21st April – 21st May
|Taurus, by Dan Hodgkin|
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.’
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
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.) Britain
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
- were erected during the
astrological age of Taurus (c. 4,000 – c. 2,000 BCE). Egypt
|An icon depicting the Sower|
(Biserica Ortodoxă 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.
Born May 7th 1861
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
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 Egypt
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.
|Worshipping the Golden Calf (Nicholas Poussain)|
|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