Lifting the veil

Why must we see only through a glass darkly? We can understand this as a natural result of all cognition being semiotic – but Rumi explains it in different terms: it would not serve the divine purpose for us to see ourselves as God sees us.

Is there any place our King is not? But his sorcery has blindfolded the viewer.
He blindfolds your eyes such that you see a dustmote at midday, but not the Greatest Sun,
A ship at sea, but not the ocean’s waves.
The ship’s bobbing tells you about the sea, just as the movement of people tells the blind man that it is daytime.
Have you not read the verse, God has set a seal … ? It is God who sets the seal, and it is He who removes it and lifts up the coverings.

— Rumi, Diwan-i Shams-i Tabrizi 2633-37 (Chittick 1983, 59)

In the last of these verses, Rumi alludes to two passages from the Qur’án. The first refers to unbelievers being rendered blind and deaf by God/Allah:

Allah hath sealed their hearing and their hearts, and on their eyes there is a covering.

Qur’án 2.7 (Pickthall)

The second refers to the apocalyptic vision in Surah 50 (Qaf):

15So were We incapable of the first creation? No indeed! Yet they doubt a second creation. 16We created man— We know what his soul whispers to him: We are closer to him than his jugular vein— 17with two receptors set to record, one on his right side and one on his left: 18he does not utter a single word without an ever-present watcher. 19The trance of death will bring the Truth with it: ‘This is what you tried to escape.’ 20The Trumpet will be sounded: ‘This is the Day [you were] warned of.’ 21Each person will arrive attended by an [angel] to drive him on and another to bear witness: 22‘You paid no attention to this [Day]; but today We have removed your veil and your sight is sharp.’

— Haleem, M. A. S. Abdel. The Qur’an (Oxford World’s Classics) (pp. 340-341). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

The point here is that only God can remove the veils which He has placed over the eyes, hearts and minds He has created – and the resulting dis-covery would mean the end of the old habitual world and creation of a whole new one. In the meantime – that is, in historical time – God’s creatures must remain veiled from their own true nature. It is necessary for them to sleepwalk through their roles in the divine play, just as one must first be asleep in order to wake up (see Chittick 1983, 58-60). How would the play ever get performed if every role-player recognized herself as the whole show?

The ‘driving’ angel in Verse 21 of Qaf might recall the saying of Heraclitus that ‘Every beast is driven to pasture by a blow’ (Wheelwright 1959, 37). The ancient writer who quoted that fragment apparently understood it as referring to a divine blow (Wheelwright 1959, 57). In Peircean terms, the ‘driver’ might be identified with the Secondness which motivates inquiry and learning: no one learns unless his expectations are contradicted, more or less violently, by the reality beyond them. The ‘witness’ then is the voice of Experience itself.

Signs of apocalypse

According to the Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon, the word σημεῖον (derived from the older word σῆμα) was used in reference to conventional signals, ‘signs’ from the gods (omens or portentous events), and elements of reasoning (‘proofs’). The usual sense of σημεῖον in the New Testament, where it occurs frequently, seems to combine the ‘proof’ sense with the sense of ‘signs from the heavens.’ But the NT frequently warns us to beware of false prophets bearing great ‘signs’! In Matthew 24, the disciples of Jesus ask him what will be “the sign of his coming and of the close of the age” (σημεῖον τῆς σῆς παρουσίας καὶ συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος). His answer takes most of the chapter and includes various cataclysmic events; he also says (24:24) that ψευδοπροφῆται (false prophets) will arise (ἐγερθήσονται, the same verb used for resurrection!) and give great signs (καὶ δώσουσιν σημεῖα μεγάλα). But then will appear the sign of the son of humanity in heaven (24:30, φανήσεται τὸ σημεῖον τοῦ υἱοῦ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐν οὐρανῶ), the true sign.

And how does one know the true sign from the false? We don’t know the ‘day and hour’ when the Son of man will come, but according to the gospel, the coming will be as undeniable and irresistible as the flood of Noah’s time that swept everyone away (Matthew 24:39). In that light, how do we read the statement of Jesus to his contemporaries that ‘this generation will not pass away till all these things take place’ (Matthew 24:34)? The ‘proof’ of that theorem is left to the reader.

Sacred site

If meaning is a connection to reality, and the real is the sacred (as Mircea Eliade says), to mean is to consecrate. But ‘men are not free to choose the sacred site’ (Eliade 1957, 28). It must be a discovery, not an invention, not a merely conscious creation. Humpty Dumpty’s claim (‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’) disqualifies his word as a turning word. The ‘sacred site’ as dynamic object must determine the sacred sign to its interpretant.

Act of meaning

When we speak of ‘finding the meaning,’ as in Thomas 2, we typically assume that ‘the meaning’ is a finished thing lying around somewhere, waiting for us to pick it up, or pick up on it. If we found such a thing, it would then mark the end of the quest – like a tombstone with its epitaph. But what if we find instead the act of meaning? Perhaps Thomas is emphasizing that such a ‘finding’ has no taste of death in it, unlike the finding of a finished meaning. If we discover the act of meaning as part of a semiosic life cycle, then we can see that it never becomes inert: meaning must stabilize long enough to change our habits, to guide our practice, but this stability is only a part of a larger living, like the human skeleton which provides an internal frame for the ongoing articulation of the body. The act or process of meaning is not a dead letter but the spirit that giveth life, never ceasing to surprise us.

Now hear this

The event of revelation is not fixed on the timeline of history: rather each presenting is a flash that lights up the whole world. Enlightenment is universal. The primal person, like the bodhisattva, has no concern for private salvation. If you have her ears, you can hear her voice, even through one reporting his own experience, like St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2-4:

I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.

And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;)

How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.


Northrop Frye (1982, 231) comments on this testimony by Paul:

He feels a certain reluctance in stressing the experience, mainly, no doubt, because of his strong revolutionary slant: he wants the world as a whole to wake up, and individual enlightenment is useful chiefly because it may be contagious, which it cannot be if it is incommunicable.

The improbable text

Every utterance that makes a difference changes the situation which called it forth, and thus changes its own context. The letter will mean something different to latter-day readers.

… in the sphere of culture the more unexpected something is, the stronger will be its influence on the cultural situation after it has come into being. An event that is quite unexpected (the appearance of an unpredicted text) radically alters the situation of the next one. The improbable text becomes a reality and subsequent development makes the fact of its existence a starting point.

— Yuri Lotman (1990, 235)


Once a revelation has been encoded as a symbol in a fixed format, belief in its content can become an expectation (or complex of expectations) which we take as a reliable guide into the indefinite future. This is what it means, pragmatically, to be a believer. But if any kind of guidance worked perfectly, the future would turn out exactly as expected, and then there would be no surprises, nothing to learn, and no sense of a reality beyond your imagination. That would be the end of experiencing, which is the crossing or collision between expectation and reality. If experience in that sense did not happen to you, then you would not be conscious of yourself as a believer – or even as a self.

The Hidden Treasure

Esoteric traditions often turn the distinction between the Word and the world inside out, or upside down, reading both as revelation. The Zohar (1:5a) tells us that the blessed Holy One contemplated Torah four times ‘before actualizing his work of art,’ i.e. before creating the world; and this is the model to be emulated by the ideal reader.

An Islamic hadith beloved of the Sufis goes something like this: I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, and I created the world in order to be known. In other words, nature is the scripture through which the hidden Creator is revealed; and scripture is the seed in which Creation is concealed.

The seed is planted in the ground. The archetypal sacred text is dug up from underground, like the mysterious letter in Finnegans Wake, or the Book of the Dead in Tibet, where such texts are known as terma, ‘hidden treasures’ (Fremantle and Trungpa 1992). Sometimes the text is burned (like the Blue Cliff Record) and later resurrected or reconstructed by dedicated readers.

The ‘hidden treasure’ as another symbol for this concentration of meaning in Scripture also appears in Thomas 109 and Matthew 13.44-46 (KJV):

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls: Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

The point of the merchant’s act is not to appropriate to himself the gift, the eternally given, but to ‘sell all he has’ for that which is given to all who can receive it. For once all that is given is concentrated in that pearl, that mustard seed which is the kingdom of heaven and the point of creation, all things are of value only insofar as they reveal that treasure. Prior to that concentration of Presence, outside of that event horizon, things can only conceal that Presence by the separateness which is their absence from it.

The Divine Encryption

The revelation of the Divine Reality hath everlastingly been identical with its concealment and its concealment identical with its revelation.

— The Báb, c. 1850 (1976, 112)

The act of meaning a verbal revelation collides and colludes with the limits of language. Revelation and creation merge and emerge with ‘the inner world which secretes its own light’ (Corbin 1971, 5).

For with the appearance of the light, the universe expanded. With its concealment, all existing things were created according to their species.… This is the secret of the act of Creation. One who is able to understand will understand.

Ketem Paz on Zohar 1:47a (Matt 1983, 214)

From the Valentinian Gospel of Truth, 32:

Understand the inner meaning, for you are children of inner meaning.… Speak from the heart, for you are the perfect day and within you dwells the light that does not fail.

— (Meyer 2005, 106)

All thought is in signs (Peirce); all messages are coded (Bateson) – including revelations. The actual encoding of a message conceals all the other codes that could have carried the same message, and even conceals the fact that other codings are possible. The implications of one encoding always diverge to some degree from the implications of another, and those of the unused encoding are concealed along with it. These concealments are inevitable because one inhabits one meaning space at a time, even when we know that other spaces are no less habitable and other codes might just as well prescribe the path (or describe the place) before us.

Specification misrepresents the implicit by making it explicit. Revelation conceals by articulation.

Zohar 1:31b:

‘Let there be light!’ And there was light (Genesis). Every subject of the phrase and there was exists in this world and in the world that is coming.

Matt (ZP I.194) explains:

The Zohar alludes here to the primordial light, which appeared briefly in this world and was hidden away for the righteous in the hereafter. Bahir 106 (160) identifies the hidden light with the world that is coming, which it takes to mean ‘the world that already came.’ The phrase And there was light is similarly taken to mean ‘There already was light,’ i.e. the primordial light.

Ancient scriptures

Deep reading of an ancient scripture means hearing the primal voice with an original ear. Yet the voice can only speak in a specific idiom, marking a point in the ongoing evolution of the human guidance system. To find the turning word in ancient wisdom is to reclaim that evolution as your own. The deep reader therefore calls upon the help of scholars for access to ancient idioms; otherwise, she would be trapped in the cage of her own, and the revelation lie buried under the rubble of history. To read a scripture as turning word is to reclaim and resurrect that whole history – and to carry if forward: if it only repeats the usual monologue, then it can’t be a turning word for you. Shake the dust from your feet and turn the page.

The deeper levels of your being express themselves through the time of your life, but as each expression is called forth by a specific context, and contexts are constantly shifting and changing, words and deeds may come to conceal what they once revealed, or vice versa. Likewise the deep reader of an ancient text could say that implicit truths are buried in it, awaiting resurrection. Or you could say that the text itself is a seed, or is made up of seeds, waiting to sprout new meaning.