My mandala is basically about “Finding God in all Things”. It is about how God is paradox; complex yet simple, and how, for life centred on God, getting to know God is essentially the same as getting to know ourselves. It is not necessarily about the questions we ask or the answers we find, but it is the process itself that is important, because it is the process we engage in that skews us towards God, that draws us closer to Him, that transforms us so that we become more like Him.
The mandala is made from three symbols which would fit into mandalas on their own. The first of these is the Tai Chi symbol, the Yin and Yang.
This is commonly understood as the balance of opposing forces, but it suggests so much more. In Tai Chi philosophy, when we do tai chi, we become the connection between heaven and earth. For me, since Jesus is the son of God, both human and divine, then He is the connection, and this symbol also stands for Jesus Christ.
The circles in each part suggest He is in us, and that we are in Him. It’s also interesting to note that the word “chi”, meaning energy here, is also the Greek letter chi which is the first letter of Christ and part of the chi ro symbol which stands for Him:
There is a book I read about the teaching of Meister Eckhart – a medieval mystic – which has influenced my understanding a lot. The book is called “The way of Paradox” and it suggests that:
…union with God is a transformation process in which colossal energy needs to be built up and intensified.The Way of Paradox, Cyprian Smith.
We are meant to inhabit both worlds (spiritual and physical) …and maintain the flow of energy between them.The Way of Paradox, Cyprian Smith.
and also that;
When I emerge from a state of inner withdrawal and abandonment to God in prayer, and take up my duties in the everyday world, I am establishing a flow of energy whereby light, life, wisdom and power of heaven enter our world to enliven and transform it.The Way of Paradox, Cyprian Smith.
Tai chi is a philosophy and an internal process. For me, it is a form of prayer.
The next symbol – the triquetra – a celtic symbol, which means the Holy Trinity in the Christian tradition:
It means the Father, Son and Spirit and the intertwining relationship between the three, but only one shape, One God. I don’t imagine this as a static shape, but more of a flow round the shape in both directions at the same time – a bit like blood flowing round the body in the circulatory system.
Eckhart speaks of the Trinity (and of the spiritual path) in terms of paradox – spoken yet unspoken, of breathing in and out at the same time. I don’t completely understand his ideas but this shape has come to mean a lot to me in recent years. It is central to me finding and articulating the “deepest desire of my soul”. It symbolizes my own personal trinity that I am part of – me, God, and others. I connect through God to others and others connect through God to me; God connects to others through me, and others connect to God through me. In other words, I find God in my relationships with others, and hopefully, others find God in me in their relationships with me.
The third shape in the mandala has come from the Alhambra in Spain and is Moorish in origin.
It means “the oneness of God”, but its triple aspect also suggest the Trinity to me. I think this shape is very beautiful, and it tessellates. This is how I saw it for the first time – as the design on the Alhambra wall. When it tessellates it suggests that God is everlasting – that He has no beginning and no end, alpha and omega.
Underlying the tessellating shape, there is a structure of equilateral triangles that fit together. More than this though, the same shape can emerge from a structure of overlapping circles, three, which connect to the other shapes and each produce the triquetra within the Alhambra shape. Underneath the apparently simple pattern created by the shape, there is a complex structure of triangles and circles, where the triquetra (trinity) is at the center.
So, the finished design is made from three symbols each suggesting aspects of God. All of the shapes are composed of triangles and circles – a single shape with three aspects and another which suggests wholeness, perfection, no beginning and no end. Although the design is relatively simple, there is a complex structure of these shapes underlying the pattern. The large circle itself “mandala” means “the universe”, or everything, or all things. So the mandala itself means “God in All Things”.
If you draw a line from the center of the mandala to the outside, so that it is cut by the point of the triquetra (red line, where a circle would enclose the triquetra in a mandala of its own), then this line is divided in the ratio 1:0.618 – the Golden ratio.
Also, the side of the first layer of the Alhambra shape compared to what would be the next layer, if the tessellation were continued outwards (the green lines) is also in the golden ratio (give or take fractions of mm within the bounds error). This golden ratio is significant in maths, science, art and nature and exhibits unique properties that don’t apply to other ratios.
- the ratio of the large part of the line (1) compared to the whole line (1.618 – the number phi) is 0.618, ie. the same as the small section to the large section.
- this ratio is connected to the Fibonacci series, where each term is the sum of the previous two terms: 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 34 55 89… where dividing two adjacent numbers in the series gives the golden ratio eg. 34/55 = 0.618; or inversely, 55/34 = 1.618. (Doesn’t work too well to start with, but it moves towards it).
Anyway, there are all sorts of mathematical games that could be played here, but the point is, the golden proportion is in the mandala and it suggests several things. The first is the consideration of the Alhambra shape and the green lines. If we move from the center of the circle to the outside, we have a suggestion of expansion by this shape. This makes sense in term of the mandala representing the universe and the idea that the universe is expanding. But it also relates to prayer. I went to a talk once by Laurence Freeman (he is a monk of the Olivetan Benedictine Congregation of Monte Oliveto Maggiore and Director of The World Community for Christian Meditation – a holy, wise man.) He said that when we pray, we are seeking to become like God, and it makes us “perfect”, and that “our perfection is to participate in God’s infinite expansion”. The Jesuits also focus on “movement” when we pray, so this idea is relevant to the process by which we connect to God. If we now look at the red line and move in the same direction, from the centre to the outside, it can be seen that the larger part of the line is first, and then the smaller part, suggesting contraction. To expand and contract at the same time is paradox and this suggests Eckhart’s spiritual path to God.
The Fibonacci series as linked to the golden ratio is significant to me because it suggests sunflowers. Let me explain. Some years ago when I was on retreat, the director asked me just to sit still and listen to what God said to me. I did and He said “You are my sunflower.” Nothing more. I wasn’t particularly enamored at the time because I didn’t really like sunflowers and it didn’t mean a thing to me. My director smiled and gave me the following picture with the words from Meister Eckhart:
The seed of God is in us.
Now, the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree; and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree;
A seed of God grows into God.
The golden ratio and the fibonacci series are seen in sunflowers. Firstly, in the way the leaves grow on the stem. The angle between one leaf and the next one up on the stem is 137.5o. This divides the perimeter of a circle in the golden ratio (1). Also, for a leaf to appear in the same position on the stem, it takes five spirals and eight leaves (2). Five and eight are next to each other in the fibonacci series. This arrangement of leaves growing on the stem is the optimum arrangement to absorb the most light. If God is light, then when we pray, we arrange ourselves to absorb as much as possible to gain the energy we need to grow, and grow towards Him. We have a suggestion of the process we live and grow by and the purpose.
Spirals also appear in the way the seeds are arranged in the centre of the flower:
There are two sets of spirals from the centre: one going clockwise (red, 13 of these), and the other going anticlockwise (blue, 8 of these) – 13 & 8 are next to each other in the Fibonacci series. Also, the numbers of seeds in adjacent spirals are adjacent numbers in the fibonacci series.
So why is all this relevant? Well, spirals relate to the winding path to God. Sometimes we might feel we’re going round in circles, not making much progress and making the same mistakes over and over again, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily true. It might feel like we’re in the same place, but if we look closely, we may actually be on the next spiral that’s closer than where we were last time. Sunflowers, for example, a few years ago meant one thing in my relationship with God, and now here they are again, but my understanding of what they are telling me is different. But there are also the other spirals at the center going in opposite directions at the same time – paradox. Another path to God – Eckhart’s path. So, the sunflower suggests the different paths to God – the process we engage in to bring us closer to Him.
In the diagram, the golden spiral represents our spiral path to God, and the red line, Eckhart’s path. This one is where God picks us up and pulls us directly into His centre. We do not control or decide upon this path, we cannot work at it; all we can do is be open to it by being totally open to God in our lives and in our prayer. God chooses the where and when and if, and the result is often a paradigm shift.
Double spirals and the golden proportion are also present in DNA, the molecule we associate with life, and our own personal uniqueness. The length of a DNA spiral is 34A0, its width is 21Ao, 34 and 21 are adjacent in the fibonacci series and their ratio is approximately 0.618. So, now we have the idea of self.
Also, there nine of each of the Alhambra shapes around the edge of the mandala. Nine is the number of mystery and nine points on a circle is basically an enneagram.
The enneagram is an ancient symbol of unity, diversity, change and transformation and has been used by spiritual teachers of different traditions for thousands of years. It is about self knowledge and transformation. I don’t know too much more about it, other than it identifies personality type and character traits and that they are used in some retreats to enlighten people to the truth of themselves and to find a constructive path for change . I’ve never actually been involved in using it myself.
Carl Jung used mandalas in psychotherapy and said that they were our attempts to “square the circle”, to “create order out of chaos” as they drew us to their centre. Literally, “squaring the circle” means drawing a circle and a square of either the same perimeter (a) or area (b).
If the square represents humanity, and the circle the divine, the process of trying to make the two the same is suggestive of the process of prayer, the process by which we become like God. While we can define accurately the area or perimeter of the square, we can never do this for the circle since π is an irrational number, and therefore can only ever be approximated. In other words, we cannot rationalise God! My mandala doesn’t contain any squares – unless you count nine as the square of three! Then we could get into some impure maths: There are two shapes round the edge, and nine of each of these: 2×9. We could write this as: 2×32, and if we square the 2 instead of the 3 we get: 22x3 = 4×3 = 12; the tribes or Israel, or the apostles ie. The human element. But how can we justify squaring the two instead of the three? My attempt to square the circle? “Jung felt that dreaming of a four-part mandala represented an unconscious attempt to heal psychic disturbances.” (The Mandala Book, Lori Bailey Cunningham). I accept that the mandala arose from a deep “disturbance” and that it is an outpouring that is trying to express something which is inexpressible, but the only square in it is 9. Perhaps that is enough to satisfy Jung but I prefer triangles and circles, and the lesser used phrase “circling the square”; the underlying structure of the mandala which tells of God and the process by which we draw closer to , and become more like God.
Mandalas on Wood.
The mandala is a tool for meditation, as the Christian icon is for prayer. I am particularly mesmerised by Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity and I wanted to combine both of these ideas into one object that can be used as a focus. After I had designed and painted a mandala, I started to paint them onto wood, in the style of a religious icon. I am using more modern materials and have not gone through the rigours of formal training and being officially accepted by my religious community as the “icon painter”, but the design and colours are chosen and meaning attributed to them, and they have arisen out of prayer.