for Christ, the one most widely used by the early church. The "I" is the Greek equivalent of our "J"for Jesus and the "X" the Greek equivalent of our "Ch"for Christ.

These same letters also form a geometric pattern--the six-spoked hexagon--that is pregnant with meaning. In nature, the hexagon is the structural basis of the snow crystal. From the countless microscopic photos studied to date, no two have been found to be alike. This fact is attributed to the variables of temperature, moisture, and air currents. Yet every snowflake is based on an unvariable hexagonal theme. Moreover, this same geometric pattern is the basis for the Star of David which is to the Hebraic religion what the Cross is to the Christian religion.(21)

As Fideler notes:

For the earliest Christians, the cross symbolized the center of the universe, prefigured by the tree of Paradise which was surrounded by four rivers before the beginning of time. As Hippolytus, the third century Bishop of Rome remarks in an Easter sermon, "This tree, wise as the heavens itself, has grown up into heaven from the earth. It is the fulcrum of all things and the place where they are at rest. It is the foundation of the round world, the center of the cosmos. In it all the diversities in our human nature are formed into a unity. It is held together by the invisible nails of the Spirit so that it may not break loose from the divine. It touches the highest summits of heaven and makes the earth firm beneath its foot, and it grasps the middle regions between them with immeasurable arms."(22)

Jacob's Ladder

The etymologies of axis, axle, and tree are closely akin. The tree that reaches for the heavens while sending its roots into the earth is like the human being who, as a soul/body unity, lives in both upper and lower dimensions of reality.

The heaven and earth of a tree, of a body, or of a soul are connected by an axis. In a tree its trunk is the way by which the moisture and dark nutrients of earth interchange with the light and warmth of the heavens, causing the tree to grow. In the human body the spinal column serves as a similar, vital axis. The soul also has a means by which its heaven and earth are connected. Jacob dreamt of this axis as a ladder reaching from earth to heaven on which angels were ascending and descending. He saw Yahweh standing there over him and heard him renewing the covenant he had made with Abraham. Thus Jacob was assured, at this crucial point of his life, of Yahweh's ever-abiding presence and help. Jacob, in turn, made a vow of faith to Yahweh, thus renewing Abraham's part of the covenant.

Jacob's Ladder symbolizes the two-way, divine-human axis of communication. Edinger describes the ladder as symbolic of the ego-Self axis by which "the personal ego-world and the archetypal psyche" interpenetrate. He quotes Blake on the bridging of these "lower" and "upper" realities:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.(23)


Ezekiel's Wheel

But an axis not only unites, it also opposes. By definition it has two opposing, tension-creating poles. These poles are vital in the life-sustaining processes by which the balance of life is maintained. In the body old cells are constantly dying and new ones being created. Physical, mental, emotional and spiritual life and health are created and maintained by an interchange between polar opposites. Physically we breathe in and we breathe out. Mentally we take in new ideas, inwardly digest them, and then eliminate what for us is irrelevant. Emotionally we are moved like ocean waters, alternating between high and low tides. Spiritually, we ascend the mountain top only to descend back down again into the valley.

An axle holds apart the two opposites it unites. The axle is the spindle by which two wheels are joined so as to revolve and move. In automotive language, a "live" axle is one in which driving power is transferred to the wheels. Something similar to this is suggested in Ezekiel's vision of the four living creatures and the four moving wheels. In his vision Ezekiel observed that the creatures were able to move in any direction and "without turning." Moreover, "Wherever the spirit would go" the creatures also went, the wheels rising along with them. "For the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels."(24)

Edinger refers to Ezekiel's vision as "a numinous mandala-image of the Self."(25)He also calls attention to Jung's observation that in Ezekiel's vision Yahweh, for the first time, addressees one of his prophets as "Son of Man," thus prefiguring "the idea of the higher man" that is to be fully revealed in Christ. According to Edinger, Jung viewed Ezekiel's vision as "two well-ordered compound quaternities," and used it "as a model for his most differentiated formula of the Self."

But back in Genesis the mandala described is still a simple, single quaternity. The evolution of humanity into more fully differentiated consciousness is just beginning. With Ezekiel's vision its complexity is doubled. In St John's Revelations the progression becomes the "four-squared" New Jerusalem.


Humanity's Evolutionary Axis

Excitement grows as we contemplate with St Paul the axis along which humanity is evolving:

Just as all men die in Adam, so all men will be brought to life in Christ; . . . And when everything is subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subject in his turn to the One who subjected all things to him, so that God may be all in all.(26)

Teilhard echoes St Paul in describing Christ as the Omega Point towards which all of humanity is converging. According to Teilhard, and as illustrated in Figure 9, Christianity is the "principal" but not the only axis along which humanity is converging, "principal" because it is "where faith and hope reach their fulfillment in love."(27)

Teilhard envisioned Christ as the center of the cosmos towards which all things were being drawn. His conviction was that when the mystical Body of Christ would be complete then the Risen Cosmic Christ would unite Christed humanity under God. So that, in the grand and glorious culmination of creation God truly would be all in all.


Eden's Four-Fold Polarity

Eden then, in symbolizing the human psyche, has two pairs of polar opposites: one at each end of its vertical axis; and one at each end of its horizontal axis. Its vertical pole relates to heaven and earth, or the divine and the animal extremes of human nature, and the horizontal pole to "Adam" and "Eve" as symbolic of the masculine and feminine polarity inherent to human nature. The well-being of the human psyche depends upon a balanced interchange between these four poles. The Cross in Figure 10 beautifully illustrates this interchange. It is of Celtic origin of an unknown date.(28)Note how dynamically alive its design is, suggesting it could have been someone's "healing image," perhaps the means by which the one who made it became reconciled to the loss of a loved one.

Our lives, our cultures, our religions--all are out of balance when either the masculine or the feminine prevail. Robert Faricy writes of this in his comparison of the psychology of Jung and the theology of Teilhard. He calls for the universal church to re-examine its traditional, masculine interpretation of the creation story for ways this point of view devalues the feminine. He contends that in their devaluation of the feminine those who have perpetuated this theological stand have also fostered an exploitive attitude towards nature. The two--nature and the feminine--according to Faricy, go hand in hand.(29)

In unfolding the symbolism of Eden the importance of both the masculine an the feminine becomes apparent. Consider also how fundamental these God-created opposites are, how essential their polarity is to the ongoing process by which not only life recreates itself but also as the way consciousness evolves.


The Seed of Unfolding Consciousness

The Tree of Life symbolizes the unity from which all life springs. It also depicts how consciousness, born from a seed, unfolds from its point of conception in the mind of God, a point Jesus was making in comparing the kingdom of heaven to the smallest of seeds which becomes the greatest of shrubs.(30)

A seed is so small as to be nearly invisible, yet encoded within it is the pattern of its full potential. Correspondingly, imprinted in the human soul is its "seed" potential for attaining to "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (31)

Teilhard speaks of both biological and spiritual evolution as "life-rooted-in-matter and life-branching-out-in-consciousness," the two evolutionary tracks following simultaneous pathways. Teilhard uses the word "complexification" to describe "the branching out of consciousness. In The Phenomenon of Man he describes creation as an expansion from "the infinitesimal to the immense," and "from the extremely simple to the extremely complex." For Teilhard consciousness is "the specific effect of organized complexity" transcending by far the "narrow limits within which our eyes can directly perceive it."(32)


Two Trees or One?

In Genesis we are told about two trees. The name of the one relates to life and the other to death. It is with the eating of the fruit of the latter that the journey towards conscious differentiation begins, a journey that culminates in Revelations with the promise of total reconciliation between human beings and God and all of creation. Joseph Campbell interprets the symbolism of the two trees as:

The tree of knowledge of good and evil is the tree of going from unity into multiplicity, and the tree of eternal life is that of going from multiplicity to unity. It's the same tree in two directions.(33)

In the same garden the two trees grew: the branches of both reaching heavenward; the roots of both seeking out the hidden depths of matter; the branches and roots of the one bearing the imprint of life; the other containing within it the seeds of death. Yet Yahweh warned only against the Tree of Knowledge. Not until the fruit of the forbidden tree had been tasted did he become apprehensive about the Tree of Life. As long as good and evil were unknown the Tree of Life was of no consequential danger.

As long as human beings were primordially "innocent" they, like the animals, lived in harmony with nature and God, and, like the animals, as Alfred Ribi notes, fulfilled "nearly completely the purpose built into them by the Creator." But

as soon as the miracle of consciousness arises, the harmony of the first day of creation is impaired.(34)

Here we are faced with a fact of life. When it is time to ascend higher in consciousness, the status quo of life is disrupted. Life is de-structured on one level in order to be restructured on another. We become disorientated in order to be reoriented.


The Cosmic Egg

Drawing from the old nursery rhyme, William Irwin Thompson sees Humpty Dumpty as "the cosmic egg," an image of "the immortal soul before its Fall into time." But after this "neither God's animals nor His angels can put him back into the world beyond time." In The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, he continues:

. . . the universe is an egg that shatters as it expands to begin its career of unfoldment in time. As an archetypal image of primordial unity, the cosmic egg suggests that there is unity and fragmentation, eternity and time. The Fall into time is not so much an event itself as the conditioning of time-space out of which all events arise. . . . the Fall of the One into the many, the emergence of the physical universe out of the transcendent God, the Fall of the soul into time . . . . The Fall is not only once and long ago; it is recapitulated in each instant of consciousness. The unfallen world beyond time remains as a background to the figured beats of the heart in our world of serial progression.(35)


The Double Helix

Having fallen into lateral, sequentially perceived time we make our way back to eternity spirally. In ascending the spiral stairway of life each new level is at right angles to the one below. Each shift in consciousness demands an alternation of perspective and a reorientation towards life. Just as the seed determines the unfolding of the tree, so within each human life a similar blueprint is contained in the double spiraling DNA molecule. (Figure 11)

About the double helix Doczi observes that

it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we are looking at one of nature's most basic pattern-forming processes . . . [and seeing] the hidden and harmonious order built into body and mind, as it is built into every flower and leaf, mirrored by the crafts, and echoed by music . . . .(36)

Calling symbols "the stuff both of feeling and of knowledge," Lawrence Blair characterizes spirals as more than the timeless symbols of eternity

which we find scrawled or woven throughout our earliest mythology; . . . . Spirals are the actual "shape" of fluid energy evolving order from chaos, and are found even in the anatomy of our own biological inheritance--the spiraling nucleic acids in the DNA molecule.(37)

The spiral journey which begins in Eden moves out from an original state of unity. Its beginning is in the direction of division and separation. But at the crucial point--the crux, the Cross--the direction changes back towards unity and culminates in the New Jerusalem. In spiraling round we will come back to where we began but from a higher vantage point and from which we will know that we know that we are inseparable from the heart of God.


The Forbidden Fruit

But in Genesis the journey was just beginning and the creation of pairs of opposites was where God began, doing so with the creation of "the heavens" and "the earth," and differentiating into further pairs of opposites: the waters above and below; night and day; land and sea; the sky above, the earth below; sun and moon; male and female. And in each case God saw that it was good. It would seem that in God's scheme of things the division of original unity into pairs of opposites was essentially "good."

But then came the creation of the garden and its two trees, the one whose fruit was forbidden. The name of this tree was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, inferring a division into opposites that opposed rather than complemented one another. The result was a duality that split apart and created the breech that became known as the Fall.

The unity that was lost does not seem to be the kind that ordinarily happens when children grow up and leave home in order to become their own persons and live their own lives. Rather, in eating the "forbidden" fruit, Adam and Eve's relationship with their Creator-Parent was ruptured. They became alienated in the same tragic way that sometimes happens within families today, and that causes parents who are subjected to this kind of sorrow to wrestle with self-blame and wonder where they went wrong. But estrangement is sometimes the result of a child's falling victim to the kind of temptation that leads to actual involvement with evil, and that is harmful not only physically and mentally but that endangers them spiritually as well. Against these "powers of darkness" our children need our fervent and constant prayers.

For humanity in its evolutionary childhood the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil surely must have been "forbidden" for some good reason. Otherwise, as John Sanford points out, God's punishment "for one act of disobedience . . . looks like a case of overkill," particularly when we consider that the whole situation was a "set up."

For God to create curious beings like the first man and woman, place them in a garden with the gift of free will, point out to them this miraculous fruit, goad their curiosity by placing a tempting serpent with them, go off and leave them alone, and then be surprised at what they did and make a big deal about it, is an interpretation that surely does not do justice to this subtle tale.(38)


The Gift of Discrimination

Food itself is a metaphor for the different kinds of knowledge that can be "eaten" and "inwardly digested." In the animal kingdom different species have different digestive systems. What is food for one is poison for another. Some animals, in fact, have an exceptionally finely-tuned instinct for discriminating between what is fit for consumption and what is not. Digestion itself is a transmutation process, one that calls for discrimination. Biologically or spiritually, what cannot serve the continuation of life is separated out and those elements returned to the earth. In ancient Egypt the jackal was honored for his "precise timing" in allowing his prey to putrefy (and therefore predigest), but only to the point of providing the maximum nourishment from his meal. Thus in Egyptian mythology the jackal was the "judge" who accompanied souls to the gates of the underworld where their lives were weighed "in the balance of a feather."

Discrimination is a gift of maturity that comes with "the seasoning of existence." In the garden time of humanity's early childhood, the fruit of the forbidden tree, if nothing else, was immature.

The story suggests that, as with food for the body, in the realm of knowledge there is a distinct risk of contamination. As parents there are certain experiences, certain ways of knowing, from which we would hope to protect our children. Something similar could have been behind Yahweh's prohibition.

But perhaps, as John Sanford has pointed out, the text is not even talking about knowing the difference between what is good and evil, but rather is using knowing in the biblical sense of being intimate not only with good but also with evil, thus experiencing not only good but also evil. As parents, while we want our children to know the difference between good and evil, we certainly don't want them to get involved in experimenting with practices that are evil. And we try the best we know how to protect them, hoping they can grow up without becoming the victims of evil. But we are not always successful, nor can we or should we be so overly protective as to render our children unprepared for the realities of life. To protect or not protect is one of the paradoxes of parenthood.

But there is a natural learning process the Eden story also could be speaking of: how in the process of growing up we experience "shame" and become aware of our "nakedness." Most little children learn "hot" from getting too close to the fire. And very early the child learns "me" and "you," and soon after, "mine" and "yours," as well as "good and bad." "No," even when intended to keep a child from harm, can be interpreted by the child as condemnation. This leads to guilt and guilt to shame. Shame, in turn, leads to a sense of being separated and cut off from approval. Psychologically the child feels unprotected and exposed--naked. Most little children, before they have been "shamed," delight in running around naked. Self-consciousness around nakedness results as a child is conditioned to sense separation according to differences. What begins as gender differences carries over to cultural and social differences, to the differences that cause some children to feel inferior and others to feel "special." Thus step by step each of us leaves the garden of unconscious unity for the wilderness of separation, egocentricity, guilt, and remorse.

Referring to the Tree of Knowledge, Jung said: "The tree stands for the development and phases of the transformation process." The process in its "going out" phase is one of separations and differentiations. But in its "coming back" phase it is a process of realizing our sameness as human beings and of discovering our unity through the bond of human frailties we share.


From Eden to Gethsemane

Not only does the principle of opposites apply to the physical world of the five senses but also to emotional and spiritual realities: sorrow and joy; love and hate; fear and trust; hope and despair; generosity and greed; kindness and cruelty; arrogance and humility; and the list goes on and on. In a mandala, pairs of opposites are united by the axes they share. Through a similar process of reconciliation between the opposites of the human psyche its potential for wholeness is realized. The Cross, as the foundation upon which Christianity is built, was from early times on called The Tree, with its vertical axis symbolic of reconciliation between God and ourselves, and its horizontal arms of reconciliation between ourselves and others, thus on the Cross the breech on both individual and collective levels is repaired. Christ on the Cross is, for Christians, the model of what it means to be totally surrendered to God's will. In this way the Cross becomes the antidote for the "fruit of disobedience." It is the way back into unity. In St John of the Cross' words this union takes place when the two wills, the will of God and the will of the soul, are conformed "with neither desiring aught repugnant to the other."(39)

The first garden leads through the wilderness to a second garden--to Gethsemane--where the tree of death becomes the Tree of Life.

From "the simple to the complex" and from "the infinitesimal to the infinite," the eternal moment of Calvary is symbolized by the four-armed Cross. From Calvary the story moves on. Through the animated imagery of Revelations St John takes us on a journey that transcends time and space. Sequentially he expands on all that is involved in the process of being individually transformed into the image of Christ. But there is more. Humanity collectively is to be Christed. This is symbolized by the twelve-gated New Jerusalem with the Tree of Life now growing in its center, its branches bearing the "twelve fruits," its leaves for "the healing of the nations."(40)


  1. From the Roman Missal.
  2. Sanford, John A, The Man Who Wrestled With God, (Updated), Paulist Press, 1987, pp107-108
  3. Cirlot ,J E, A Dictionary of Symbols, Philosophical Library, NY 1962, p115
  4. Ciardi, John, Dante's Paradiso, NY: The New American Library, 1961, p365
  5. Russell, Walter, Message of the Divine Iliad, University of Science and Philosophy, Swannanoa, Waynesboro, VA, 1949
  6. Way, Robert, The Wisdom of the English Mystics, New Directions, NY, 1978, p 45
  7. John 4:14, Jerusalem Bible
  8. Jung, C G, Civilization in Transition, Vol 10, CW, p407, Pantheon NY, 1964
  9. Ibid, p408
  10. Jung, C G, Aion, Vol 9,11, CW, Pantheon 1959, NY, p235
  11. Jung, C G, Mandala Symbolism, p10, Princeton/Bollingen Paperback Edition, 1972
  12. Petrie, Flinders, Decorative Patterns of the Ancient World for Craftsmen, Dover, NY, 1974, plate L xxxi
  13. Cirlot, J E, A Dictionary of Symbols, op cit, p305
  14. Ibid, p306
  15. Matthew 5:17 RSV
  16. Johnson, Robert A, Owning Your Own Shadow, Harper-San Francisco, 1991, p85
  17. Stiskin, Nahum, The Looking-Glass God, Weatherhill, NY, 1972, p27
  18. Gardner, Martin, The Ambidextrous Universe, Penguin, Middlesex, and Basic Books, NY 1964
  19. Psalm 98:9
  20. Pennick, Nigel, The Swastika, Fenris-Wolf, Cambridge, 1980
  21. Elliott, Ann, Christian Folk Art, Morehouse-Barlow, 1979, p 32
  22. Fideler, David R, Jesus Christ, Sun of God: Ancient Cosmology and Early Christian Symbolism, Quest Books, Wheaton, 1993, p 280
  23. Edinger, Edward F, Ego and Archetype, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1973, p 269
  24. Ezekiel 1:20 RSV
  25. Edinger, Edward F, The Bible and the Psyche, Inner City Books, Toronto, 1986, p125
  26. 1 Corinthians 15:22&28, Jerusalem Bible
  27. Survival, A study guide for Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, published by POM Project, Canoga Park CA, 1967, p 133
  28. Petrie, op cit, Plate X-LXXVII-T9
  29. Faircy, Robert, SJ, The Lord's Dealing, The Primacy of the Feminine in Christian Spirituality, Paulist Press, NY, 1988
  30. Matthew 13: 31-32
  31. Ephesians 4:13
  32. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, Harper, NY, 1959, p300-301
  33. Campbell, Joseph Transformations of Myth Through Time, Harper & Row, MY, 1990, p207
  34. Ribi, Alfred, Demons of the Inner World: Understanding our Hidden Complexes, Shambhala Publications, Boston 1989, p41
  35. Thompson, William Irwin, The Time it Takes Falling Bodies to Light, St Martin's Press, NY, 1981, p9
  36. Doczi, Gyorgy, The Power of Limits, Proportional Harmonies in Nature, Art and Architecture, Shambhala, Boulder & London, 1981, p28
  37. Blair, Lawrence, Rhythms of Vision, The Changing Patterns of Belief, Schocken Books, NY, 1976
  38. Sanford, John, The Man Who Wrestled With God, op cit, p114
  39. St John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, translated by David Lewis, Book I Chapter 1, Benziger Brothers, NY, 1906
  40. Revelations 22:2

Back to Return to the Whole
Return to Elliott Home Page