Tuesday, December 8, 2015

A Deep Symbolic Reading of Helaman 5

I've known for a while that the Book of Mormon has more secrets buried in it than readers have discovered so far. When I read the Book, it's basically an endless treasure trove of insight, but not just in terms of what I can pull from the Book's teachings or literal story. There is also a lot of undiscovered value in the "nuances" of the Book of Mormon, what isn't directly said by the text but rather slips by almost undetected. The Hebrew poetic forms scholars have found in the Book of Mormon are an example of this insight "hidden in plain sight." I think I may have found another one, and if a Google search is anything to go by, I don't think anyone has had my idea yet.

The Book of Mormon as Image-Based

My new perspective on the Book of Mormon is this: it is written in a style distinctly attuned to images. Though the Book of Mormon's English text at times struggles to lucidly get across its meaning, beneath the awkward language there is a great deal of symbolic, imagistic language. And I don't mean just in the places where it's obvious that the Book is using metaphors. The seemingly plain descriptive prose the text uses also evokes images far beyond what it's literally describing. Think of how often the Book of Mormon uses the phrase "in the midst of," for instance--it's not exactly a metaphor, yet it "resonates" with many symbolic meanings. And in my experience, these subtly evocative images in the Book of Mormon come in three main categories: spatial images like "in the midst of" or "descending out of heaven;" bodily images like "stretch forth thy hand" or "gnashing their teeth upon them;" and material images like "filled with the Holy Ghost and with fire" and "humbling oneself to the dust." These categories also often combine, as when the multitudes in 3 Nephi 11 both lower themselves (spatial) and lower themselves to the dust (material). When considered in this scope, the possibilities for interpreting the Book of Mormon's text become endless. With an eye to these barely noticeable images in the Book, one can potentially read the Book of Mormon without focusing entirely on either its historical context or its internal narrative but on the metaphorical themes composing it, its imaginative composition. This would be a textual reading with an eye to the Book of Mormon's depth, looking deeply into the text to see what makes it up, what makes it so naturally powerful. If you read my post on the resurrection, you'll know what I mean when I say that this kind of a reading would reveal the "matter" in the Book's text, what "matters" in it as substantial and significant.

An Image-Based Reading of Helaman 5

I'm going to introduce this kind of textual reading by using it on one of the Book of Mormon's most evocative chapters: Helaman 5. It depicts two Nephite missionaries, Nephi and Lehi, converting fellow prisoners in a Lamanite jail through a kind of miraculous flame. The relevant part of the chapter begins when Lamanite guards go into the prison so that they might "slay" Nephi and Lehi:
And it came to pass that Nephi and Lehi were encircled about as if by fire, even insomuch that they [the Lamanite guards] durst not lay their hands upon them for fear lest they should be burned. Nevertheless, Nephi and Lehi were not burned; and they were as stuanding in the midst of fire and were not burned. And when they saw that they were encircled about with a pillar of fire, and that it burned them not, their hearts did take courage. For they saw that the Lamanites durst not lay their hands upon them; neither durst they come near unto them, but stood as if they were struck dumb with amazement. (Verses 23 through 25)
The first sentence in this paragraph combines the "spatial" and "material" images from the schema outlined above: Nephi and Lehi, the protagonists of the story and its main concern, are "encircled about as if by fire." While not dwelling on the phrase "as if" (which turns up quite a lot in the Book of Mormon and therefore requires a blog post to itself), the "encircling by fire" combines the spatial image of a circle with the material image of flame. One the one hand, circles evoke feelings of completeness, centeredness, and the incarnation of infinity in finitude (see my post "One Eternal Round" for more on this image), while on the other hand fire conjures associations of, among other things, a transformation of matter, a kind of "purification" that lets some parts of that matter ascend while letting others burn to a crisp. When you combine these two aspects of the image, the circle of flame around Nephi and Lehi becomes seen as a "forceful centering" of those in the prison. The fire uses its transformative power in service of the circle's centeredness on Lehi and Nephi: it turns the attention of everyone there on the two missionaries by making them the sudden objects of everyone's concern. And though this concern occurs at first as a fear of being burned, it's still doing what fire does best--transformation and transmutation, in this case of the prison's balance of power. Here, the guards reverse roles and become prisoners; the flame burned away the prison's old context and left a new one in its place.

Speaking of which, it's interesting that this scene should take place in a prison of all settings. Prisons are naturally enclosed places, often dark and away from where the sun can fully shine in. Moreover, a prison in pre-Columbian America would have been naturally earthy or associated with the images that come with dirt, mud, and dust. Fire would then feel out of place in such a setting, which makes the contrast in this chapter all the more striking. One almost gets the feeling that the fire is burning away the prison itself, as if the whole purpose of this chapter were to present an image of what is "inside" earth becoming freed from it. This is actually a reasonable reading of the text, since the classical imagination saw fire as a way to free the latent air or "spirit" within a matter like wood and get it to ascend as smoke. Wood is the spirit's prison, and so fire has always been the "jail-breaker" that it appears as in Helaman 5.

However, when the passage goes on to say that the fire encircling them is actually a pillar, a new spatial image adds itself to the mix: verticality. A pillar of fire is not only a circular flame; it's a circular flame that extends indefinitely upward. The pillar's verticality naturally raises the question: what does the pillar vertically extend to? Tall objects connect the "above" to the "below," as in the case of a ladder, a tower, or even a natural pillar. Interestingly enough, the image of a pillar itself evokes associations with "structural stability," something that contrasts with developments about to occur in the text. But for now, it should suffice to note that the pillar of fire resonates with the symbolism of fire I've extracted so far from the text: the pillar, as what connects the below to the above, actively relates the "height" of spirit to the earthy ground. This image evokes the idea of material transmutation even more: whereas earth is naturally "horizontal," the pillar's verticality--when combined with fire's ascensional nature--further brings out the way fire naturally transforms what it touches. Whereas before those in the prison were bound to a horizontal (a temporal?) point of view, a pillar of fire again forcefully changes their perspective, not just toward the center, but upward as well.

After Nephi and Lehi speak to the prisoners there, the narration continues:
And behold, when they had said these words, the earth shook exceedingly, and the walls of the prison did shake as if they were about to tumble to the earth; but behold, they did not fall. And behold, they that were in the prison were Lamanites and Nephites who were dissenters. And it came to pass that they were overshadowed with a cloud of darkness, and an awful solemn fear came upon them. And it came to pass that there came a voice as if it were above the cloud of darkness, saying "Repent ye, repent ye, and seek no more to destroy my servants whom I have sent unto you to declare good tidings. (Verses 27 through 29)
Here, the symbolic theme of fire vs. earth continues. Both the walls of the prison and the earth itself shake, giving the reader a sense that the solid stabilities of the prior reality are beginning to falter. Fire is burning away the rigidity of an "earthy" way of being where there is no translucency and no ascension. Earth as "only" earth is naturally dull, languid, and opaque--it is the opposite of spiritual life's goal for ascent and a transparent "seeing through" of idols. So in reality, it is the fire itself that causes the prison to quake; flame robs the building of its stability by letting that stability evaporate as spirit.

The way the fire forcefully refocused the prisoner's attention becomes more apparent here. Whereas before that change of focus was only implicit in the way the fire called attention to Nephi and Lehi, now everything outside the flame becomes dark. Could it be that this "cloud of darkness" just refers to the prison's natural light, now seen as dim only because of the fire's brighter light? It wouldn't be the first time a religious writer had used such an image: Emanuel Swedenborg describes how earthly light (as opposed to heavenly light) looks like thick darkness from the perspective of heaven, since the former is material and the latter is spiritual. Combined with the associations of a prison, I think a similar reading of this text could be fruitful: by the light of the fire, the prisoners see their imprisoned state more clearly than before. Prisons are naturally dark, yes; but they are all the more dark when a bright light like a flame illuminates it from within.

This awesome depiction of Helaman 5 was made by a fellow named Joshua Cotton. Kudos to him!
On that topic, when the chapter speaks of a voice coming as if from "above" the cloud of darkness, it gives more evidence for my reading of the text so far. The voice comes from above; that is, it transcends the "horizontal" limitations of a perspective attuned to imprisonment, earth, and earth's inherent opacity. Moreover, this image strongly corresponds to a similar image in the anonymously written medieval work The Cloud of Unknowing, which discusses another "dark cloud' (which the book is named for) surrounding the believer when deep in prayer. The cloud is actually God's manifest presence as it appears from an earthly perspective, and so the author encourages the reader to progress to the point where they see it as a kind of light. But until that point, the author actually says that God appears "above" the Cloud of Unknowing and invites the reader to pierce through it to Him with a fervent impulse of love" much like the prisoners in Helaman 5 will soon do to great success.

The next few paragraphs repeat the same images multiple times. Specifically, the voice calling them to repentance speaks three times, a number which is neither accidental nor insignificant. The voice also says at one point that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand," which also has important implications. While one might reasonably say that the voice refers to the imminent coming of Christ to the earth, I find it more likely that the "kingdom of heaven is at hand" for the prisoners there at that moment. That is, through the fire's transformation and its subsequent revelation of spirit, those there are coming closer to God. It is a refining fire, as others have noted not a few times.
The story continues by describing a particular prisoner's deeds:
Now there was one among them who was a Nephite by birth, who had once belonged to the church of God but had dissented from them. And it came to pass that he turned him about, and behold, he saw through the cloud of darkness the faces of Nephi and Lehi; they did shine exceedingly, even as the faces of angels. And he beheld that they did lift their eyes to heaven and were in the attitude as if talking or lifting their voices to some being whom they beheld. (Verses 35 through 36)
So far, we have read this chapter as concerning the purification of earthly or earthy limitation by fire. Earth is a naturally dark substance, and so when fire illuminates it from within, that darkness becomes apparent in the light of something "brighter." When the text says that the Nephite "saw through" the cloud of darkness to the faces of Nephi and Lehi, we can also read that "seeing through" as connected to the dichotomy between earth and fire. As Gaston Bachelard and James Hillman repeatedly point out in his works, the archetype of "earth" is one that naturally tends toward literalism and idolatry. 

Earth wants to block the divine light from coming through, and so it takes effort for one to "see through" earth's elemental opacity toward the inward reality it would conceal. Here, the Nephite imprisoned until now in earth makes that effort requisite to look past earth's opacity toward what lies within it. And the fire he finds there--which is both "round" and "vertical"--thus at once offers refinement, wholeness, and transcendence. Likening this procession of images to real life, we could read it as the way a person living their life suddenly sees it as a prison, only to see something bigger, brighter, and more complete beyond (and yet within) it. This "something" is what the Spirit brings: fire's purification, circularity's completeness, and verticality's connection to "the above."

As the story continues, the Nephite cries to the other prisoners so that they can also look to Nephi and Lehi in the midst of the flames. They ask why Nephi and Lehi appear to be talking to someone else, and the Nephite (now named Aminadab) says that "They do converse with the angels of God." Then comes the climax of the chapter:
And it came to pass that the Lamanites said unto him, "What shall we do, that this cloud of darkness may be removed from overshadowing us? 
And Aminadab said unto them, "You must repent, and cry unto the voice, even until ye shall have faith in Christ, who was taught unto you by Alma, and Amulek, and Zeezrom; and when ye shall do this, the cloud of darkness shall be removed from overshadowing you. 
And it came to pass that they all did begin to cry unto the voice of him who had shaken the earth; yea, they did cry even until the cloud of darkness was dispersed. And it came to pass that when they cast their eyes about, and saw that the cloud of darkness was dispersed from overshadowing them, behold, they saw that they were encircled about, yea, every soul, by a pillar of fire. And Nephi and Lehi were in the midst of them; yea, they were encircled about; yea, kthey were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not; neither did it take hold upon the walls of thre prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
The cloud of darkness "overshadows" them: it acts as a "shadow over" them, veiling them from whatever dwells above. This cloud acts as a visible representation of the opacity proper to earth and its literalism; it's an obstacle to "seeing through" the world to heaven, its light, and its fire. So when Aminadab says that they must repent to disperse the fire, he's effectively saying that one must turn toward the fire in the midst of earth (or rather, the Spirit in the midst of matter and everyday life) in order to break free from imprisonment in earth's literalism and idolatry. More practically, this means that you have to turn toward the manifestations of God in your life (appearing in it like a pillar of fire) to stop feeling like that life is a prison.

And they do this to incredible results. They "cry unto the voice of him who had shaken the earth," or rather, they cry out to the God whose fiery reality made their earthy reality seem lesser by comparison. And when they do this, they "cast their eyes about" (i.e. in all directions or even "everywhere"), and all they can see is the pillar of fire. The prison--while still there--is no longer a prison per se. The prison's limitation and finitude instead have the fire's inward infinity inside it. Or in other words, the fire has burned away finitude's opposition to infinity--because the fire "opens up" to heaven with its verticality, the finitude of whatever "prison" one may be in (a job, a family, a relationship, or even a body) reveals itself as just a "container" for an inward limitlessness.

Moreover, since "every soul" is encircled about by a pillar of fire, we can assume that the aforementioned purification, centeredness/completeness, and verticality proper to that pillar have become applicable to everyone in that situation. Where before they were stained with dirt, now they are clean; where they had been de-centered and incomplete, now they are complete and whole in themselves; and where they had been before been exclusively "horizontal," now they are also "vertical." And while this revelation might strike some as frightening or even painful, the fire "did harm them not," meaning that their openness to the flame let its effects come upon them without the pain that comes from resisting it.

Finally, "the joy which is unspeakable and full of glory" suggests that they have entered a reality where words and speech no longer apply. This is nothing unfamiliar to mystical religion: Swedenborg talked about how much wisdom he learned in the higher heavens simply could not descend with him back to the world; Rudolf Steiner similarly speaks of the knowledge of higher worlds as incompatible with earthly memory; and Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus that "Whereof one cannot speak [what he says lies "beyond the world"], thereof one must be silent." Aminadab, Nephi, and Lehi have reached a state that words (as least words of earthly speech) can't capture. The words themselves are prisons, ones that can't explain everything within them. Words may describe the fire (as they do in the chapter) but those words will always be inadequate; they're "bigger on the inside."

The chapter finishes with the following passage:
And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words. And it came to pass that there came a voice unto them, yea, a pleasant voice, as if it were a whisper, saying, "Peace, peace be unto you, because of your faith in my Well-Beloved, who was from the foundation of the world. 
And now, when they heard this they cast up their eyes as if to behold from whence the voice came; and behold, they saw the heavens open; and angels came down out of heaven and ministered unto them. And there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things; and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt.
In this last bit, many entities come "vertically" to the prison: the Holy Spirit, "marvelous words," "a pleasant voice," and angels from heaven. I think it's appropriate to read the pillar of fire--which has an intrinsically vertical component--as a kind of bridge between earth and heaven. The Spirit, angels, voice, and words all come across that bridge, able to go between heaven and the finitude of "earth" using it. Likewise, I think the fire in our hearts or the "burning in the bosom" is this same kind of bridge: it allows revelation, peace, and divine assistance to come down from heaven. Moreover, this can happen even if we are in the "prison" of our life's finitude, since the fire doesn't ever tear it down.

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