Sunday, 8 November 2015

Native Tongue

(Written in 2000)


The sunlight is one and the same wherever it falls, but only bright surfaces like water, mirrors and polished metals can reflect it fully.  So is the divine light. It falls equally and impartially on all hearts, but only the pure and clean hearts of the good and holy can fully reflect it.
     Every man should follow his own religion. A Christian should follow Christianity, a Mohammedan should follow Mohammedanism, and so on. For the Hindus the ancient path, the path of the Aryan Rishis, is the best.
     People partition off their lands by means of boundaries, but no one can partition off the all-embracing sky overhead. The indivisible sky surrounds all and includes all. So common man in ignorance says, ‘My religion is the only one, my religion is the best.’ But when his heart is illumined by true knowledge, he knows that above all these wars of sects and sectarians presides the one indivisible, eternal, all-knowing bliss.
     As a mother, in nursing her sick children, gives rice and curry to one, and sago arrowroot to another and bread and butter to a third, so the Lord has laid out different paths for different men, suitable to their natures.  
      Dispute not. As you rest firmly on your own faith and opinion, allow others also the equal liberty to stand by their own faiths and opinions. By mere disputation you will never succeed in convincing another of his error. When the grace of God descends on him, each one will understand his own mistakes.
     So long as the bee is outside the petals of the lily, and has not tasted the sweetness of its honey, it hovers round the flower emitting its buzzing sound; but when it is inside the flower, it noiselessly drinks its nectar. So long as a man quarrels and disputes about doctrines and dogmas, he has not tasted the nectar of true faith; when he has tasted it, he becomes quiet and full of peace.
     People of this age care for the essence of everything. They will accept the essential of religion and not its non-essentials (that is, the rituals, ceremonials, dogmas and creeds).
     Honour spirit and form, both sentiment within and symbol without.
     Common men talk bagfuls of religion, but act not a grain of it, while the wise man speaks little, but his whole life is a religion acted out.

Sri Ramakrishna
From The Pocket World Bible, pages 79-80

At the beginning of February I was invited to perform a wedding blessing for a couple in Tralee. After the ceremony I was introduced to an uncle of the bride, the celebrated Irish writer, John Moriarty, who was interested in the literary figures associated with Unitarianism, particularly Coleridge, Emerson and the novelist Herman Melville. He had made an extensive study of Melville’s Moby Dick (which he considers to be the greatest work of fiction in the English language), and since, coincidentally, I had finished the novel only days earlier we were able to pass the time before the reception in what, for me, was interesting and illuminating conversation – something of a rarity at weddings as I’m sure you will agree. I had read the novel as an exploration of the interior life, a quest for the self, whereas John saw it in more political and sociological terms, but we were agreed that it was a work of profound spiritual significance and our discussion of this led us automatically to religion. In response to my question about his own religious life and practice, John said, ‘I don’t go to church any more, but Christianity is my native tongue.’
His use of the phrase ‘native tongue’ in this context struck me forcibly. He was not saying, negatively, as many people who have ceased to practise the religion of their birth do say, that he still had a sentimental attachment to Christianity even though it could no longer satisfy him intellectually. He was saying, much more positively, that Christianity was so much a part of him that it continued to provide the basic framework of his life and thought; that its categories of heaven and hell, good and evil, sacrifice and redemption, forgiveness, holiness, suffering could never be shaken off even when overt commitment to churchgoing had long since been jettisoned; that the religion of infancy, like the language of infancy, stays with one for life.
The more I thought about this metaphor – religion as language – the more intriguing it became, and I have realised over the past couple of months that it provides us with a very fruitful way of understanding many of the factors involved in contemporary religious discourse.
For example, if we think of a religion as a kind of language, we do not need to dwell so much on whether or not it is objectively true. No one would ever ask, ‘Is the English language true?’ It works; people live, laugh, love and think by means of it. It is a primary vehicle of our life, and questions about its truth or falsity are nonsensical, like asking, ‘What colour is tomorrow?’ And in speaking one language we don’t necessarily have to disparage another. French speakers don’t deny the efficacy or the beauty of Italian or German or English, and it is quite possible to extol the virtues of a language other than one’s own without being accused of harbouring unpatriotic sentiments. As an English speaker I can enjoy the euphony of Italian, the simple directness of Hebrew, the precision of German and can still delight in, and maintain, my attachment to the language in I use daily to structure my own world. Every language has its particular genius and specific utility. Dr Johnson made the same point in a humorous (if slightly disrespectful!) fashion when he said something like: ‘I conduct my business in English, I make love in French, I sing in Italian, and I speak to my horse in German.’ So, we who speak in Christian categories need not consider the categories of Hinduism, Buddhism or Judaism as inferior to our own. We can celebrate the tolerance of Hinduism, the compassion of Buddhism, the ethical focus of Judaism, without in any way compromising our commitment to Christianity.
Seeing religion as a language also helps us to appreciate just how deeply religious principles and convictions affect the psyche of a particular group. A language is not just an arbitrary set of conventions: it comes from the very soul of a people, helping to form it, and being formed by it. There was a letter in the Irish Times a couple of weeks ago, from an Englishman who has just taken up the study of Irish. He said that his brief acquaintance with the Irish language had taught him so much about the nature of the Irish people, the collective Irish psyche, that his whole approach to living here in Ireland, and to understanding his Irish friends and colleagues, had been transformed. The writer realised that to understand a language is to penetrate to an intense intimacy with another people, to know them on a level denied to those who make the facile assumption that a language is just a code and that we can substitute one set of sounds for another without any real loss. To lose a language is to lose a soul, and to take a language away from a people – either by force or by the subtler means of cultural imperialism – is a heinous crime against human richness and diversity.
The same is true for religion. Religions grow within a culture and help to nurture a culture. To separate a religion from a culture is like amputating a limb, and to force a religion onto a people who are psychologically and culturally unprepared for it is to invite rejection, just as the body will reject any alien intrusion. Black Elk, the Native American medicine man, spoke of the cultural devastation wrought upon his people by the white men; even the apparently innocuous provision of rectangular huts on the reservations was deeply disorientating to people who had lived their lives in round tepees grouped in circles; and the linear theology of Christianity proved difficult for people who thought in terms of cycles to understand and assimilate. Translation from one culture to another, like translation from one language to another, needs to be done with great sensitivity to the nuances which are easy to miss, but which mean so much. Cultural, linguistic or religious structures are not interchangeable. Ignorance of this can lead to profoundly inhuman acts, often perpetrated, ironically, with the best of intentions.
Should we, then, leave each culture and each religion alone and not even try to find points of contact and similarity? By no means: we are obliged to learn something about other religions, if only so that we can better understand our own. It has been wisely observed that the person who knows only one religion really knows no religion, and this is true in the sense that some acquaintance with the part religion plays in another society will help one see more clearly the part it plays in one’s own – just as learning a foreign language always has an immense impact upon one’s ability to appreciate the way one’s own language functions. We do not need to force religious systems into uneasy compromises. Left to themselves they will begin to impinge upon one another, to flow into one another, and to influence one another, just as languages do, and this is almost always mutually enriching. The richness of the English vocabulary, for example, has been attained by constant exposure to influences from other languages in a development which has been going on for over a thousand years and which continues as I speak. Words and expressions are borrowed or discarded; new words are coined as needed; words change their meaning or lose their force over time, and this is a natural process, which no amount of interference from language purists or governmental agencies can stop. The French Academy, which tries to maintain what it considers to be to integrity of the French language, may lament and try to prevent the adoption of anglicisms into French, but popular usage is always stronger than scholarly disapproval, and I am afraid that ‘le weekend’ has now become as much a part of French as billet doux is part of English.[i]
Religions, too, change by assimilation. The richness of Christianity springs from its birth in mystical Judaism, its early contact with Gnosticism, Mithraism and Platonism, its rediscovery of Aristotle in the Middle Ages which gave rise to Scholasticism, and in more recent times, its encounters with Rationalism, Marxism and Modernism. It is currently being redefined, as never before, by contact with non-Christian religions. Magisterial bodies, the self-styled defenders of orthodoxy, are, in religion, engaged in the same kind of impossible task as the French Academy – attempting to prevent the natural congruence of religious ideas by insisting on the purity, integrity, uniqueness and truth of their own systems. So, the pope can declare, just six weeks ago that ‘Jesus Christ represents the full and complete revelation of the saving mystery of God.’ Non-Christians may attain salvation if they seek God with a sincere heart, but their situation is lacking ‘if compared to that of those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation.’[ii]
Meanwhile, at grass roots level, new forms of religious understanding are developing, a new appreciation of hitherto unexplored areas such as reincarnation is emerging among ordinary Christian believers who have been exposed to eastern ideas for the first time; new understandings of classical theological terms, such as redemption and salvation are taking shape as people begin to exercise their intellectual freedom and to take advantage of improvements in education and communications. These are expressions of the vox populi – the voice of the people – which may well be inspired by the Spirit of God in a way that popes, bishops and moderators rarely are. Religions change, just as languages change, because of what people do with them. A religion, like a language, is an unfinished entity, a continuing process. It comes out of earlier forms and, in so far as it is alive, it moves into new ones, ever responsive to the needs and concerns of the people it serves.
What I am describing – and advocating - here is the very thing that the pope was condemning: theological relativism, which declares that the quest for ultimate truth in religion is a fruitless and inevitably a divisive one. But I am not advocating theological syncretism, which attempts to construct a kind of religious Esperanto, an amalgam of bits and pieces taken arbitrarily from different religious systems and forced to coexist uneasily in an all-embracing mish-mash. When people ask me what Unitarianism stands for I point to Paddy’s sculpture and say that we honour all religious systems and we try, in Tennyson’s words, to keep our temple ‘always open-doored to every breath from heaven’. And while we feel free to draw our inspiration from non-Christian sources, we don’t practise every religion, or a mixture of religions. Christianity is our native tongue, and, continuing to develop this extraordinarily fruitful metaphor, we can say that we, as Unitarians, speak one dialect of it while remaining sensitive to the other Christian dialects and to the other religious languages – major and minor - which surround us. This is the advice that Sri Ramakrishna gives us in the passage I read earlier: Christians should become good Christians, Muslims good Muslims, etc. We do not need to learn every language in order to communicate effectively, and although familiarity with systems other than our own is always beneficial, we do not need to understand every religion in order to be religious. Indeed, the actor Peter Ustinov, who is an exceptional linguist, once advised us to beware of the person who speaks many languages because, he said, ‘the chances are he’ll have nothing to say in any one of them.’ Similarly, learning about religion, seeking ever more exotic religious paths, can be an excuse for avoiding the actual practice of the religious virtues. Talking about religion, reading about religion, even listening to sermons, is not religion. ‘Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.’ (Micah 6:8) That’s religion, and all the great religious systems teach it in one way or another. We can all learn to do it through the medium of Christianity, our native tongue, if we would just learn to speak it more effectively.

[i] A letter in the London Times (2/7/2000) expressed this beautifully:
Quelle horreur:  Apropos the cri de coeur uttered by the French vis-à-vis English corrupting their language, I admit a certain frisson of empathy.  We English have become blasé about the fait accompli of the French debut into English.
     Despite our resistance, a lamentable volte-face occurred in the face of force majeure and French has now become the bête noire de nos jours.  Indeed, the proliferation of French terms seems to have some sort of perceived cachet so it now appears that there is a clique unable to find le mot juste unless it is French.  It is all very well to speak of chacun a son gout:  English is a sovereign language and it borders on lese majeste to think otherwise.
Peter Taylor

[ii] Irish Times, 31/1/2000

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Birthday Thoughts

Story: The Waters of Madness


any years ago in a land far away,  there lived a king who liked nothing better than sitting down with his subjects and talking about important matters of life. He liked to discuss politics, religion, poetry, the books he had read and the plays he had seen at the theatre. Every day would find him in conversation with the wise and the not so wise in his kingdom, asking them questions such as, ‘Do you believe in God?’ ‘Where did the world come from?’ What is the best way for a human being to behave?’ ‘Is fighting wrong?’ ‘What happens when we die?’ His subjects had many different points of view to offer the king and he grew in wisdom as he conversed with them year after year. Each night he would tell the queen what he had been discussing during the day and she would offer her own opinions on the many subjects that had been covered. The kingdom was filled with happy and fulfilled people, who worked hard, brought up their children properly and settled their disputes in sensible and peaceful ways.
One day, however, a wicked magician entered the lands of the wise king and poisoned all the water. Into every river and every lake, every stream and every well he poured a deadly concoction to which there was no known antidote. But the poison did not kill those who drank it; it simply sent them mad. Anyone who drank the water in the kingdom would go insane, and start to behave in strange and uncharacteristic ways. Before they drank the waters of madness, the people had always been happy to solve their disputes with one another without violence; now they fought over everything, even inconsequential matters. Before they drank the waters of madness they liked to play sports and take exercise; now they just wanted to watch from the sidelines, and the more violent the sport, the more they liked it. Before they drank the waters of madness, they would welcome visitors to their land, offering hospitality and friendship to all; now they were hostile and unwelcoming, suspicious of everyone who spoke a different language from themselves.
Only the king and queen escaped. The wicked magician was not able to get through the high walls of the royal grounds and so the king’s water supply was unaffected. Although the king and queen weren’t insane, they soon became very lonely. They could no longer hold intelligent conversations because no one else in the kingdom was interested in discussion anymore. They didn’t want to talk about ideas; they just wanted to talk about each other. ‘Who does she think she is with her high and mighty ways?’ ‘He might be strong but I’ll bet he’s not as strong as I am!’ ‘Have you seen the state of their house? It’s disgusting! They live like pigs!’ And so it went, and it got to the point where the wise monarchs could bear it no longer.
‘What can we do?’ the king asked the queen.
They considered the options:
‘We can emigrate to some other kingdom where the waters have not been polluted.’ They dismissed this idea because they liked their homeland and their palace and anyway they didn’t know any other land.
‘We can search for an antidote to remove the contamination from the water.’ They soon realized that this was impossible. All the scientists in the kingdom were insane and didn’t want to do any serious work anymore.
Do you know what they did in the end? They decided to drink the waters of madness themselves, just so that they could be like everyone else.

This was written in June 2009

When I’m 64

Eheu! Fugaces labuntur anni. (Horace)
Alas! The swift years slip away.

It was in June 1967, exactly 42 years ago, that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I was just 22 and had spent the previous four years or so with the Beatles. Their first records were released when I was in sixth-form, and, like all my peers, I’d eagerly anticipated, regularly listened to, and knew by heart every song on every Beatles L.P.
            But Sgt. Pepper was different. I thought on first hearing – and I remember exactly where I was when I heard it first - that it signalled a massive change in popular music, and so it proved to be. That year was full of psychedelic, drug-influenced music – A Whiter Shade of Pale, by Procul Harem, topped the hit parade for weeks, and Scott McKenzie’s If You’re Going to San Francisco was played non-stop in every bar and on every radio station throughout the summer.  The whole scene seemed to suggest that we young people had found our voice at last and it was a very different, and very much more confident voice than that of our immediate predecessors. There was full employment in Britain, and the young were quite affluent, probably for the first time in history; we didn’t have conscription to the armed forces, men were taking an interest in fashion, pirate radio stations were giving us popular music all the day long. And the contraceptive pill was widely available. Very useful, because our generation had actually discovered sex. As Philip Larkin so rightly points out,

Sex began in 1963
Sometime between the Lady Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first L.P.

Sex and drugs and rock and roll. Money, freedom, fashion, time. We had it all. Yes, there was the threat of the bomb, and the ongoing war in Vietnam, but they seemed quite remote and anyway they gave us ‘causes’ to demonstrate about, problems to solve on the way to creating our Utopian ‘love-in’.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!

These lines by Wordsworth, written about the French Revolution nearly two hundred years earlier, seemed doubly applicable to us who were reaching maturity in the mid 1960s. And it was set to go on and on. ‘I have to admit it’s getting better, it’s getting better all the time’ sang the Beatles on side one of Sgt Pepper and nobody seemed to doubt it. I can remember standing on playground duty one afternoon and thinking to myself, ‘When I’ve lived as many years again as I’ve already lived, I’ll still only be 42’. But time didn’t seem to be an issue. There was lots of time. My mother had told me since childhood not to wish my life away, but I had plenty of life left; what was wrong with wishing it were Friday night on Tuesday, or wishing it were Christmas in November? ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64’ sang Paul McCartney on side two of Sgt. Pepper, but how far away was that? Sixty-four-year-olds were strange and foreign beings – people at the end of their life; people who, if truth be told, had never been young. What had they to do with me? Two years earlier, in 1965, I’d watched a Bob Dylan concert on television with my father. I was listening to what I thought were some of the most beautiful, the most poetic lyrics ever written – songs like She Belongs to Me, Blowin’ in the Wind, It aint me Babe; my father thought it was tuneless gibberish and laughed the whole way through. And he was only fifty-seven at the time! Sixty-four was even further away. Sixty-four will never come, so why worry about it?
            But it has come. I’ll be sixty-four next Wednesday. Not just twice, but nearly three times the age I was at twenty-two. And now I’m the one who finds modern popular music unintelligible. ‘Why don’t they have tunes anymore?’ I think. ‘What’s rap all about?’ ‘Turn that racket down!’ ‘If I stay out till quarter to three, will you lock the door?’ the song asks. If I stayed out till quarter to three Morag would be ringing round the hospitals! The only time I’m awake at quarter to three it’s to go to the cupboard for some Rennies to soothe my heartburn, or to obey my ailing prostate’s command to take another trip to the toilet. 
           And time seems precious now. Now I feel like Dr. Faustus in Marlowe’s celebrated play about a man who sells his soul to the devil in return for 24 years of unbridled debauchery and license. Twenty-four years is a long, long time, he thinks, a never-ending amount of time. But it does end. All too soon he has just one hour left. As the clock strikes eleven on his last day, he says:

O, Faustus,

Now hast thou but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually.
Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease, and midnight never come.
Fair nature's eye, rise, rise again and make
Perpetual day. Or let this hour be but a year,
A month, a week, a natural day,
That Faustus may repent, and save his soul.
O lente lente currite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

‘O lente, lente currite noctis equi’ – O run slowly, slowly (you) horses of the night. It’s a quotation from the Roman poet Ovid; a command to time to slow down. I certainly feel the force of that. Now there’s no time to squander, no wishing my life away. Time is undoubtedly speeding up. The months and years are flying by, and I’ve become conscious – especially since my illness in 2002 – of finality. My brother was eleven years my senior, and I always thought that, while he was alive, I probably had at least another eleven years left. But he died in 2001, eight years ago, and so in three years I’ll be as old as he was when he died. My mother died at 68, my father at 71. We’re not a long-lived family, and while I don’t anticipate an imminent demise, I have to be realistic. My dad had a heart-attack when he was the age I am now, and he told me that every day thereafter he woke with silent words of thanksgiving for yet another day of life. That’s how I feel now. Every day is indeed precious.
            However, strange as it may seem, I’ve no great desire to be younger. ‘No sane man wishes he were younger,’ someone, probably Dr. Johnson, once said, a sentiment that seems odd when you’re in your twenties and thirties, but when you get into your fifties and sixties you can appreciate the wisdom of it. I sometimes pity the young: the endless boredom of school; the dreadful emotional anxieties of adolescence; the disappointments and heartaches of young manhood; the financial burdens and career insecurities of maturity, are not stages through which I would willingly wish to pass again. One’s perspective changes as one gets older. Tolstoy, in his book What I Believe, written when he was fifty-five, puts it like this:

Five years ago ... ... my life was suddenly changed. I ceased to care for all that I had formerly desired, and began to long for what I had once cared nothing for. What had before seemed good, seemed bad, and what had seemed bad, now seemed good. That happened to me which might happen to a man, who, having left his home on business, should suddenly realise that his business was unnecessary and should go home again. All that was on his right hand now stands to his left; all that was to the left is now to the right. His former wish to be as far from home as possible, has changed into the desire to be near it.

The changes in my perspective have been more gradual than Tolstoy’s were, but they have been no less real. I now realise that much of what occupied my attention in the past has long since ceased to interest me or amuse me. Thirty years ago I would have been fuming with rage at the revelations about British M.Ps’ expenses, but now I can’t get too excited about them. Were I living in England now, I wouldn’t be adding my voice to the clamour for mass resignations. It’s not because I think it acceptable practice to swindle the taxpayer in the way that most of the House of Commons has done, but because experience has taught me that, given the right circumstances, most of us would behave in exactly the same way. Our common sense tells us that when a person has enough, they won’t particularly want more. But life teaches a different lesson: ‘Qui multum habet, plus cupit’, wrote Seneca two thousand years ago, ‘Whoever has much, wants more’.  In youth you don’t think it possible, that’s why you can hold idealistic egalitarian ideas; as you get older you realise that it is a profound truth about our species, a truth which lies at the heart of most of our troubles. Last week, an American author called Bill Elliott came to speak to us at the Lantern Centre about the interviews he has been conducting with famous spiritual teachers about the meaning of life and the meaning of Jesus. On Friday I started to read one of his books and was very impressed by a woman called Mary Morrissey. She used to run the Living Enrichment Centre in Wilsonville, Oregon. Three thousand people attended her services there each week, and her radio programme reached eighty countries. ‘Here’s a spiritually mature woman who knows what she’s talking about,’ I thought. So I Googled her, and what did I find? She and her husband have been swindling the Living Enrichment Centre to the tune of ten million dollars. She’s paying it back, but at the current rate of repayment, it will take her three hundred years to clear the debt. ‘Who has much wants more.’
            Life is stranger to me now; stranger, really, than it has ever been. On that day forty odd years ago, when I was musing on how long I had left, I probably thought that by the time I reached my sixties, I would have found the answers to my religious and philosophical problems. But I find that I’m more perplexed than ever. I haven’t got a clue what’s going on. I don’t know how I got here, what I’m doing here, and where I’m going. All I know is that the answers I’ve been fed by my culture make no sense at all. The answers given by the likes of Richard Dawkins seem almost laughable in the light of my experience, but no more laughable than those offered by conventional religion.
            But, as you get older, you realise you don’t have to take anybody else’s answers. You can stop drinking the waters of madness. You can stop thinking like everyone else just to fit in, just to appear tough minded, just to enhance your career or your reputation. You can go your own way, unimpeded by convention, and it’s a great consolation. Not too many years ago I would have been wary of airing my ideas about astrology to a Unitarian congregation – whose members have long been sipping the bitter waters of 18th century rationalism - or, if I had expressed them, I would have done so in a way that attempted to demonstrate my hard-nosed commitment to scientific investigation. But now, I’ve ceased to care about my reputation, and I care even less about upholding Unitarian orthodoxy. Now, I can really say what I think, without evasions and caveats.
Let me give you an example. I’ve been saying for a few years now that the Guardian newspaper on Saturdays often seems to anticipate the sermon I’ve prepared for Sunday. It’s uncanny when you think that my sermon titles are given to Paul for inclusion in our magazine Oscailt a month in advance – so it’s not that I read the Guardian article and then decide to preach on the same topic, or (even more unlikely) that some joker in Fleet Street is deliberately trying to drive me crazy. No, it’s coincidence, pure and simple. Synchronicity – call it what you will. Those of you who were here last week will remember that I told the children the story of the man who was plagued by dandelions in his lawn and who, after many unsuccessful attempts to get rid of them, was told that the only option left to him was to ‘learn to love them’. I told the story because Paul had put a superb picture of a dandelion scattering its seeds on the front cover of this month’s Oscailt. Imagine my surprise when, last Monday, the day after our service, I open the Guardian to find a picture of a seeding dandelion and a caption which reads, ‘Overrun by dandelions? It’s time to learn to love them’.

Oscailt, June 2009

The Guardian, June 1st 2009
 Now I think this is weird. As the celebrated psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said about a particularly startling coincidence in his own life, ‘I’m not clever enough to explain it, but nor am I stupid enough to deny it’. That’s how I feel. I’m intrigued by this and by countless other experiences of life. I’ve never been more perplexed, never been more content to stop reaching for explanations and just to observe. Now that I’m sixty-four I’m happy to observe. It’s enough, and I hope that I’ve got another ten, twenty or thirty years left, not because I fear death, and not because I want to live in a big house, drive a posh car, eat expensive food or visit exotic places. None of these things interests me. I just want to go on observing. And when I’m on my deathbed I hope I’ll be able to echo the words of the 18th century writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who said as she expired, ‘It’s all been very interesting’.

7th June, 2009

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Easter Sunday: 'So, you think you're alive, then?'

Easter Sunday, 2001

As long as you do not know
How to die and come to life again,
You are but a sorry traveller
On this dark earth. (Goethe)

Those of you who have travelled on the DART (Dublin Area Rapid Transit) in the last few weeks will no doubt have seen a poster sponsored by some Christian group or other advertising a number of screenings of a video with the title ‘The Evidence for the Resurrection’. The poster appears at Easter time every year, and I have been tempted to attend, but I’ve always resisted the temptation because I am familiar enough with the arguments they are likely to bring forward and, since I’ve never found them convincing when I’ve encountered them in print, I’m hardly likely to be impressed by them in a slick and simplified video version. How anyone thinks it possible to provide, in the total absence of any physical evidence, proof of any event in the past, let alone one as inherently implausible as the resurrection of a person from physical death, defeats me, but it is a constant preoccupation of a certain type of Christian outlook, which seems incapable of finding any meaning in these stories unless they can be understood as having a literal, factual, historical basis.
It is, of course, the very implausibility of the story that the argument will exploit: it must have occurred, they will say, because without it the history of Christianity is unintelligible. Why would the early Christians have taken as the central tenet of their religion an event so unlikely, so unprecedented, if it did not happen? And even more pertinently: why would Christians have been prepared to suffer persecution and martyrdom over something which was explicable as either pious fiction or deceptive fabrication?
Victims of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978
Such has been the argument of those who uphold the literal truth of the resurrection stories from time immemorial, and while it might have carried some weight in the past, we have every reason to be suspicious of it today. Contemporary events have shown us, again and again, that religious movements do not begin and do not grow because individual devotees assess historical and theological evidence dispassionately. Only a few years ago, apparently intelligent people, members of the so-called Solar Temple, committed suicide, confident that a space-ship was waiting for them behind the Hale-Bopp comet; Waco and Jonestown are further examples of the non-rational nature of religious commitment, and if such things can happen under our noses there is no reason to suppose that they couldn’t happen in less rationally orientated times than our own. Faith precedes understanding, commitment comes before intellectual conviction. As the ancients used to say, fides quaerens intellectum, faith goes looking for a rational basis for itself some time after its irrational tenets have been assimilated and accepted at a deeper level than the purely intellectual.
One aspect of the crucifixion and resurrection narratives that any apologist for their historical basis has to address is the significant number of irreconcilable contradictions that the four accounts contain. For example, Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that the crucifixion of Jesus took place on the day of the Passover; John says that it was the day of preparation for the Passover, that is the day before. Both are extremely unlikely, since it is almost unthinkable that the normally prudent Romans would execute a Jewish criminal, particularly one who was associated with Messianic expectations, at a time when Jerusalem would be bursting with pilgrims from around the known world and anything might provoke a riot. But, in any case, by the simple laws of logic, both cannot be right.
And was Jesus crucified at nine in the morning as Mark reports, or at midday as John tells us? While researching this address I used Fr. Ronald Knox’s translation of the Gospels which addresses this discrepancy in a footnote. It is to be explained, he says, by considering that to people with less concern for precision than us, the third hour (i.e. three hours after dawn at 6 o’clock) refers to the whole period between 9 o’clock and midday, so, if Jesus was crucified at ll.30 it would still be ‘the third hour’. Ronald Knox was an incredibly talented man, but this little piece of mental gymnastics is really a forlorn attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, an example of faith desperately striving to find a credible intellectual foundation for itself.
Vladimir and Estragon
Luke’s Gospel tells us that one of the two thieves who were executed with Jesus repented, an act that is flatly contradicted by Matthew who says that both thieves taunted him to the end. ‘One of the four says that one of the two was saved,’ says Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. ‘……….All four were there, but only one speaks of a thief being saved. Why believe him rather than the others?’

‘Who believes him?’ asks Estragon.
‘Everybody. It’s the only version they know.’

To which Estragon replies: ‘People are bloody ignorant apes.’

The Angels at the Tomb (Rubens)
Two angels or just one? Or was it a man who greeted them?
Then there’s the story of the resurrection itself. Did a man in a white robe greet the early visitors to the tomb (as Mark tells us), or was it an angel (Matthew) or two angels (Luke)? And how come Mark, Luke, and John missed the earthquake and the opening of the graves which resulted in numerous people, previously dead, walking about the streets of Jerusalem where, according to Matthew at least, they were seen by many? This is hardly a detail that one could overlook.
These are just a few of the numerous historical implausibilities and logical contradictions with which the four Gospels abound, and a whole industry of scholarship has grown up around the attempt to explain or to explain away the inconsistencies and to produce a smooth, uniform account acceptable to even the most rigorous intellectual scrutiny. Needless to say, it has invariably failed and the historical credibility of these stories is only maintained, rather dishonestly, I feel, by the vested interests of scholars who are drawn, in the main, from the ranks of the clergy, and by the credulity and continuing ignorance of everyone else who, while professing a belief in the divine inspiration of the Bible, rarely read it with critical intelligence even if they bother to read it at all.
Of course, we Unitarians are different. We dispatched these stories to the trash can a long time ago. They offend our reason and our perfectly sensible demand that some kind of real evidence should support any statement before it commands our assent as history. Consequently, in Unitarian churches up and down Britain and America, the theme today will not be the resurrection of Jesus, but the springtime resurrection of the earth. Typical of this approach is Betty Smith’s article in this month’s Unitarian. Betty writes: ‘Easter is also a celebration of hopeful anticipation and optimism, as we celebrate the natural renewal of life, and the annual resurrection of nature.’ (The Unitarian, March 2001)
While we might have some considerable sympathy with this point of view—at least it has more intellectual integrity than the self-deluding, historical obsession of much of Christendom—we can only uphold it, as Betty does, by dismissing the stories of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus as unimportant. ‘I cannot accept that the death of one man 2,000 years ago can have an effect on my life today,’ she writes. ‘His death? No. But his life....….that is a different matter.’
There is a third way of approaching these stories, however, which does not demand that we accept them as historically true or that we reject them as irrelevant. This third approach (which is really only a second approach, since the other two are both products of what Rudolf Steiner calls ‘the dialectical mind’ which, he rightly says, can make nothing of the Gospels except to reduce them to historical or ethical propositions), is to see them as stories which transcend the literal and historical categories they have been placed in by both sides of the polarised debate, and which carry for us a profound spiritual meaning. What is remarkable about this approach is its antiquity. The Jews have always held that the scriptures have meaning on at least four different levels, and the great Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria, who was virtually a contemporary of Jesus, wrote an allegorical interpretation of the Exodus story which is still convincing two millennia on. Another Alexandrian—Alexandria was a centre of mystical thinking for centuries—Origen, writing in the third Christian century, has this to say about the problematic passages in the Bible as a whole and in the Gospels in particular.

(Sometimes) impossibilities are recorded for the sake of the more skilful and inquisitive, in order   `that they may give themselves to the toil of investigating what is written, and thus attain to a becoming conviction of the manner in which a meaning worthy of God must be sought out in such subjects…….He (the Holy Spirit) did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles, - as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur. (Emphasis added. The Works of Origen, Ante-Nicene Library, Volume 1, page 315)

How can light be created before the sun?
The example Origen gives is from the very first chapter of the Book of Genesis which tells us that God created light on the first day of creation, but that the sun, moon and stars didn’t appear until later in the week. A curious anomaly, introduced deliberately, says Origen, so that we won’t be tempted to take it literally, so that we will be forced to seek a deeper meaning to the text than the one which immediately suggests itself. Would that the opponents of Copernicus and Darwin had paid more attention when studying their Patristic theology!
What, then, if we take Origen’s advice and look behind their historical inexactitudes, contradictions, and implausibilities, can the crucifixion and resurrection stories teach us? Far more than I can hope to cover in what remains of this sermon, and, in a sense, far more than I could ever hope to cover because the only really valuable discoveries that can be made about such stories are those that the individual makes for herself. I will just say, however, that, in my opinion, these stories are not just an unfortunate narrative accompaniment to the sublime ethical teaching of Jesus (as they are often viewed in liberal theological circles). They are an integral part of the whole gospel message. The Christian Gospel is not primarily concerned with history or with ethics; it is concerned with new life, rebirth, authentic living, which is not to be attained by simply believing the facts or by keeping the rules. One has to be born again, the new out of the old, to a radically different kind of life which does not just require the reform of the old carnal self, but its destruction. The Christian myth tells us—as all the great religious myths tell us in one way or another—that we are asleep and that we cannot begin to live effectively and completely until we wake up. According to the Roman writer, Seneca, a decrepit and dishevelled member of Caesar’s guard came to the Emperor and asked for permission to kill himself. Caesar looked at him and said with a smile: ‘So, you think you’re alive then?’
And this is the question that the Gospels in their entirety put to us: ‘So you think you’re alive then?’ And then they tell us to think again. You will never be truly alive, they say, until you reject the life of comfort and distraction that you so slavishly and so unthinkingly pursue at the behest of your money-driven, mad society; you will never be truly alive until you stop associating ease of life with success in life, and until you stop valuing respectability above authenticity; you will never be truly alive until you become teachable again like a little child; you will never be truly alive until you embrace the Way of the Cross, the painful destruction of the ego and its appetites, and emerge anew, alive, awake, free, transformed, the old self crucified and the Christ spirit born within you.
This, to me, is the message of the Gospel narrative, and the crucifixion and resurrection accounts are not just irrelevant addenda, they are the culmination of a consistent pattern of imagery which describes for the imagination not just a process that may or may not have occurred in the life of one man, but one which must occur in the life of each one of us, if we are to attain that newness of life which is the only hope for our individual and social salvation.
True religion, far from being the opium of the people, lulling us back into sleep, should be the adrenalin urging us into life. And far from asking us, passively, to believe in the historical validity of the resurrection it should be urging us, actively, to live its existential reality. A far harder task, indeed, but, we are assured, the most worthwhile task we can ever undertake.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Two Thieves

A Buddhist Story: Two Tigers and a Strawberry

A man was walking through the forest one day when he spotted a tiger in the distance. What was worse, the tiger had spotted him, and because it hadn’t eaten for a day or two, it bounded at great speed after the poor man. Now a human being is no match for a tiger in the speed department, and very soon the hungry beast was so close that the man could almost feel its hot breath on his neck. Ahead of him was a cliff, and he had no option but to throw himself down in order to escape the tiger’s salivating jaws. Fortunately, he was able to grab hold of a thick vine which was trailing down the cliff side, and he clung on to it for dear life, congratulating himself on his good fortune.
          It was a long drop to the ground below, but a sprained ankle was a small price to pay for his life, so he determined to let go of the vine and fall to the ground, but before he could do so, he heard a growl, and, glancing down, he saw another tiger looking hungrily up at him! Up above him was a tiger; down below him was a tiger; both of them wanted to eat him; what could he do? ‘Perhaps one of them will get tired of waiting and move away. If I can just hang on here for an hour or so I should be fine,’ he thought.
          Then, two mice, one white, one black, came out of a small hole in the cliff side and began to gnaw the vine. The poor man could see that it wouldn’t be long before they had chewed through and he would fall to his certain death into the waiting mouth of the tiger down below. Then, a beautiful smell caught his attention. Just near his right hand a big, juicy, wild strawberry was growing. Holding on to the vine with his left hand, he picked the strawberry with his right hand, and popped it into his mouth. It was the most delicious strawberry he had ever eaten in his life!


The Angel of the Resurrection says not 'Arise ye who are dead' 
but 'Arise ye who are living'. Balzac

Jan Van Eyck (c.1430)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Society of St. Dismas is one of those very worthy Catholic organisations which attempt to fill the gaps in state provision for the underprivileged. Like the St. Vincent de Paul Society, it is dedicated to the welfare of those neglected members of the community, the ones that people – and governments – often prefer to forget about. But whereas the St. Vincent de Paul Society has a general ministry to the unfortunate, the Society of St. Dismas has a very specific one: it tries to help ex-prisoners, people who are trying to get their life together after spending some time in jail.
            It takes its name from the so-called ‘good thief’, one of the two men who were supposedly crucified with Jesus; Dismas was the one who, according to Luke’s Gospel, repented just before his death, and asked for Jesus’ blessing. The story goes like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him, ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
            Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth. Today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23: 39-43)

The man is not named in the Gospel text; he was given the name ‘Dismas’(from a Greek word meaning ‘sunset’ or ‘death’) much later, probably during the 12th century, and the name has stuck. He has his own feast day, 25th March, which is considered by some to be the actual date of the crucifixion, In addition to a name, Dismas has been given a biography of sorts. Legend has it that when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were fleeing into Egypt to escape King Herod, they were set upon by a band of brigands, one of whom recognised that there was something special about the members of this family and ordered his fellow bandits to leave them alone. This was Dismas, apparently. And, with a coincidence worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, the next time he met Jesus was when he was crucified beside him.
It says something very significant about the function of stories in human life that we seem to feel the need to flesh out the shadowy characters of history or scripture; that a mixture of imagination and piety can turn a few stray facts into sagas of flesh and blood people, complete with parents, colleagues, careers, relationships, and personalities. We’ve done the same thing with characters who appear at Jesus’ birth. The story of the wise men is told very simply in the Gospel of Matthew. We aren’t told their names; we aren’t even told that there are three of them. ‘Three’ is derived from the number of gifts that they bring – it’s quite logical to assume that three gifts must equal three gift givers! But in the middle ages these anonymous men became Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, and what’s more, you can find a casket containing their remains in Cologne cathedral! These days there’s even a story of the Fourth Wise Man, a pious tale about someone called Artaban, who gets delayed on the way to Bethlehem, but eventually catches up with Jesus at his crucifixion.
            All of which is very charming, but when it comes to scripture it is not without its problems, and these are particularly acute as far as Dismas is concerned. Insisting that this man is a genuine character from history has generated some intriguing theological puzzles. Think about it for a moment. Jesus is promising that this man will be with him in paradise, and yet doesn’t Catholic theology teach us that only the baptised can get to heaven? It’s pretty plainly stated elsewhere in the scriptures: ‘Unless a man is born again of water and the holy spirit, he will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ But how could Dismas receive baptism? There have been many attempts to solve this particular conundrum. I was taught that there were other kinds of baptism – ‘baptism of desire’, and ‘baptism of blood’ for example. Those who desperately wished for baptism, but who died before they could receive it, would be considered baptised, as would those who were martyred. So, Dismas could presumably come under one or other of these categories. Then there are those who say that Dismas didn’t in fact go to heaven at all, but to Limbo, the place of the unbaptised righteous, but since Limbo was abolished by the pope in 2006, one might legitimately ask where he might be now. And if he only got as far as Limbo he can’t be a real saint, so praying to him could be considered pretty pointless.
            A more sophisticated theological problem concerns the word ‘today’ in Jesus’ words, ‘I tell you today you will be with me in Paradise.’  If it means that Dismas will be in heaven with Jesus that very day (i.e. the first Good Friday) then what is the point of the resurrection? Or the ascension? Incidentally, while this is a big enough problem for traditional Christians, it is an almost insuperable one for Jehovah’s Witnesses, who don’t believe that the soul survives bodily death. What could Jesus have meant, they ask. Their ingenious solution is that he wasn’t telling Dismas that he would be in paradise with him today, he was giving him the information today that he would be in paradise eventually, that he would be resurrected one day in the future. It all depends on where you put the comma. Such things are no laughing matter. People have died over such arguments.
But when we were taught these things at school such arcane theological questions didn’t bother us. We raised more practical issues with the teacher. It didn’t seem fair, we said. Here’s a man who has spent his life doing wicked things and just because at the last minute he says he’s sorry he gets into heaven. And then we asked, ‘Does that mean that we can do the same?’ It conjured up some intriguing possibilities. You could live a life of complete debauchery, but as long as you are in a position to say ‘sorry’ at the end of it all you’ll be okay. We were even taught that if we attended mass on the first Friday of nine successive months, we would be guaranteed the grace of final repentance. This guarantee was given in a vision to St. Margaret Mary, a 17th century nun, and still forms part of popular Catholic piety. The Roman Emperor Constantine, who lived centuries before St. Margaret Mary, was a great believer in final repentance. Although he became a Christian in mid life, he refused to be baptised until he was on his death bed, so that all his sins could be washed away in one go and he would get into heaven without any problems. And his sins were pretty horrific; the history books tell us that his later years were stained with bloodshed, and he had his eldest son and his wife executed.  Apparently, he kept a priest in attendance at all times just so that he wouldn’t be taken by surprise.
While we schoolboys were somewhat cheered by the thought of final repentance, we couldn’t help but feel some sympathy for the unfortunate person in the opposite situation, the one who lives a pretty good life but who commits one mortal sin and dies before he has had the opportunity to repent. ‘How can that be right?’ we asked. Consideration of such hypothetical situations has kept Catholic teachers on their toes for generations, and they have exercised the casuistic skills of the finest theologians.
            So, charming as it might be to flesh out the rudimentary stories of scripture with imaginative details, it can lead to complications. But the most significant result of such activity is that it helps to obscure the real power behind the text. It is my opinion, and I’ve expressed it on countless occasions, that the stories in the gospels are not historical narratives.  Their principal function is not to tell us about the life of a man called Jesus of Nazareth. They are stories about us, about what it means to be a human being, and this episode with the two thieves, which looks a little like an afterthought, an almost pointless detail, is extraordinarily important in this regard. That the Gospel writers thought it important is proved by the fact that it is one of the few stories which appears in all four Gospels.

A 'Golgotha' (St Andrew's Church, Cullompton)
The person on the cross is you. It is I. It is Everyman, and Everywoman. Crucifixion is not just an archaic and barbaric punishment for a few unfortunate lawbreakers; it is a condition of life. Crucifixion is the perfect metaphor for the human situation because, unlike most types of execution, it delivers a slow, lingering, painful death. What’s more, it takes place for all of us on Golgotha, Calvary, ‘the place of the skull’ (Golgotha is Aramaic for 'skull', Calvary is 'skull' in Latin) which is itself an image of life stripped down to its skeletal essentials. We are all poised in pain on the cross of life. None escapes, and all attempts to insulate ourselves from life’s pains are fruitless. Even the rich and famous, even the super talented and super beautiful, even the spiritually advanced, suffer the pains of loss, of vulnerability, of mortality. And, just like Jesus, each of us is crucified between two thieves – one on the right and one on the left. The Gospel text may not tell us their names, and the original story, as found in Mark's Gospel doesn't tell us that one of them repented; but the Gospels are clear about their position; and it specifies that they are thieves – not just any old criminals. In Greek they are called δύο λῃστάς, two bandits, men who steal with violence. What do these bandits steal? They steal our life. They are the past and the future, the twin thieves of everyone’s life. The past is on the left, the future on the right. The past consumes us with regret, remorse, revenge, nostalgia, habit; the future eats away at our life with anxiety, uncertainty, procrastination, fear. ‘Life is what happens while you’re making plans,’ said John Lennon, not originally, I might add, but memorably enough. Life is what happens while you are regretting the past and afraid of the future. When, then, is the transformed life? Jesus told the repentant thief: TODAY. ‘I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise.’ We enter into the life of promise today. Now. It’s now or never. By destroying, or transforming, those twin thieves of our lives we enter into a whole new way of being, resurrected life, when the tomb which held us fast is broken open, and we discover a new relationship with life, and a new understanding of its pains. This is the consistent message of the world’s spiritual traditions. This is the perennial philosophy. This is what Easter means. The message of Easter is not that once upon a time a single individual’s death paid the price of sin and he was rewarded by having his corpse reanimated. It is, rather, that Everyman and Everywoman can and must wake up from the unlived life and save the world from the corrosive effects of sleep. The story of the literal crucifixion and literal resurrection from physical death of a single human being is biologically impossible, historically implausible, and, in the way that it is often presented, it is morally questionable. But the story of our own resurrection from spiritual death while we are still alive is the most important and liberating message we will ever hear.   

Friday, 21 March 2014

Pisces (2): Resurrection

Mark: Chapter 16

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices with which to anoint him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. The sun had risen. They were saying to each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ But when they looked up they saw that the stone had already been rolled away, even though it was very large. Going inside the tomb they saw a young man dressed in white sitting on the right hand side. They were astonished. He said to them, ‘Don’t be so shocked! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified; but he has been raised up. He’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.
      When they came out they ran away from the tomb because they were trembling with astonishment. And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. 

Story: The Elephant and the Rope

This is the procedure adopted by circus trainers to ensure that elephants never rebel – and I suspect it is also what happens with a lot of people.

When still a baby, the elephant is tethered by a very thick rope to a stake hammered into the ground. The elephant tries several times to get free, but it lacks the strength to do so.

After a year, the stake and the rope are still strong enough to keep a small elephant tethered, although it continues to try, unsuccessfully, to get free. At this point, the animal realises that the rope will always be too strong and so it gives up.

When it reaches adulthood, the elephant still remembers how, for a long time, it had wasted its energies trying to escape captivity. At this stage, the trainer can tether the elephant with a slender thread tied to a broom handle, and the elephant will make no attempt to escape to freedom

Written in March 2008

Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection (sometimes called The Awakening) was first published in 1899 when he was 71 years old. A couple of decades earlier, he had experienced something of a religious conversion and this novel, his final one, expresses his religious convictions more comprehensively and more clearly than any of his other works. I’ve read it four or five times – it’s one of those novels I feel obliged to return to every now and again – and it never fails to uplift my spirits and to deepen my appreciation of the powerful images of new life which the Christian tradition presents to us at this time of the year. Tolstoy’s novel is about one man coming back from the dead: not as a reanimated corpse, but as a transformed individual, one who has found strength to break the ropes of convention and selfishness that have bound him since childhood, and to leave the tomb of corruption in which he has been buried by his acquisitive and hypocritical society. He has been reborn to a new life of service, wholeness, and freedom.
The novel opens with a description of the springtime. ‘The sun shone warm, the air was balmy, the grass, where it did not get scraped away, revived and sprang up everywhere.....All were glad: the plants, the birds, the insects, and the children.’ But, in contrast, ‘grown up men and women did not leave off cheating themselves and each other. It was not this spring morning men thought sacred and worthy of consideration, not the beauty of God’s world, given for a joy to all creatures – this beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony, and to love – but only their own devices to enslave each other.’
Maslova in the Dock
        The man who gradually rediscovers the beauties of God’s world is Prince Nekhlyudov, who, at the beginning of the novel is living a life of dissipation and frivolity in keeping with his wealth and his position in society. But, despite his status, he cannot escape the irksome task of jury service, so he finds himself reluctantly sitting in court one day, listening to the tedious account of a murder which has taken place in a local brothel. Three people are accused of the crime, a man and two women, and it is the younger of the two women who catches Nekhlyudov’s eye. Her name is Maslova, and he recognises her as the former servant of his two maiden aunts, the woman whom he callously seduced a decade before. He had forgotten about her. He vaguely recollected that she had left his aunts’ employ because she was pregnant, but now he learns for the first time about the life of degradation to which she has been reduced, and he realises the part he himself has played in her downfall. As the evidence is produced, he realises that she is obviously innocent of the crime she is accused of, but because of a mix up in the wording of the jury’s verdict, and the haste with which the court president wants the case to end so that he can meet his mistress, she is sentenced to four years penal servitude in Siberia.
            Nekhlyudov’s feelings of shame and guilt mark the first stage in his resurrection. He decides to follow Maslova to Siberia to see how he can help her, and the rest of the novel describes the stages of his gradual transformation as they occur during his journey. He is forced to look at himself and the life he is leading, and to the mores and values of a society which grants to him power and status, but which totally neglects and exploits the poor and the vulnerable.
            The legal system comes in for savage attack. Maslova’s treatment by the court is shameful because she is poor and has no one to plead her cause, but everywhere he looks Nekhlyudov finds similar examples of injustice perpetrated in the name of justice. Very early on we learn of a widow who is having her property taken from her by crafty lawyers whose knowledge of the intricacies of law enable them to swindle her perfectly legally. These men are ‘legal criminals’, a category which comprises millions of rich and powerful people who have shaped the laws and customs of society so that they can live in luxury on the backs of the dispossessed and powerless. How different are things now, a century after Tolstoy wrote Resurrection? How is it that the richest people in our society pay the least tax? How is it that 78% of British MPs are millionaires?How is it that the ability to pay a slick lawyer can so frequently enable the obviously guilty to walk away scot free? How is it that the children of American Senators and Congressmen are not fighting in Iraq? How is it that the person who will become the next President of the U.S.A. will be the millionaire who can spend the most on media image manipulation? As Bob Dylan said four decades ago, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ And as Tolstoy’s narrator comments: ‘How can we – all of us - who are ourselves evil ever hope to correct evil’?
            Nekhlyudov also begins to see through the church (Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church). In the courtroom there is an old priest who administers the oath to defendants and jurors. How ironic, muses the novel’s narrator, that this priest has, over decades, required countless thousands of people to swear upon a book in which there is a condemnation of all such swearing of oaths? (Matthew 5:34) More significantly, Tolstoy condemns a church which offers stupefying ceremonies to the people instead of teaching them the fundamental precepts of the gospel. The procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church is a man called Toporov, who believes in nothing, but whose attitude to religion is the same as that of a poultry-keeper to the disgusting, rotting food he feeds to his hens; they seem to like it, so it is right to keep on feeding it to them. The people seem to like meaningless ceremonies and superstition, so let’s keep giving it to them.
At the end of the novel, Nekhlyudov takes his copy of the Bible and reads the Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, and realises that in these few neglected pages lie all the moral guidance we human beings need in order for us to live fulfilled and compassionate lives. ‘A perfectly new life dawned that night for Nekhlyudov; not because he had entered into new conditions of life, but because everything he did after that night had a new and quite different meaning for him.’          
The Gospel of Mark, which we have been considering for a year now describes a similar kind of journey. The Gospel comprises a series of narratives, which seem on the surface to be historical reminiscences strung together almost randomly, but which, on closer examination, show themselves to be profound teachings on the spiritual life, very carefully arranged so that the interior journey of the aspirant towards transformation reflects the annual journey of the sun in the sky.
            Each of these stages is a step on the way towards wholeness – ‘redemption’, if you like that kind of language – and although they are presented consecutively, we are not meant to infer from this that we have to approach them sequentially. Individuals will vary in the way they assimilate these lessons. Some we will find easy; others will take a lifetime to master.
            Here, by way of recapitulation, are the twelve steps towards redemption – awakening, resurrection - presented to us by the Gospel of Mark.
            The lesson of Aries, the springtime sign, concerns our relationship with the past. We are not to let the past with its sins and its guilt, and its failures paralyse our present. ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ says Jesus to the paralysed man, ‘so pick up your bed and walk!’ This first section teaches that embarking on the spiritual life requires courage and a willingness to break free from debilitating personal habits of thought and behaviour, and from social and family relationships which hinder our resolve to pursue the spiritual life.
            In the Taurus section we learn that steadfastness, sticking to our resolve is vital to our spiritual growth; we must not be like the seed that grows well for a while but which then is choked by thorns – the physical appetites, and the cares and concerns of the world. Taurus also teaches us that light will come if only we persevere.
            Gemini, the Twins, highlights the fragmented nature of the psyche; that in each of us there is a whole crowd of personalities jostling for attention, and we have to try to create a harmony between them, ‘to get them to sit down at the same table’ as Art Lester puts it. This section also teaches us that our ordinary condition is that we are asleep, reacting to circumstances rather than choosing our actions. Waking up from this sleep – as Jairus’ daughter is awakened by Jesus – is a necessary step on the way to wholeness.
            Cancer teaches us that we are closed off from others like the crab is enclosed in its shell, but we must break through this carapace and be prepared to encounter ‘the other’. We are semi-blind, the story tells us; we can see other people, but they seem like trees walking about. We need to learn to see others as ends in themselves and not as means to our own ends.
            In Leo, which includes the scene of the Transfiguration, we are taught about the true nature of the human being. We are all children of God, divine beings, eagles who think we are chickens. Each of us is a glorious emanation from God with a vital and unique part to play in the drama of the universe.
            However, no sooner are we told this than we are taught the virtues of humility and service, the great lessons of Virgo. ‘Don’t get above yourself,’ says Jesus to his apostles. ‘Never mind arguing with each other about who is the greatest. Serve one another, and, in addition, cultivate the mind of a child and learn to perceive the world afresh.’
            The equinoctial sign of Libra, which the sun enters when day and night are equal, carries the lessons of mutuality and reciprocity, of entering into caring and supportive relationships with people. Here we learn about the ‘sacred marriage’, the union of male and female, of yang and yin, within the individual psyche. We are taught, too, that wealth can be a severe hindrance to our spiritual progress, deflecting us from the life of the spirit by fostering self-indulgence and distraction.
            In the Scorpio section, which comes as Jesus and the apostles approach Jericho, the lowest inhabited place on earth, we are warned not to seek power over others, and taught about those hidden connections which bind us one to another, so that no individual acts to and for himself alone; our actions, for good or ill have consequences for ourselves and for others.
            At the beginning of the Sagittarius section, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an unbroken horse, symbolising the mastery of the bestial by the divine, mastery which each of us is called to attain. Each of us is a ‘place where two roads meet’. Here we learn about the power of prayer and of faith to bring about remarkable changes in our world.
            In Capricorn we learn about the attitude we should cultivate towards all religious authority – bishops, priests, ministers, traditions, church councils, holy books and the like. We must not cravenly follow the lead of others. We must take responsibility for our own spiritual progress.
            The Aquarius section teaches the importance of standing out from the crowd, and of being willing to offer our unique gifts to society. We also learn that coming to a state of enlightened transformation will turn our interior universe upside down.
            Finally, in the lengthy Pisces section, we see a dramatic presentation of the crucifixion of the false self which has kept us enslaved in our own egotism and craving but which has never been able to deliver the happiness it has constantly promised.

           In the final few verses of the Gospel of Mark we read about the Resurrection, the empty tomb, which happens on the first day of the week – Sunday -, just as the sun has risen. These references to the sun are not accidental or peripheral. The interior journey of the sun in the sky reflects the life journey of the spiritual aspirant. Just as the sun is ‘resurrected’ each year at the equinox, and each day at dawn; just as winter is transformed into spring; just as the caterpillar is transformed into the butterfly; just as Nekhlyudov is transformed by his journey to Siberia, so the spiritual journey outlined by Mark results in the birth of a new creature, a resurrected creature, someone who has overcome the sleep of the unlived life and who is now prepared to enter into life with new attitudes, new visions, new hopes. Jesus’ disciples are to meet him in Galilee, that is, back where it all started. Galilee comes from the Hebrew word ‘galil’ which means circle. Resurrection doesn’t take us away from the cycle of ordinary life, it sends us back on to it once more, but this time, in the words of T.S. Elliot, ‘we’ll know the place for the first time’.
            All valid religion is a call to resurrection. Not to life after death, but to a new kind of life achievable now. As Balzac says, at the end of his novel Louis Lambert, ‘The resurrection is brought about by the winds of heaven which sweep the worlds. The angel borne upon the blast saith not, “Arise, ye dead!” but “Arise, ye living!”
            This is the message of the Gospel. This is the real message of Easter. 

The Resurrection, by Fra Angelico