Friday, 19 April 2013

Taurus (1): Nurturing the Spirit


TAURUS

 

21st April – 21st May

 

 

Taurus, by Dan Hodgkin
Taurus is an Earth sign, and the Pleiades, a beautiful group of stars in the shoulder of the Bull, which has been called ‘The Hen with her Chickens’ by many cultures throughout history, was used by ancient farmers to mark their seeding time. This section of Mark uses the Greek word for ‘earth’ (translated here variously as earth, ground, soil etc.) nine times, and nowhere else in the Gospel do we find such a wealth of agricultural imagery and vocabulary. In the ancient world Taurus was also associated with light, and was called The Bull of Light by the Egyptians, probably because in and around the constellation are some of the most beautiful sights in the night sky. Orion, one of the decans of Taurus, was called The Light of Heaven by the Babylonians.

 

 

Taurus (1): Nurturing the Seed

(This sermon was first delivered in Dublin Unitarian Church in April 2007 )

Reading: Mark 4:1-20

He began to teach again beside the sea, and so great a crowd gathered about him that he had get into a boat and sit in it on the water, while the crowd looked on from the shore. He taught them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them, ‘Listen! Look! The sower went out to sow, and while he was sowing some seed fell by the roadside and the birds came along and ate it. Some fell on the rocks where there wasn't much soil; it sprang up very quickly because there was no real depth of soil, but when the sun rose it was scorched and it withered because it didn't have any root. Some fell among the thorns, but the thorns came up and choked it and so it yielded no crop. But some fell on good soil where it grew and throve, yielding an abundant crop - increasing thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold. He said, 'Use your ears! Take notice of what I'm saying!'

            When they were alone, those close to him, along with the twelve, began to question him about the parables, so he said to them, 'The mystery of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to those on the outside, everything is expressed in parables so that although they may look they won't see, and although they may hear they won't understand in case they would need to turn around and forgiveness be given to them.

            He said to them, 'If you don't understand this parable, how are you going to understand all the other parables? The sower is sowing the word. The seed that falls on the roadside represents those who hear the word but no sooner do they hear it than Satan comes along and takes it away from them. The seed that falls on the rocks are those people who hear the word and receive it with joy but they don't have any staying power, so they continue for a while but as soon as they encounter trouble or persecution on account of the word they let things slide. Then there are those represented by the seed among the thorns. They are the ones who hear the word but the cares of the time, the enticements of wealth and desires for all kinds of other things overwhelm them and choke the word so that they cease to be fruitful. But the seed that is sown on the good ground represents those who hear the word, receive it and produce fruit - thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.’
 
****************

O

n our recent daily walks through St. Stephen’s Green, Morag and I have been noticing the dramatic changes occurring in the trees and shrubs. A month or so ago, there was the budding: shoots pushing tentatively through the hardened, frosty soil, embryonic leaves scattered among the still skeletal trees. But now, the place is awash with colour, and the pathways are submerged under a canopy of green. The ducks on the lake are squawking busily, the birds are building their nests, and young couples are lazing on the grass, whispering sweet nothings as they enjoy the returning sunshine.

            Spring has really taken hold. Every day brings new delights; trees seem to blossom overnight, and the bare branches of yesterday are today wrapped in pink and gold. The sun has entered Taurus, the sign of growth, profusion, opulence, sensuality, pleasure. The ancient symbol for this sign was the priapic, fertile, but languid bull, who scatters his seed where he may, who seems to have no purpose other than copulation and procreation, and who guards his own territory and his own females with jealous ferocity.

Taurus is the first of what the old astrologers called the Earth signs, and it is indeed the most ‘earthy’ of them all. People who are strongly Taurean are aware of and sometimes obsessed by, their own physicality, and of the material nature of the universe. They are ‘ruled’ by Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and they rejoice in the flesh and its appetites, although Chaucer’s sensual Wife of Bath laments the fact that being born under Taurus has brought her nothing but trouble: ‘Taurus rising, with Mars therein, Alas, alas, that ever love were sin!’ she cries.

            But Taurus is not only about sensuality and sex. More philosophers seem to be born under Taurus than under any other sign. In the summer of 2005, BBC Radio 4 held a poll to find out Britain’s favourite philosopher. The results were, to me at least, quite astonishing. The winner was Karl Marx, born on May 5th; the runner up was David Hume, born on 26th April; and in third place was Ludwig Wittgenstein, also born on 26th April. Immanuel Kant, born on 22nd April was sixth. All of these were born under the sign of Taurus. In fact, since no one knows the birthdays of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas, only two of the top ten – Karl Popper (Leo), and Friedrich Nietzsche (Libra) - were certainly not born under Taurus. Although we don’t know the birthday of Thomas Aquinas, the fact that his student peers called him ‘The Dumb Ox’ would certainly indicate Taurus, and May birthdays have been suggested for both Socrates and Plato. This means that seven of the top ten were certainly or probably born under Taurus. This is a remarkable statistic, and although it may be dismissed as ‘coincidental’ by mathematicians (who, by the way, are a strongly Taurean body, too), it should come as no surprise to students of astrology. Taurus is the sign which symbolises our relationship with the material universe, and so its sons and daughters should have a particular interest in attempting to define the nature of that relationship, which, on one level at least, is the function of philosophy. (Ted Honderich presents essays on 28 philosophers in his book The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers. Of the 24 whose birthdays are known for sure, 7 are Taureans.)

            It is the sign of the builder, and it is surely not without significance that some of the human race’s grandest and most enduring structures – including Stonehenge, Newgrange, and the pyramids of Egypt - were erected during the astrological age of Taurus (c. 4,000 – c. 2,000 BCE).

 
An icon depicting the Sower
(Biserica Ortodox─â din Deal, Cluj-Napoca),
          The ancient writers weren’t terribly kind to people born under Taurus, considering them best fitted for agricultural work. A Taurus man is a ‘dull, honest ploughman’, according to the Roman writer Manilius, fit for tilling the ground and manuring the field, and while the Taurean philosophers don’t often spend their time spreading manure (except figuratively, perhaps!), they do tend to expound one version or another of ‘no nonsense’ materialism – ‘if you can’t see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it, it doesn’t exist’ - which Britain’s pragmatic and sceptical Radio 4 listeners seem to find so congenial. Marx’s ‘dialectical materialism’, John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, and David Hume’s scepticism, all bear the unmistakeable signature of Taurus. Thomas Reid, another Taurean, was called ‘the common sense philosopher’; Bertrand Russell, yet another, was a thoroughgoing materialist, prepared even to reduce human thought to chemistry; and Wittgenstein, who, in true Taurus style, designed and built a house in Vienna for his sister, summed up the anti-metaphysical bias of Taurus when he said, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent’. The sons and daughters of Taurus certainly seem to have their feet on the ground.
There is another very important link between Taurus and the earth. The constellation Taurus contains the Pleiades, one of the most conspicuous and beautiful sights in the night sky, six or seven stars (depending on your eyesight) closely packed together, which have probably inspired ancient poets and mythmakers more than any other stellar grouping. But they were also used by farmers throughout the ancient world to mark the times of planting and of harvesting. Virgil says that any farmer who doesn’t use the Pleiades to tell him when to plant his crops, will undoubtedly pay a heavy price.
All of which helps us to understand why, in this second section of his Gospel, Mark has given us a number of parables which are based almost entirely on agricultural imagery, the principal one being the Parable of the Sower, which we heard as our second reading today, which teaches us how we should approach those important aspects of life which are symbolised by Taurus.
Remember the story. The Sower, who stands for God, sows his seed on four different types of ground: by the roadside, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. The seed that falls by the roadside is soon pecked up by the birds; the seed that falls on the rocky ground grows quite quickly, but it has no real roots and is scorched by the sun; the seed which falls among the thorns grows for a while, but is choked by the thorns; only the seed which falls on the good soil yields an abundant crop.
The parable describes four different ways of responding to the spiritual call, the call to a transformed existence. Some will barely hear it; others will receive the message gladly, and will even make a very promising start on living the spiritual life, but they will burn out before too long, especially when the going gets tough as it inevitably will (a bit like the beautiful magnolia tree, which blossoms spectacularly, but only for a couple of weeks); some are so distracted by their carnal appetites and their desire for material possessions that any spiritual impulse they might have felt is completely overwhelmed by the cares and concerns of the world. Only the fourth group, the persistent ones, will show any real fruitage.
            The lesson is very simple: the impulse to embark on a life of self transformation – that impulse symbolised in the Aries section of Mark’s Gospel by the apostles impetuously following Jesus - is not enough. All of us will feel that impulse at some time or another, at a moment of transcendent joy such as the birth of a child, perhaps, or when overcome by the beauty of some aspect of the natural world. Maybe something we read, something we hear, or someone we meet will plant the seed. Often, it will be when things don’t seem to be going right, and we begin to ask the big questions. ‘Is this all there is?’ ‘Is it just eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow I die?’ Or, as T.S. Eliot says in Sweeney Agonistes:
 
Birth, copulation, and death.
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks.
 
Rabindranath Tagore
Born May 7th 1861
And we’ll answer such questions for ourselves, concluding perhaps that there is something more than this, that, to quote the great Taurean mystic Rabindranath Tagore, the world holds a deeper meaning than what is apparent’, and we’ll want to pursue it, to find out what the meaning is, to discover who we intrinsically are, and what our life is really about.  And it’s a fine and noble impulse, and all of us here have felt it, in fact we wouldn’t be here unless we had felt it, but the Parable of the Sower warns us that the impulse alone is virtually worthless. The circumstances which give rise to the impulse are fleeting, whatever we might think at the time, and when our circumstances change, our resolve can evaporate as we become embroiled in the market place once more, ‘getting and spending’, convincing ourselves that a little more money, a better job, a bigger house, a better car, more holidays, more status, winning the lottery, will turn our life around and make us happy.
Such things – mammon, material possessions – are the ‘sweet delights’ of Taurus, and they can choke the spiritual life. In the Jewish scriptures, the material world is symbolised by Egypt, the place where the belly is full but where the spirit is enslaved. When the Children of Israel escape into the wilderness, into freedom, they are constantly complaining that they want to go back to the ‘flesh pots’ of Egypt. They have their freedom, but they don’t want it, and would gladly trade it for a varied diet, even though this would mean returning to slavery, making
Worshipping the Golden Calf (Nicholas Poussain)
bricks from straw – a beautiful Taurean image! And what do they do when Moses leaves them for a while to meet God on the mountain? They build a golden calf and worship it. It’s strange, isn’t it, how the ancient images crop up in our modern culture? The Bull Market is the investor’s delight, when stocks and shares are increasing in value, and on Wall Street, at the very heart of the Western economic system, there is the great big Taurean bull, introduced no doubt unconsciously, but demonstrating the power of these ancient symbols to transcend cultures and ages.
 

The Wall Street Bull
 


 
According to the Parable of the Sower, what we need to cultivate in order to overcome the temptations of Taurus is the great Taurean virtue, steadfastness. The astrological writer Isabella Pagan (in From Pioneer to Poet, page 23) tells us that:
 
The chief characteristic of the highly developed Taurean type is his stability of character and of purpose. He is the steadfast mind, unshaken in adversity, and his the power of quiet persistence in the face of difficulties......in hard circumstances his patience and perseverance are marvellous.
 
Persistence in the spiritual life is what we are all called upon to exercise. The seed has been planted, but it has to be nurtured – consistently and carefully. Last Friday, as Morag and I were taking our walk around St. Stephen’s Green, we came across Chris Tormey (a member of the Dublin congregation) and we spoke briefly about the beauty and profusion of the trees and the shrubs that surrounded us. ‘That reminds me,’ said Chris, ‘I must go home and water my plants.’ Chris has got it right. It’s no good just planting a seed and hoping for the best. The plant has to be fed and watered.
          So it is with the things of the spirit. They, too, must be watered. (I had originally called this address ‘Sowing the Seed’, but it should really be called ‘Nurturing the Seed’.) Do you remember the story of the manna in the book of Exodus? Manna was the food that God provided for the Israelites. It came daily, and there was just enough. Any that was left over began to rot and stink. This is a perfect image of spiritual nurture. It is a daily affair. We have to keep our spirits alive by consistent care, ensuring that daily prayer, daily meditation, a daily period of withdrawal and silence, daily acts of kindness are built into our lives. Only then can the impulse take root and grow; only then will there be any hope of an abundant harvest.
 
My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from

 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Aries 2: Who is my Mother and who are my Brothers?


 

Casting out the Money Changers (Giotto)
There are a number of incidents recorded in the Gospels in which, we are told, Jesus seems to act ‘out of character’. The most famous one, of course, is of Jesus casting out the money changers in the temple, a scene which does not fit our image of him as a passive man of peace. John’s Gospel tells us that he took a whip to them, and even though this might have been more of a symbolic gesture than a frenzied attack, his actions don’t correspond terribly well with his words in the Sermon on the Mount about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek. Another example is the way he treats the gentile woman who begs him to cure her disturbed daughter. ‘It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,’ he says, meaning that he was only prepared to heal the people of his own nation – ‘the dogs’ were all non-Jews. He eventually does heal the girl, but only after her mother has won him over with a smart rejoinder.
            However, to say that on these and similar occasions Jesus was acting ‘out of character’ is really rather misleading. Our character comes out in what we do and what we say, and if Jesus said and did these things then they were part of his character. What we really mean is that Jesus seems to be acting in ways which don’t quite square with the image of him that we carry around in our heads; but this image has been built up more from pious sermons, sentimental films, and apocryphal stories than from an actual close reading of the Gospel texts. According to the Gospels, Jesus was not always ‘Mr. Nice Guy’; sometimes he could be extremely unpleasant. I have never found the Jesus of John’s Gospel to be an appealing person at all. There are places where he seems to be arrogant, patronising, and self righteous. On one occasion, in chapter 7, he even seems to be deceitful. ‘You should go to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles,’ say his brothers. ‘No, I’m not going to go,’ replies Jesus dismissively; but then he goes! And when he later tells his apostles that they are his friends if they do what he tells them (John 15:14), I find myself losing patience with him as a genuinely sympathetic and humane person.
            But then, the Gospels were never intended to present a sentimental picture of the perfect man, in touch with his feminine side, a kind of prototype of St. Francis of Assisi, or Mahatma Gandhi. The Gospels are not character studies. Whatever conventional Christians say, the Gospels do not give us a rounded portrait of a person to emulate. In his words and actions, Jesus is demonstrating and expounding important spiritual principles, and these sometimes demand what, to us, appear as inconsistency.
            Nowhere is this more in evidence than in a little passage which occurs at the end of chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel, the end of what I have called the Aries section of the Gospel. You may not be familiar with it, because it is one of those incidents which preachers tend to ignore, so I’ll read it in its entirety.
 
And his mother and brothers came and were standing outside. They sent someone in to summon him. And a crowd was sitting around him and they said to him, 'Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside; they are looking for you.' Jesus responded by saying, 'Who is my mother and my brothers?' And looking at those sitting in a circle round him, he said, 'Look. Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my sister, and my mother.'
 
This is shocking isn’t it? And it is particularly shocking to Catholic sensibilities, which have elevated Jesus’ mother Mary to the status of goddess, and which have presented to us a picture of Jesus as a dutiful, obedient son within the ‘holy family’; and it is also shocking to Catholics because it tells us unequivocally that Jesus had brothers and sisters, demolishing at a stroke the Catholic doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, at least in so far as it is meant to be understood biologically.
But the embarrassment is not only to the Catholics. This passage calls into question Christendom’s general portrait of Jesus as a man who upholds ‘family values’, so beloved by the American Christian right, although how one could ever assume that an unmarried, childless man whose mother was a virgin and whose father was a ghost could represent a typical human family has always puzzled me.
The tension between Jesus and his immediate family is illustrated a little earlier in Mark’s Gospel, where we learn that his family members thought that he was out of his mind (3:21), and the other Gospels say nothing to contradict it. From the early chapters of Luke’s Gospel we learn of a twelve year old Jesus listening to the wise men in the temple rather than returning home with his parents, and in Matthew chapter 10, Jesus says, with almost unbelievable directness:
 
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter–in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me’ (10:34-38).
 
This is very unsettling stuff, which is probably why we don’t hear it read aloud too often, but it is not a rant against monogamy or the nuclear family; it is not even a plea for more tolerance of alternative lifestyles. These passages are intended to alert us to an extremely important spiritual principle: that discovering and establishing one’s identity, one’s true individuality, within a communal context, and particularly within the family context, is extraordinarily difficult, but it is so important that nothing, not even those things demanded by our closest intimacies, can ever take precedence over it.
These incidents teach us that anyone intent on following the spiritual path has to break away from some pretty restricting and oppressive social conditioning, and the most effective agency of this conditioning is the family. We learn our earliest and most enduring lessons about life and relationships at our mother’s knee; we inherit the family religion, or lack of it; we imbibe the family’s values before we are weaned; we build a social identity by processing the thousands of messages which accumulate daily from the overt and subtle words and actions of our parents and our siblings. The family itself has its own dynamics, from the obvious age relationships among brothers and sisters - which usually requires the oldest child to be competent, the middle one to be troublesome, and the youngest to be spoiled - to the designated roles which are apportioned early and which seem impossible to shake off.
            The Australian psychologist Dorothy Rowe says that when we get beneath the cosy facade that most families tend to present to the world we find some pretty disturbing dynamics, particularly in regard to the allocation of roles. ‘You have been given a role in the family which is yours for life,’ she says. ‘You cannot escape it.’ She is the intelligent one, he is the sensitive one, she is the daydreamer, he is ambitious. Rowe says that the greatest compliment her mother could give to anyone was, ‘He is always the same.’
            But these disturbing words of Jesus tell us unequivocally that we must not allow the prejudices of our family to determine the course of our spiritual life. As the novelist Sue Monk Kidd says, (Beliefnet, 7th April 2007) we have to pull away from the Collective They, to ‘stand before the bare mystery of our own being.’ ‘I came to understand,’ she writes, ‘that there is an Authentic ‘I’ within, an ‘I Am,’ or divine spark within the soul’, and that this ‘true identity’ transcends the outer roles which have been bequeathed to us by our family and our culture. To discover this true identity, the mark of God upon us, something as distinctive and unique as our fingerprints, is the raison d’etre of our existence, and the only guarantee of personal fulfilment and of collective harmony. Ignoring this, mistaking uniqueness for madness, in ourselves or in others, is what Jesus calls ‘the unforgivable sin’. It’s unforgivable because in committing it we have missed the whole point of our existence. In the works of the Sufi sage Rumi, we find it expressed thus:
 
The master said there is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but were not to forget this, there would be no cause to worry; while if you remembered, performed and attended to everything else, but forgot this one thing, you would in fact have done nothing whatsoever. It is as if a king had sent you to a country to carry out one special, specific task. You go to the country and you perform a hundred other tasks, but if you have not performed the task you were sent for, it is as if you have performed nothing at all. So man has come into the world for a particular task, and this is his purpose. If he doesn’t perform it, he will have done nothing.
 
Each of us is responsible for bringing to birth that authentic self which lies buried beneath those layers of prejudice which stifle its emergence with their insistence on conformity, homogenisation, prosperity, celebrity, and a hundred and one other culturally sanctioned distractions. This is why the passage from Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is shown dissociating himself from his immediate family occurs where it does, in the Aries section of the Gospel, which would have been read and discussed at this time of the year, when the very trees and flowers around us are emerging from winter’s collective homogeneity and beginning to express their individuality and uniqueness. ‘Doing the will of God’ does not mean behaving yourself, going to church on Sunday, living a respectable life; it means discovering and expressing the unique and precious part that only you can play in the great drama of existence. ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ asks Jesus. He goes on, ‘Those who do the will of God are my mother, my sisters and my brothers,’ by which he did not mean that his biological family were disreputable people – they were probably anything but - but that true nurture can only be provided by those who have themselves broken away from the Collective They, and who are concerned to help you find your authentic, creative, unique self.
            The Jews tell of a certain Rabbi Susya who used to say, ‘When I die, God will not ask me why I wasn’t Abraham, or why I wasn’t Moses; he will ask me why I wasn’t Susya.’ The same is true of you and me. The success or otherwise of my life will not be determined by how rich I become, or how famous I become, or how influential I become, or how popular I become. It will not even be assessed by how well I have kept the rules, or how closely I have emulated the life of some great spiritual figure. God will not ask me why I haven’t been another Jesus, or another Francis of Assisi. He will ask me why I allowed my inherited cultural and religious prejudices, and my desire for conformity and respectability, to prevent me from becoming Bill Darlison.