Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Virgo (1): Service and Simplicity



VIRGO

21st August – 21st September


Virgo, by Dan Hodgkin


Virgo is Mutable Earth, and is the sign of the harvest. Its symbol is the Maiden with the Wheatsheaf. In Egypt the sign was associated with the goddess Isis, who is often depicted carrying the infant Horus, and the sign has strong connections with childhood. Its keywords are service, humility, simplicity, purity, characteristics of the Virgin Mary, whose birthday is celebrated on 8th September, when the sun is in the centre of Virgo. The decans of Virgo are Coma (the Infant), Centaurus (the Centaur), and Bootes, (the Shepherd).

Mark 9:33-50



.
T
hey came to Capernaum, and when he was inside the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the road?’ But they were silent, because on the road they had been arguing about who was the greatest. When he’d sat down, he called the twelve and said to them, ‘If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all, and the servant of all.’ He took a little child, and stood him in their midst. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever receives a child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, is not only receiving me, he is also receiving the one who sent me.’
                John said to him, ‘We saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we stopped him because he wasn’t of our company.’
                Jesus said, ‘Don’t stop him. Nobody who does a powerful work in my name will then be able to slander me. Whoever is not opposed to us is on our side. I’m telling you the truth: whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ won’t go unrewarded. But it would be better for him who puts obstacles in the way of one of these little ones who believe in me to be thrown into the sea with a huge millstone tied around his neck! If your hand causes you to fall, cut it off! It’s better to enter into life maimed than with both hands to go into Gehenna, into the inextinguishable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off! It’s better for you to enter into life lame than to be thrown with both feet into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to fall, pluck it out! It’s better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to be thrown with both eyes into Gehenna, where the worm doesn’t die, and the fire is never put out! Everyone will be salted with fire; salt is good, but if ever it loses its saltiness, what will you use to make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves and live in peace with one another.’  



Sermon first delivered in September 2007

Service and Simplicity


A
 new book has just been published about Mother Teresa. It’s called Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, and it consists of extracts from letters she wrote over 66 years to her various spiritual directors. The book is set to cause a stir because, apparently, it portrays a tortured soul, expressing doubts about God’s existence and the efficacy of prayer; indeed, it describes an interior life which seems very much at odds with her public persona. It has been published now, no doubt, to coincide with the 10th anniversary of her death on 5th September 1997. She died, you remember, just a few days after Diana Princess of Wales, and so her expected death in old age was somewhat overshadowed by the tragic, accidental death of her younger, more glamorous contemporary, but it seems an odd coincidence that two of the most famous women in the world – if not the most famous women in the world - should die within days of each other. I always feel that it is unfortunate to share your death with a public icon. Aldous Huxley, the British novelist and spiritual writer died on the same day as President Kennedy in 1963, and news of the death of this extraordinarily talented and influential man had to be reported on the inside pages of the newspapers.
            But there was something fitting about Mother Teresa dying when she did, because whatever the details of her own private spirituality, and despite the criticisms of people like Christopher Hitchens who see her as a manipulative, cynical, sentimental figure, she was known world wide for her quiet humility, and dying while the world mourned Diana enabled her to slip unobtrusively into the great beyond without the fanfare which would have inevitably attended her death at any other time.
            Mother Teresa died at this time of year, and she was born at this time of year too. She was born in late August, 1910, under the sign of Virgo, the sign which all the astrology text books will tell you is concerned with service. People in whom the Virgo principle operates strongly generally shun the limelight, but they are excellent workers, well able to provide a practical structure for someone else's grand, but hazy and unformed, idea. I remember asking Morag, many years ago, who the best nurses were. Surely, I said, they are the Pisceans, the ones who can empathise with the patients, hold their hands, cry with them a little. No, said Morag. The best nurses – from her point of view as a ward sister – are the Virgos, because Virgos actually see what needs doing and do it! Anyone who knows a strongly Virgoan person will testify to the truth of this. They are organisers and systematisers. Virgos like to catalogue things, put them in order, clean up the mess. They tend to be strongly conscious of hygiene, and can become pernickety about dress and diet. The English astrological writer, Charles Carter, says this about Virgo:

It is not the sign of leadership but of service; it does not aim at brilliant results but at useful ones. It is patient and does not turn from routine drudgery; it hates show and shuns responsibility and publicity. It is not ambitious but is satisfied with a straight job and a fair wage.

Mother Teresa
If we translate the elements of this somewhat unflattering psychological portrait into spiritual categories we can see that the Virgo phase of experience is characterized by service, discipleship, actually living out the precepts laid down by the spiritual master. In the modern era no one has exemplified these better than Mother Teresa, whose practical, ‘hands-on’ approach to religion has had such a marked influence on the contemporary world. Although her shrewd self-promotion, her high profile, and her considerable leadership qualities seem to indicate the importance of other factors, her image and her public utterances seem almost invariably to reflect her birth sign.

A sacrifice to be real must cost, must hurt, must empty ourselves. The fruit of silence is prayer, the fruit of prayer is faith, the fruit of faith is love, the fruit of love is service, the fruit of service is peace.

Leo Tolstoy (9th September, 1828), who, in his later years was drawn towards an analysis of the religious nature of the human being, extolled the simple, rational, practical aspects of religion, free from supernaturalism, and concentrating almost exclusively on behaviour: ‘Let all the world practice the [teaching] of Jesus and the reign of God will come upon earth,’ he wrote.
 
Isis and Horus
        
Virgo, the second of the Earth signs, is the sign of the harvest, and in ancient Egypt it was represented by the maiden with the wheat sheaf in her hand, or by the goddess Isis carrying the infant Horus – an image which is highly relevant to the passage of Mark which we are considering, as we shall see. This is harvest time, when work has to be done. We’ve been basking in the leonine sunshine for long enough; now it’s time to take out the farming implements and get down to some productive activity. Mark’s Gospel doesn’t mention the harvest, but the parallel passage in Luke does; at this precise point in the narrative, Luke has Jesus say, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field’ (Luke 10:2, NIV), which is another reason why I am convinced that the Gospel of Mark as we have it is a truncated version of a much longer document which displayed the zodiacal signatures even more clearly than the Gospel as we now have it.
          Our activities at this time of the year unconsciously reflect the Virgoan preoccupations. It’s time to get down to the nitty gritty. Since the sun entered Virgo around 21st August, we’ve all been getting prepared for the new year at work and particularly at school. The Jews actually celebrate the New Year at this time – Rosh ha shana is this year on September 12th. School uniforms are dragged from the wardrobe; books are bought and backed; pencils are sharpened, shoes polished. There’s a general air of ‘eager reluctance’ pervading the atmosphere.

These are the very themes of the section of Mark’s Gospel that I read earlier. The apostles have just come down from the mount of Transfiguration, which, as we noticed a few weeks ago, symbolises the glory of the individual, the innate divinity of the human person. And, no doubt because they have been informed of these elevated things they are getting a little carried away with a sense of their own importance. What are they doing? They are arguing. They are arguing, as men will, about who is the greatest among them. They want to construct a league table – extraordinarily typical of the male psyche! Just another expression of the ‘mine is bigger than yours’ mentality of the average man! Jesus responds by explaining to them the great Virgo principle of service: ‘If anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all, and the servant of all,’ he says. And,
Jesus and the Children (Hoffman)
to give a graphic demonstration, he takes a little child and sets him in the midst of them – echoing the ancient Egyptian symbol of Virgo, the goddess Isis with the young Horus in her arms. What it’s all about, says Jesus, is looking after these little ones, and being as free from guile and spiritual ambition as them. Never mind your complicated theology, your learned articles, your fancy titles, your hierarchies, your sense of self-importance: look at these children and learn a lesson from them. Yes, you are divine; you are a ‘little lower than the angels’, you are made in the image of God, but so is everybody else, and you can only express your own divine nature by serving the divine in other people. Jesus informs us that in order to save our life we must lose it (Mark 8:35), and that suffering and self‑denial are a necessary part of following Christ (Mark 8:34): we can only realize our true divinity by relinquishing it.  In the Letter to the Philippians (2:5-8), St Paul expresses it thus:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross.

This is the principle of kenosis, self‑emptying: our divine nature is only realized to the extent that we serve the divine in other people. In the Gospel of Mark, no sooner are we apprised of Jesus' glory (Leo) than we are given clear instructions about the necessity of humility (Virgo).
          Or, as the Hindus put it, ‘Namaste’ – the god in me salutes the god in you!
          No one was more convinced of his own divine nature than Walt Whitman, who wrote:

          I believe in the flesh and its appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a miracle.
Divine am I, inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from.
          The scent of these armpits aroma finer than prayer.
          This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds.

But he also stresses, that what applies to him applies to all:

By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.

And how did he express the conviction of his own divinity? He went to tend the wounded and dying in the American Civil War.
          Walt Whitman knew what following Christ meant, although he wouldn’t have called himself a Christian. But we Christians don’t seem to have much idea. We still want our league tables, even in the spiritual life, and we confer titles on ourselves just to remind everybody how important we are. Clergy titles are wonderfully ironic in the light of Jesus’ teaching. There’s ‘monsignor’, ‘bishop’, ‘archbishop’, ‘cardinal’, ‘pope’ – ‘princes of the church’; they are ‘Reverend’, ‘Most Reverend’, ‘Very Reverend’; they are to be addressed as ‘My Lord’, ‘Your Grace’, ‘Your Holiness’, ‘Holy Father’, all according to strict protocol, and woe betide anyone who gets it wrong! People still curtsey in front of bishops, and kiss their rings! And even Unitarians are not free from this. Why do we covet the title ‘Reverend’? Why do we clamour to put titles in front of our names, and qualifications behind them? The time is surely here when we should consign all this preposterous stuff to the dustbin. We are a lay movement – that is, a movement without priests, without hierarchy; a movement in which anything a minister can do can be done by a suitably qualified and appointed member of the congregation. ‘Whoever wants to be first, will be last of all, and the servant of all,’ says Jesus. The most ironic title of the pope is ‘servus servorum dei’, ‘servant of the servants of God’ a title which no doubt strikes him as odd as he is carried into St. Peter’s in a sedan chair, and as he reflects that he has probably never so much as boiled an egg in his life.
          Nor should we be concerned with who is making the greatest contribution to our spiritual movement, or to any spiritual movement: even the person who gives a cup of cold water is making a significant contribution, and won’t go unrewarded. There are some people who, in Emerson’s words, are ‘too great for fame’. I know them, and so do you. In fact, Morag and I were visited last week by Janet and John Walker, our neighbours in Pontefract, who have looked after a severely disabled daughter for 21 years, all the time with a light heart and a cheery, uncomplaining face. They will never be featured in any newspaper biopics; there’ll be no mention in the Queen’s Honours List, and yet they, and countless millions like them, are people of whom the world is not worthy, the ‘salt of the earth’, people who live lives of such quiet heroism that our paltry efforts are shamed by comparison.
          Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a poem in 1888, here in Dublin, extolling just such virtues in St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, a Jesuit lay-brother, who did little more than act as a doorkeeper for forty years, and yet he performed his duties with such diligence that God granted him extraordinary spiritual insights.
           In our own community, everyone makes a contribution, and every contribution is of inestimable value. A few months ago, Michael, who does our rotas, told me that about 90 separate individuals feature on one or more of our several rotas; some look after the children in the Sunday club, some bring flowers, some read at the service, some welcome people on Sunday mornings, some provide coffee and tea. These are extraordinarily important activities without which the church would be immeasurably impoverished. Even just showing up, being present, smiling at visitors, contributes to the friendly community that has been built up over the years. When I first came here there was an elderly man in the congregation called John McCabe. He was a very quiet man. He wasn’t well off, in fact he was probably quite poor, and he wasn’t particularly well educated, but he had thought his way into this congregation, and attended every week without fail before his death in 1997. He didn’t have the confidence to read or to do any of the other duties, and he couldn’t make any real financial contribution, but he asked the committee if he could paint the vestry as his contribution to church life. It hasn’t been painted since he did it, and I for one am rather reluctant to have it repainted, because the fading colour down there at present reminds me of this simple and generous man who offered his own ‘cup of cold water’ in a spirit of humble service.
          ‘The first will be last, and the last will be first.’ Such is the great lesson of Virgo, the great lesson we in this celebrity obsessed culture need to learn.

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Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Leo (2). 'If You Can'. The Meaning of Faith


Mark 9:14-29
As they were coming down the mountain Jesus sternly charged them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the son of man should rise from the dead. They kept his words to themselves, but they discussed among themselves what this ‘rising from the dead’ could mean. They began to question him. ‘Why do the legal experts say that Elijah must come first?’ they asked. Jesus said to them, ‘Elijah does come first and is putting everything straight. But why do the scriptures say that the son of man must suffer many things and be treated with contempt? I’m telling you, Elijah has indeed come, and they’ve done to him all that they wanted, just as it has been written of him.’ 

                When they reached the other disciples they noticed that they were arguing with some legal experts, surrounded by a huge crowd. As soon as the crowd caught sight of Jesus they were amazed and they ran towards him and began to greet him. He said to them, ‘What are you arguing with them about?’ One of the crowd answered, ‘Teacher, I brought my son to you because he has a spirit of dumbness, and whenever it seizes him it throws him down and he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth, and he’s wasting away. I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they weren’t powerful enough.’ He answered them, ‘O faithless generation! How long must I put up with you? Bring him here!’ They brought him, and when the spirit saw him it immediately threw the lad into convulsions. He fell to the ground and was rolling about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been going on?’ He replied, ‘Since he was a little child. Many times it has thrown him into the fire and into the water in order to destroy him. If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! Everything is possible to someone who has faith!’ Straightaway, the boy’s father cried out, “I do have faith! Help my lack of faith!’

        When Jesus noticed that a crowd was bearing upon them, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying, ‘Deaf and dumb spirit, I order you to come out of him, and never enter him again!’ With a shriek, the spirit sent the lad into terrible convulsions, and came out. The young man looked as if he was dead, but Jesus, taking him by the hand, raised him, and he stood up. When they went into a house, the disciples asked him privately, ‘Why weren’t we able to cast it out?’ He said to them, ‘Nobody can cast out this kind except by prayer.’

       
Children's Story: The Doctor’s Diagnosis


A man was in bed, very sick. He had not eaten or spoken for two days, and his wife thought the end was near, so she called in the doctor.

            The doctor gave the old man a very thorough physical examination. He looked at his tongue, lifted his eyelids to examine his eyes, listened to his chest through his stethoscope, tested his reflexes by hitting his knee with a little hammer, felt his pulse, looked in his ears, and took his temperature. Finally, he pulled the bed sheet over the man’s head, and pronounced, in sombre tones, ‘I’m afraid your husband has been dead for two days.’

            At that moment, the old man pulled back the sheet, lifted his head slightly, and whispered anxiously, ‘No, my dear, I’m still alive!’

            The man’s wife pushed his head back down again, covered him once more with the bed sheet, and snapped, ‘Be quiet! Who asked you? The doctor is an expert, he ought to know!’

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This sermon was delivered on 19th August 2007



If the sun and moon should doubt,
They’d immediately go out.
(William Blake)


Say what you like about the Internet, but when you want information quickly it’s often there at your fingertips. In preparing this sermon I wanted a copy of The Penny Catechism – the little booklet that most Catholics over the age of fifty would have had to learn by heart – but it’s not readily available these days, so I put my request into Google, and within seconds – 2.4 seconds to be exact – there was The Penny Catechism up on my screen. I couldn’t have accessed it more quickly if I’d gone to my bookcase to fetch it!
            I was after the Catholic definition of ‘faith’, which I still vaguely remember from my own hours spent with the Catechism, but which I wanted to get right. It comes early on, at question nine:
            Question:  ‘What is faith?’
Answer: ‘Faith is a supernatural gift of God, which enables us to believe without doubting whatever God has revealed.’
A couple of questions on it asks: ‘How are you to know what God has revealed?’ And the answer is: ‘I am to know what God has revealed by the testimony, teaching and authority of the Catholic Church.’
And then: ‘What are the chief things which God has revealed?’
Answer: ‘The chief things which God has revealed are contained in the Apostles' Creed.’
 The Apostles’ Creed follows. You probably know how it goes: ‘I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.....’
            I wanted this definition of faith because faith is a central concept of the zodiacal sign Leo which, I believe, has inspired the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are currently considering. The astrological writer Charles Carter says that, ‘If the keynote of the sign Cancer is “I fear”, the keynote of Leo is “I have faith”’. In fact, Faith is a central concept in all three of the so-called ‘Fire’ signs of the zodiac, Aries, Leo, and Sagittarius, and with good reason: ‘Fire’ is the Element which represents enthusiasm, energy, vigour, zest, power, individuality, all of which are bound up with what the Gospel of Mark means by faith.
            But there is no trace of any of these things in the Catholic Church’s definition. In the Catechism, faith is about believing certain propositions – propositions which have been ‘revealed’ to us by God and delivered to us by the authority of the Catholic Church. This is how most of us have been schooled to understand faith, and why the definition given years ago by Mark Twain that ‘faith is believing what you know isn’t true’ is not too far wide of the mark. ‘Losing’ our faith is simply ceasing to accept that these propositions have any correspondence with the truth, or any relevance to life.
            For many Protestants, who talk about being ‘saved by faith’, ‘faith’ means accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and trusting that he has paid the price of sin. If one firmly believes this, they say, one is ‘saved’, that is, destined for heaven.
            But neither the Catholic nor the Protestant definition of faith comes even close to what Jesus meant by the word. In the story of the Cure of the Deaf Boy, which we heard earlier, Jesus rebukes his apostles for their lack of faith, and the boy’s father exclaims, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief!’ Is Jesus telling the apostles off because they don’t believe the propositions of the Apostles’ Creed? Is the boy’s father asking for help in accepting Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour? Hardly. A moment’s consideration will show that this cannot be the case. For Jesus, faith is not about metaphysical propositions which one has to sacrifice one’s reasoning powers in order to accept. Faith is an attitude to life, a positive attitude, grounded in a strong sense of our immense powers as human beings, which we can have – or not have – regardless of the contents of our supposed metaphysical belief system. Faith is what gets you out of bed in the morning; it’s what keeps you struggling on in the face of life’s vicissitudes and disappointments. The opposite of this kind of faith is not doubt or disbelief, both of which are perfectly reasonable intellectual responses to speculative theological statements: it is apathy, cynicism, an overwhelming sense of futility and pointlessness, a feeling of being a helpless pawn in the mindless drift of an indifferent universe.
            Nowhere in literature is this attitude to life more succinctly or more chillingly expressed than in Shakespeare’s Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.


Macbeth may well have claimed that he ‘believed’ the contents of the Apostles’ Creed, but his nihilistic observation shows that he has no faith at all.
            Although Macbeth’s brand of ‘faithlessness’ has been around since the dawn of time, it seems to be on the increase in our own day, fed by influential schools of contemporary thought – philosophy, biology, psychology, genetics - which casually strip us of our personal autonomy, telling us we are simply objects in a world of objects, accidents of cosmology and history, our actions and our attitudes determined by circumstances beyond our control. I remember, many years ago, when I was a student in York, attending a lecture by a professor of psychology, at which we were told, quite blithely and with no sense of regret in her voice, that we were completely at the mercy of our genes and our environment, with the environment having the bigger influence. ‘There is no freedom of the will at all,’ she said. ‘Freedom of the will is pure fiction.’
            I wondered then, and I wonder still, what such teaching does to our sense of moral responsibility, to our sense of right and wrong, virtue and vice, good and bad, honourable and despicable. Is there any room in such a system of thought for praise or blame, approval or censure? Strangely, although I have met many people who would say that they go along with such opinions, none of them has shown the slightest inclination to curb his or her tendency to criticise volubly those who have wronged them, or to heap praise on those who do them favours. Certain Marxist thinkers, who talk of human beings as pawns of history or economics, never seem tired of using the language of moral censure on people who are simply responding, so some Marxists would have us believe, as psychological, sociological and economic laws dictate. Nor is such an attitude restricted to secular philosophies. Religions often preach a type of fatalism which renders us powerless in the face of some deity’s whims and diktats. So, to some Muslims, Allah has written the script and we are simply acting the parts allotted; to Christians of the Calvinist persuasion, the end of history is known in advance, and God has already separated the saved from the damned, so there’s not much point in any kind of moral striving. All of which cuts clean across that deep sense we have of ourselves as moral beings with the power of choice – however limited such a power might be. We may laugh at the woman in the story I told the children, who believed the expert rather than her experience, but how different are we? My experiences of life may teach me that I am being with some degree of moral autonomy, but the university professor tells me I don’t have any, so I must believe her. I may base my daily life on the assumption that people around me are making decisions for which they can be applauded or censured, but the intellectually respectable Mr Grim Faced Determinist tells me that they are just acting as they must, As a consequence, faith in my own limited but real autonomy is eroded, and gradually replaced with a feeling of impotence in the face of cosmic inevitability.
           
In his book Man’s Search for Meaning – one of the most important spiritual books of the 20th century – psychiatrist Viktor Frankl considers the effects of such faithlessness on his fellow inmates in Auschwitz. Frankl puts it quite starkly: those without faith died first. He does not mean that those without religious belief died. Religious and non-religious people suffered in the same degree. He means that those who could see no
purpose in their lives died quickly. Those who could perceive no meaning in their existence, no point to their experiences, gave in most readily. Such ‘purpose’ need not involve what we might call ultimate, transcendent purpose. He isn’t talking about abstract or overarching meaning, such as might be given by certain kinds of religious conviction; he is talking about the specific meaning that life might have at any given moment. Quoting Nietzsche, he says that ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how’. Faith, for Frankl, is the why of life. The why will differ with the individual, but without it we will find ourselves in despair, regardless of our level of prosperity. Many people, says Frankl, ‘have enough to live by, but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning’. Or, as the Book of Proverbs has it, ‘Where there is no vision, the people perish.’
            Frankl’s experiences in Auschwitz taught him that human beings, far from being the playthings of circumstances, have the potential to attain and express what he calls a ‘spiritual freedom’ which cannot be taken away, and which alone can make life purposeful and meaningful. He writes:

A human being is not one thing among others; things determine each other, but man is ultimately self-determining. What he becomes – within the limits of his endowment and environment – he
has made out of himself. In the concentration camps, for example, in this living laboratory and on this testing ground, we watched and witnessed some of our comrades behave like swine while others behaved like saints. Man has both potentialities within himself; which one is actualized depends on decisions but not on conditions.... man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips.

 And this is precisely the lesson of the story of the Deaf Boy in Mark’s Gospel: we are greater than we think. Jesus and his disciples have come down from the mount of Transfiguration, the mountain on which the innate divinity of the human person is graphically described. Coming down from the mountain represents coming down to earth, encountering real life once again. And what does he encounter? A man who is begging help for his troubled son. Remember the principle upon which my interpretation of all these miracle stories is based: that the physical ailments from which the gospel characters are suffering are metaphors of universal human spiritual conditions. This boy is deaf and dumb, and from birth onwards he has been thrown into the fire or into the water, unable to determine for himself the course of his existence, buffeted here and there by a force which overwhelms him. He has no voice, no power, no control. The boy’s father asks if Jesus can help, and Jesus replies, ‘Don’t ask what I can do, ask what you can do! Everything is possible to one who has faith!’ Or, to put it another way, ‘Everything is possible to one who accepts his own innate power as a child of God.’  And Jesus cures the lad. Jesus represents that power within each of us which enables us to transcend those confining shackles, what William Blake calls ‘mind forg’d manacles’, false ideas about our nature and our abilities which shut our ears to the call our innate divinity, and which keep our aspirations paltry, and make us slaves to fashion and circumstance. Changing our attitudes, having faith in ourselves and in all human beings, may not cure our physical ailments – to think this is, in my view, to misread the story – but it will transform our personal psychic universe, and help us to create that transfigured world for which we all long.
            The Face to Faith column in yesterday’s Guardian (18th August 2007) dealt with this very theme. Its author Canon Andrew Clitherow, says that such a faith is actually a prerequisite of a genuinely mature faith in God.

However, while religion often tells you to have faith in God first and then to know your place in his scheme of things, developing a faith in human nature today actually precedes having an authentic faith in God. Then as we unearth the divine potential in cosmic existence, we can take increasing responsibility for ourselves and the universe in a creative and loving way.

One final point: ‘the divine potential in cosmic existence’, the transforming power of the Christ within, has to be discovered. The kind of demon that was afflicting the young boy – that is, the demon which convinces the individual that he or she is a plaything of circumstances – cannot be driven out, merely by wishing it away, or by begging someone else to take it from us. ‘Only prayer will do it,’ says Jesus. By which he means that we must pay assiduous attention to our spiritual practice, if we are to develop the kind of faith which will transform the individual and help to transform the world.



My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from