Since no actual chain exists in the Chain of Being, that metaphorical phrase tells us about the linkage—the relationality—among created beings.
When you meditate on the Chain of Being and the concept of refinement, then, you can see the symbolic implications of the links in that chain:
… just as man is in need of outward education, he is likewise in need of ideal refinement; just as the outer sense of sight is necessary to him, he should also possess insight and conscious perception; as he needs hearing, at the same time memory is essential; as a body is indispensable to him, likewise a mind is requisite; one is a material virtue, the other is ideal. As human creatures fitted and qualified with this dual endowment, we must endeavor through the assistance and grace of God and by the exercise of our ideal power of intellect to attain all lofty virtues … – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 327.
This kind of ideal spiritual refinement—the attainment of “lofty virtues”—has a physical analogue when particulate material (like grain) becomes more refined by a process of first separating the wheat from the chaff, then grinding the kernels of wheat, then sifting the wheat. The resulting flour becomes ever more delicate, ever more pure, ever more ephemeral and subtle, ever more similar to the properties of something liquid or gaseous.
The Physical and Spiritual Properties of Light
We can find a simple but useful application of this concept of refinement leading us metaphorically towards the limitless expressions of spirituality in physical reality in a consideration of the properties of light, both literally and metaphorically.
If we liken the messengers of God to a prism, and the invisible power of the Holy Spirit to sunlight, we can explain in symbolic terms how this concentrated, concealed power of God becomes sensibly perceptible to us as its particular properties are made manifest in both the person and the utterance of the prophet. His actions, comportment, and manner dramatize and exemplify Godliness in human terms, and his words define Godliness in terms of law, doctrine, and educative mental concepts:
… every time the Prophets of God have illumined the world with the resplendent radiance of the Day Star of Divine knowledge, they have invariably summoned its peoples to embrace the light of God through such means as best befitted the exigencies of the age in which they appeared. … every age requireth a fresh measure of the light of God. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 80.
But in addition to these easily discernible spiritual attributes made manifest by the prophet, the powers and properties that require intense study and which, in many cases, are far beyond what we can presently comprehend or will ever comprehend with completeness.
For like the sunlight divided by a prism into constituent properties, some parts of the resulting spectrum are obvious and easily visible to the human eye: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. But as we proceed in either direction away from what the human eye sees as the “central” or visible wave lengths of light, we soon approach those lengths of light waves visible only through advanced technology: infrared as waves become longer, and ultraviolet as the waves become shorter.
In this metaphor, then, we can appreciate that the more obvious virtues are symbolized by the easily visible colors, but as we go in either direction away from the center, the attributes of light become ever more refined, because of the wave’s length or brevity. Furthermore, we know that there is no end point. As we approach scientifically the ability to examine ever more refined waves in either direction, we realize that the spectrum is infinite in either direction.
Consequently, in contrast to the metaphor of the Chain of Being where higher is better (i.e., a more complete expression of spirituality) this concept of longer and shorter waves of light can be thought of as equally more refined as we proceed in either direction—as a metaphor for a lateral or horizontal vision of physical reality, where either direction symbolizes refinement.
This same analogical property—refinement as expressed in terms of physical reality—is also valid when we consider the most studied expression of spirituality in physical form: the composition of the material world as a whole. Here we approach at either extreme those essential questions that have intrigued cosmologists and physicists alike for centuries: How big is big? How small is small?
We are aware of those material objects we can easily perceive, but we are also aware that there are particles smaller than anything we can see with even the most sophisticated microscopes, and there are galaxies vaster and more distant than anything we can detect with the most powerful telescopes. So we seem to approach infinity—and the realm of the spirit—as we travel in either direction.