Taurus (2): Letting the Light Shine
Story: The Dog in the Hall of MirrorsThere once was a dog who wondered into a room filled with mirrors. The dog looked around and seeing all of the other dogs, growled and showed his teeth. Upon seeing all of the other dogs do the same, he got frightened and cowered.
The world is merely a reflection of our attitude toward it.
The word ‘parable’ comes from the Greek, and it means ‘thrown beside’. A parable is something – usually a story – which is placed beside something else for the sake of comparison. The parable is an attempt to explain in simple narrative terms something that would otherwise appear complicated or abstruse, and spiritual teachers have used them since the beginning of time for three main reasons. First, they have the natural appeal of all stories. No matter how old we are, or how sophisticated we consider ourselves to be, we are all captivated by the words, ‘Once upon a time....’ Stories cannot fail to get our attention. The second reason is that stories engage our imagination and our judgement in ways that theological discourse does not. With a story we are obliged to come to our own conclusions, and these conclusions may differ according to the individual, so there is an ‘open-ended’ quality to a story, and room for the imagination to roam around.
The third, but by no means the least important reason, is that stories are memorable; generally speaking, we only need to hear a story - or a joke - once before we are ready to tell it, and once it is fixed in the memory it can be accessed even years later without too much trouble. Contrast this with mathematical theorems, chemical formulae, historical dates, geographical features, theological propositions and the like, which stay in our memory just long enough for us to use them in the examination before disappearing without trace. Sarah Tinker, our minister in Kensington, tells how she recently met up with a group of old school friends and they discussed what they could remember about their years of secondary schooling. The only thing they had a clear memory of from a dozen years of schooling was the formation of an ox-bow lake. It’s a common experience, which our educators, with their growing concern to impart a ‘body’ of knowledge, would do well to take notice of. But, for all that these women have forgotten the facts, I’ll bet they can remember the stories their teachers told them, or read to them. I can certainly recall the ones that I was told. I can still remember, well over fifty years ago, listening while the teacher read us the Labours of Hercules, or The Adventures of Wurzel Gummidge, or Peter Pan, or Children of the New Forest. Facts disappear: stories stick.
The power of the story was not lost on Jesus. When asked – as reported in Luke’s Gospel – ‘Who is my neighbour?’ by a man who wanted to put him to the test, Jesus did not reply with a philosophical or sociological definition like, ‘In popular usage, your neighbour is the person who lives in close proximity, usually next door. But, taken in a wider sense, it refers to anyone who may be in need of your assistance.’ No. Jesus told a story. ‘A certain man was travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho....’ he began, and he went on to tell the story of the Good Samaritan, one of the most important and memorable stories in the whole of religious literature. And at the end of the story, Jesus’ questioner was asked to draw his own conclusions, thereby producing an impact on the listener that would be impossible with a lengthy and convoluted argument.
But the spiritual story was not the invention of Jesus. In the Jewish scriptures we read how Nathan the prophet brought King David to repent his shameful treatment of Uriah the Hittite by telling him a story. David was taking the air on the roof of his house one day when he spied the beautiful Bathsheba, whose husband Uriah was away at the wars. David seduced her, and, on learning that she had become pregnant, arranged for her husband to be killed. He then took her as his own wife. The prophet Nathan came to David and told him the story of a poor man who had just one lamb, which he treated like one of his own children. However, a rich man, with plenty of sheep, had an unexpected visitor, and so he took the poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it. ‘What do you think should happen to such a man?’ asks Nathan. ‘He is deserving of death,’ thundered an indignant David. ‘You are that man,’ says Nathan, fearlessly. ‘Stealing the wife of Uriah the Hittite was even more reprehensible than what this rich man did.’ Nathan’s parable alerted David to the monstrous nature of his sin.
The stories I tell the children here on Sundays are for the most part similar spiritual parables, and the fact that they are taken from all the world’s spiritual traditions – Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian etc. – underlines the ubiquity of the story as a vital aid in spiritual teaching. Today’s story, the Dog in the Hall of Mirrors, from the Zen Buddhist tradition, illustrates one of the oldest and most widespread spiritual teachings of all: the principle of karma, or the notion that the external world reflects the internal disposition. ‘What you give out will be what you get back.’ If you perceive the world as hostile it is because you yourself are harbouring hostility; remove your own hostility and you’ll find that the external world will cease to threaten you. This principle is also found in chapter four of Mark’s Gospel, although it does not appear in story form. ‘What you give out will be what you get back,’ says Jesus.
How strange then, in the light of all this, that Jesus says something very odd about parables in the Gospel of Mark. He doesn’t say that he tells parables because they are pithy, engaging, memorable, or powerful, as we might expect. He says that he tells them in order to keep the truth from people.
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, ‘The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parable, so that ‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding, otherwise they might turn and be forgiven. (Mark 4:10-11)
What is implied here is that there is a secret teaching which is only imparted to a certain few – those ‘inside the house’; to those ‘on the outside’ everything is given in parables.
We can only guess the nature of that secret teaching, but I am sure that it had something to do with the approach to Mark’s Gospel which we are studying in these sessions: that there is a ‘hidden’ meaning behind all the Gospel stories, and that this meaning will only be imparted to those who are ready to receive it. The rest will have to be content with parables.
But this ‘hidden meaning’ will not remain hidden for ever. In the verses which immediately follow the Parable of the Sower, Jesus says,
Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. (Mark 4:21-23)
This is one of the passages which gave me a ‘eureka’ moment when I was researching my theory of Mark’s Gospel structure. It is the only ‘parable’ in this section which does not use agricultural imagery, and so I wondered what possible connection it could have with the sign Taurus. I considered the possibility that it was an interpolation – that is, a passage slipped in by a later editor. But when I began to investigate the astronomy and the mythology associated with Taurus I realised that it was precisely where it should be. In the ancient world Taurus was always associated with ‘light’ principally because in and around the constellation Taurus are some of the most spectacular sights in the night sky. Orion, which dominates the winter sky and is probably the one constellation which everyone can identify, is close by Taurus, and Taurus itself was called ‘The Bull of Light’ by the Babylonians. In the shoulder of the Bull are the Pleiades, which have inspired more poetry and song than any other stellar grouping, and, as I mentioned last time, were used by farmers in the ancient world to determine when they would plant and harvest their crops.
The Nebra Disk (c.1660 BCE)
The Pleiades are at the top right
But what the ancient sky watchers found so intriguing about the Pleiades was the fact that there was no agreement about how many stars the naked eye could see. Some authors say that you can see six, some say you can see seven. Consequently, the mythology of the Pleiades concerned seven daughters, six of whom were married to gods, and so became immortal, but one of whom was married to a mortal; so, while six immortal stars shone brightly, the mortal one was only dimly visible, and only occasionally seen. Now we can understand why this little piece occurs where it does in Mark: ‘For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.’
We must be careful not to misinterpret this little saying of Jesus. It is not a threat of exposure and embarrassment: it is a promise of enlightenment. Jesus is not saying that God, like some celestial Big Brother, is spying on us and that every one of our secret vices will be made known to the world at some time in the future; he is saying that the deepest and most obscure truths about the nature of the world and the purpose of human life can and will become clear to us. How will that occur? Jesus says that we don’t know how, any more than we know how it is that the seed which the farmer scatters on the ground eventually becomes a plant. The farmer simply does what he has to do and trusts that the mysterious process of transformation will take place.
So it is with our own enlightenment. It does not require us to engage in some self-conscious and narcissistic activity called ‘spiritual development’. The promise is that it will come to us as we go about our daily life in a spirit of wakeful attentiveness. Listen to this passage:
When I was four, a sound slipped into my bedroom and woke me up. It was a persistent sound of scratching on my window screen. It was an awful sound, really. Loud and grating, and given the darkness and shadowy images moving across the curtains, I suppose I could have become afraid. But I wasn’t. I was struck only with curiosity, with a kind of wonder about this noise in the darkness. I remember lying in bed imagining increasingly magical explanations for it, unaware that I was about to engage a mystery that would in some way linger with me for the rest of my life. Armed with an array of vivid possibilities, I crept out of bed and made my way through the house to my parents’ bed. I shook my mother’s shoulder. ‘Mama, there is an angel scratching against my window’.
I waited to hear what she would say… …She did not say, ‘The scratching on your window is only the wind dragging an old branch across the screen. It’s nothing. Go back to bed’.
Instead, even groggy with sleep, she knew that the ability to let go and listen creatively to the world as a mythic and sacred place, that the power to listen to the humdrum and the familiar and hear the sacred possibility of music inside it is a tender, fragile thing, easily lost. So, rather than douse my first foray into holy imaginings, she put her blessing on it. She said, ‘An angel? Wonderful. Say hello for me’. (Sue Monk Kidd: Beliefnet 15th April 2007).
When the seed of the Spirit is nurtured and watered by constant care; when we trust in the power of the Spirit to transform our lives in its own way and in its own time, then we may begin to hear the divine voice within the apparently chaotic and cacophonous sounds of the world. We will begin to see and to perceive, to hear and to understand. We may not be able to articulate what we discover; we will certainly not be able to put it into a creed or a series of propositions; but when we suddenly realize that the scratching on the window is announcing the presence of an angel, that (in Tagore's words) the world has a deeper meaning than what is apparent, we will know that our consciousness has been transformed and the kingdom of God has arrived.
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