“The world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments of the Deity.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

A dream: September 21, 2016

I’ve been living back in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, for a year or two. I’ve begun a new kind of project: I acquire historic homes and other buildings, ones that have a solid structure and/or architectural beauty. Then I completely refurbish their insides. The buildings end up as treasures both within and without—beautiful, unique, and completely functional and efficient as well.

I learn that LW, an old acquaintance, is living in the city, too. In fact, he’s been doing the same kind of “renewal work” there since about five years before I arrived! I contact him and we have a long talk. He tells me, in detail, about the specifics of the projects he’s done. As in my own case, the hands-on reclamation of “architecture” in his work functions as a metaphor for spiritual regeneration and renewal, for making something—or someone—completely new inside, without destroying the foundations.


Sufi Choir album cover - A saga in symbols

After meditating awhile on the dream, I came to realize that its theme has had many antecedents in my life. As a young man, I happened to hear a poem by William Butler Yeats that had been put to music in the late ‘60s by the Sufi Choir, under Samuel Lewis, as a track on an album that was fairly popular in my circles. A soprano voice sang these words:

A house that stood
since childhood
uninhabited, ruinous
suddenly lit up from within.
Men come and men go.
All things remain in God.*

The song turned on a light in me! After hearing it, I spontaneously began to notice such symbols of renewal and reconstruction in the world around me, and consciously connected them to my own inner life.

I began to see houses whose wooden frames were just being erected—where you could practically smell the sawdust—as symbolic of where I was in my own spiritual process. I knew that invisibly, a foundation was being erected within me, mirroring this sight in the outer world that my attention was mysteriously and repeatedly being drawn to. Life felt exciting, new—as fresh as the sap from the trees being used to make the boards. A new structure of awareness was being built internally and I could feel it.


A little later, this new beginning took a detour and before long, I was shown that, too. It wasn’t a pretty sight!

In my early twenties, my need to feel free from some childhood experiences that had deeply shamed me and tangled me up inside, and my not knowing how to get there, led me to psychedelics. At first, I felt that the acid was quickening my spirit. I staked a lot on this new energy. One day, however, a bit too late, I had a chilling intuition that was later proven prophetic: “This energy is all just from drugs.” None of it, I realized in horror, was due to genuine inner transformation.

Saguaro cactus in Arizona - A saga in symbolsEventually, I experienced a rather precipitous fall. As the stage was being set for that, I met up with another symbolic foreshadowing. Driving cross-country with some friends, I took a walk alone in the desert near Tucson to see the Saguaro cactuses. I climbed a small mountain. At the top I found a concrete hut, like a little bunker, and went inside. There, I found broken liquor bottles, occult graffiti scrawled on the wall, someone’s ragged sleeping bag that had been left abandoned and a very negative atmosphere. A little voice inside me said, “This is the state of your soul.”

After more than a year in an almost deathlike state, my desperate prayers were answered and I received spiritual help to get past this negative karma. My life of renewal seemed to go on from where it had been interrupted. Although more periods of detour and obstruction were to follow, they too proved only temporary.


In the late 1980s, during another period of healing, I began to receive images to paint, from a very deep well inside. The process of painting was meditative. The entire period was most extraordinary. One of the first and most potent of these paintings—the original sits, today, atop a tall cabinet in our living room—was one I called City/Self Mandala. It, again, played on the analogies between the structures of the psyche and the building-structures created by humankind.

City/Self Mandala painting by Max Reif - A saga in symbols

City/Self Mandala, 1988

This image appears now on the cover of a book of my stories, Toward an Interior Sun, which was published this past October by The Mindful Word. Here is a paragraph from the book’s Introduction:

If I had taken my younger self aside, as if we were in some “Back to the Future” movie, and told him what he would be going through in coming decades, I don’t think he would have believed me! The life that has unfolded has astounded me in its glorious heights as well as, sometimes, its dismal depths. Most remarkable of all, perhaps, has been learning that rebirth, redemption, and a fresh new page are always possible, even after the darkest night. It is these insights that have set my spirit and hand in motion to write the pieces collected in this book.


Painting of himself as young man by Max Reif - A saga in symbols

Into the Light painting by the author

And so, I see there’s a context for the dream recorded at the beginning of this article. Indeed, it’s the context of an entire lifetime. I feel that work has been done on me over the years, that it’s still going on, and it’s similar to what I’m shown doing with various buildings in the dream. The buildings, in my estimation, represent structures of my own psyche that are being transformed.

I feel happy to share this context of symbolic themes in my life. I’ve always found it beautiful. Symbols are gates to a deeper world.

What are we, anyway? We live in these little nests we call our homes, in these little temples called bodies. Thought can’t really apprehend the human condition. Thinking ends where symbols begin. Symbols end only in the full realization of the Self.

*from “Crazy Jane on God” by William Butler Yeats (slightly altered in the Sufi Choir lyrics)
An earlier version of this article was published in OM Point International

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image 1: Steven Pavlov via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons BY-SA); image 3: Good Free Photos; images 4-5: Max Reif