You would think that the Church would grasp with both hands at anything that seemed like a proof of God and yet the closest we have come to it, the ancient and profound wisdom rooted in the Doctrine of Signatures, was suppressed without mercy.
The Doctrine of Signatures, initially propounded by Greek physicians Discorides and Galen in the first century, says that plants resembling various parts of the body can be used to treat ailments pertaining to those parts.
”Nature marks each growth… according to its curative benefits.” Paracelsus.
Lungwort looks like the lungs and is good for bronchial conditions. Kidney beans are good for those organs. Carrots, the cross section of which looks like an iris, are good for eye infections and so on.
It seems like a pretty innocuous belief, and useful enough to have persisted in medical and herbal practices for centuries, surviving to this day in homeopathy and Bach flower remedies. So why were healers persecuted for its practice? Surely the notion that divine intervention had given humanity a helping hand is good PR…
Modern medicine wanted its cures devoid of divine meddling and the church preferred that Nature was not something sentient in its own right.
Somehow the notion that Nature might be helpful and intelligent undermined religious convictions about who was running the show. It was the wrong kind of divine intervention.
The problem for the authorities was that the Doctrine of Signatures represented a challenge to the official position on Salvation, you have to deserve it. Not only was the veiw of Nature according to these early gnostic philosphers and healers lacking in blood thirstyness it was decidedly benevolent, irrespective of a person’s moral rectitude. Not only was Nature sentient, it was unconditional, happy to heal saints and sinners alike.
Moreover, it encouraged folk to have their own relationship/dialogue with Nature which marginalised the intercession of earthly powers.
The Doctrine of Signatures was duly deemed blasphemous and could cost you a great deal more than your health because it went further than affirming the existence of God. It also begged the question of divine disposition.
The notion of divinity unconcerned with sin or retribution, positively helpful to all regardless of upstandingness and offering redemption from suffering in the here and now rather than in an anxious future beset with fears was, err..
So you can imagine how the church fathers’ abject consternation might increase as they considered and mused over its further implications..
because it meant that life itself was full of useful signposts and synchronicities that helped people, not only freely laid before us and not just as a system of unconditional connecting principles, but as a means by which we might actually experience ourselves in continuity with the natural world.
and if we are not separate from Nature then we need have no fear..
and we have no fear then we cannot be controlled, threatened or manipulated.
One of the stories I like best about plants is the native discovery of Curare, a deadly poison used by Amazonian Indians to tip their blow darts. It is made by combining, in specific quantities, the leaves of three or four entirely unrelated plants, each of which is entirely benign on its own.
The chances of finding this out accidently is about as likely as waking up one morning and deciding to vapourize mayonnaise in the presense of Lithium dichloric oxide and snorting the results as a remedy for gout.
So how did they find out about it?
Simple, the forest told them.
The discovery of Peyote is better documented. For those who haven’t tried it, allow me to assure you that Peyote, a small desert cactus in central Mexico that has strong psychoactive properties, is the most disgusting, bitter, rancid, vomit inducing substance you could ever encounter. It contains natural emetics that make you puke so hard you will wish for imminent death; but before that, a taste so foul your entire body mitigates against it. Imagine the worst childhood medicine topped with dog shit and sprinkled with the contents of Mr Twit’s beard.
apologies to Roald Dahl.
Yes, its that bad; the point being that no-one in their right mind would ever try it unless they also had a taste for paint stripper by the pint with chasers of albatross guano cut with baboon snot.
Legend has it that two young brothers got lost in the desert. Their elder sister became worried once night fell and went in search of them. She too got lost and had to sleep out in the cold. As she slept she dreamt. A voice told her that when she woke she’d find that she’d used these low lying cacti as a pillow. She must eat them. The visions that followed would lead her to her brothers and that’s what happened.
The brothers were saved.
Unless we call such things miracles and subsume them under God’s Will, neither church nor science has much use for them. The reason is that we have been led to believe that our sinful egos are all we are, or, at best that if there is an unconscious then it is derivative, and ‘nothing but’ the garbage heap of the mind.
This maintains the ego as master of its own house but disconnects it from Nature and stops us from experiencing the vastness of Psyche, much of which we are bound to experience as ‘outside’ us.
‘Some think that fish contains the sea, but actually the sea contains the fish.’ C. G. Jung.
This formulation of things, a central pillar of the gnostic world veiw, is expressed by the Sanscrit, ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, ‘thou art that which thou perceivest’ and again in the Talmud as, ‘We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.’ It is expressed in the buddhist tradition by the saying, ‘you cannot cover the sky with your palm,’ and invites us to completely re-think, to re-experience, our relationship with the Universe.
More recently quantum physics concurs. When asked what the fuss was all about by a journalist at a press conference convened to discuss Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, Niels Bohr is reputed to have said, ‘ I’m not sure, except that you may throw yourself down on Mother Earth in the sure knowledge that you are one with her and She with you.’
The story goes that the chemist Kekule had spent years trying to figure out the shape of the carbon molecule. He just couldn’t get it until one day he was passing a school yard thinking about something else when he saw a group of children holding hands and singing ring-a-ring-a-roses and suddenly he had it, the carbon ring, and the Universe had helped him find it.
We might pooh-pooh such things, and resist giving up what we consider to be the separateness of the ego, from ego’s point of veiw its very sovereignty, and yet we need only look at a person describing the day as miserable to know they are talking about themselves. When bidden a good day by a neighbour, Dutch mystic Miester Eckhart replied joyfully, ‘every day is a good day’.
In the absence of such experience life has to be ruled by moral codes of conduct which assume our separateness from one another with the subsequent need to bring these disparate others into line. ‘Love thy neigbour as thy self,’ is then taken to mean ‘be as nice to others as you are to yourself’. Its a moral injunction, a thou shalt. Very different to, ‘love thy neighbour who is none other than thyself’, wherein compassion for others is no mere moral goodness but a recognition of the other as oneself, a shard of the universal hologram.
This does not mean that the ego is an illusion or that we have to get rid of it, but that it is mere garnish to the banquet of life which ordinarily we’d give little more attention than a sprig of parsley…
which, incidently, is very good for gall stones….