Saturday, September 09, 2006
The word paradise comes from an old Persian word pairidaêza, meaning an enclosed park or garden. In the Greek Old Testament it is the word used for the Garden of Eden, and paradise became synonomous with Eden. The world of perfect harmony and natural beauty undistorted by sin which we sense we have lost, and for which we have a nostalgic longing, is a symbol of the deeper harmony between humanity and God, which characterised the innocence of Adam and Eve in the garden in the archetypal story in Genesis. It is not for nothing that Milton called his great epic poem Paradise Lost. A literal Eden there may not have been, but the nostalgia for paradise is all too real, as a casual glimpse at the advertisements of travel agents or estate agents will quickly show. We long for a place where beauty and harmony, trust and goodness, will flourish. Those who wove traditional carpets were often concerned to depict paradise, a new creation that could adorn the wall or mark out the floor, sometimes in the Oriental Christian tradition being used as a curtain to veil the sanctuary, the paradise within.
And if there was a nostalgia for a paradise lost, so there is also a longing for a paradise regained. Gardens, formal or wild, with landscaped vistas or intimate small patios, are windows into such a paradise. A universe redeemed, paradise regained, is a world transfigured. Edwin Muir in his poem The Transfiguration speaks of “the source of all our seeing rinsed and cleansed.” In the light of paradise we see things differently, and see again a world in harmony: “The painted animals Assembled there in gentle congregations, Or sought apart their leafy oratories, Or walked in peace the wild and tame together.” Even “the refuse heaps were grained with that fine dust that made the world”.
“In Thy light shall we see light” wrote the psalmist. Light, and seeing things in the brightness of light, is another picture of paradise regained. The haloes of saints are symbols of the light of Heaven and Dante, led to the heart of paradise, sees the nine orders of angels in the form of nine circles of light spinning around the brilliant point of God’s light at the centre. It is to that heavenly light that the apses and rose windows of the great medieval cathedrals point — holy places in which in worship, praise and contemplation we taste and see and know that grace of transforming love, through which alone paradise is regained.