Sunday, 22 September 2013

Libra (1): Getting the Balance Right


23rd September – 23rd October

Libra, by Dan Hodgkin

Libra, the Balance, is the sign of the autumn equinox, when day and night are equal. It is associated with relationships, marriage, and has been called ‘the sign of cosmic reciprocity’. Its ruler is Venus, the goddess of love. The Greeks called it Zugos,’ the Yoke’, and in Egypt it was represented by the goddess Ma’at, who judged the dead, weighing their souls in the balance: those who passed her test were said to be ‘light hearted’; those who failed were ‘heavy hearted’. Its decans are the Cross, the Victim, and the Crown.

Mark 10:3-9

Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds of people came to him and, as was his custom, he taught them.
Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?'
'What did Moses command you?' he replied.
'They said, 'Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.'
'It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,' Jesus replied. 'But at the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.'


Dates refer to 2007 when this sermon was written.

'Life's a great balancing act.' Dr. Seuss

On the 23rd September this year the sun entered the zodiacal sign of Libra. You can always tell when the sun is approaching this point on its journey through the heavens, because people start to say (when they can think of nothing else to say), ‘The nights are drawing in now, aren’t they?’ And indeed they are. The long days of summer are over. Now it’s dark at 7.30 pm, and most of us are getting out of bed before dawn. Now day and night are of equal duration – twelve hours or so of each – with the point of exactitude occurring on 23rd September, the day of the autumnal equinox. Six months ago we had the spring equinox, and day and night were equal then, too, but there is a difference between these two points: after the spring equinox, the light begins to dominate; after the autumn equinox, the darkness begins to prevail. Soon, it will be dark when you arrive at work, and dark before you set off home.
            The contrast between light and darkness, which is almost lost on us because of our electric lights and round the clock lifestyle, would have had a marked impact upon people in times gone by, who would have been compelled to organise their lives around the natural rhythms of night and day. Daylight was for activity and work; darkness for rest and sleep; in the daylight they could be reasonably secure from predators and so could act alone; in the night they were vulnerable and needed each other for safety and for comfort. We still say, ‘Things will look different in the daylight,’ meaning that the light will put a temporary end to those nameless fears which seem to beset us in the darkness. Brendan Behan once described himself as ‘a daylight atheist’, a theological position with which many of us will be familiar: when the sun is shining and we’ve plenty to do, those nagging questions about existence which will often assail us in the darkness seem to evaporate.
            The zodiac, which, as I’ve constantly stressed, is simply the path of the sun in the sky, derives its imagery, in part, from this interplay of light and dark. In the spring, when the light begins to dominate, we have the sign Aries, which symbolises the growing light of individual consciousness struggling against the forces of collective darkness, and so Aries comes to represent the loner, the pioneer, the trailblazer, who heads off almost recklessly to chart new paths for the rest of us to follow. In the autumn, when the darkness begins to prevail, we have Aries’ complementary sign Libra, which symbolises intimacy, relationships, marriage – social and communal activities, as opposed to individualistic ones. Jeff Mayo, who taught me the language of astrology 40 years ago, and whose book Teach Yourself Astrology is still one of the best introductions to the subject, says that Libra symbolises ‘the primitive urge for unity and relatedness with others.... and the need to conform to an ideal pattern of community life’. People who are strongly Libran are said to be cooperative, socially aware, with a strong sense of justice and fair play. Their ‘ruling planet’ is Venus, the planet of love and beauty, which tends to render them amorous, stylish, artistic, refined, but with an unfortunate tendency (they say) to laziness and self-indulgence.   
Old Bailey figure 'Justice'
The symbol of Libra is the balance, reflecting the equinoctial balance between night and day, but also symbolising the balance between all pairs of opposites: the individual and the community, male and female, work and rest, outgoing and indrawing, initiative and caution. The Libran scales are used as symbols of justice – paying what one owes to the community. On the Old Bailey courts in London, there is a statue of the goddess of Justice with scales in her hands, and in ancient Egypt, Libra was the goddess Ma’at, who was said to weigh the souls of the dead against a feather; those who passed her test were ‘light hearted’, those who failed it ‘heavy hearted’. The word ‘Libra’ is the Latin word for a pound weight, and in the pre-decimal system of weights and measures the pound was abbreviated to ‘lb’, a contraction of Libra.

'Ma'at' weighing the souls of the dead
The Greeks called Libra Zugos, the Yoke, which refers to the wooden device fixed across the necks of oxen to keep them together as they were pulling the plough, reflecting once again the notion of harmony, balance, and working together, which are central to the symbolism of Libra.
     In the Gospel of Mark, the Libran section begins, appropriately, with an argument over marriage. In an attempt to trap Jesus into making an injudicious reply, some Pharisees ask Jesus about the legality of divorcing one's wife. Jesus, quoting from the Book of Genesis, tells them that male and female become ‘one flesh’ in marriage, and that men shouldn’t separate what God has joined together.
Animals 'yoked' together
‘Joined together’ is a translation of the Greek word ‘sunezeuxen’ which literally means ‘yoked together’, from the very same root as ‘zugos’ the Greek word for the sign Libra. This is added confirmation that Mark is following the sequence of the zodiacal signs in his narrative.
     For its time, this gospel teaching on marriage was really radical. Marriage was not a sacred institution in the ancient world and divorce was commonplace, even among the Jews, for whom monogamy was the ideal. Theoretically, divorce was open to both parties, but given the general status of women at that time, it was hardly an option for the female. William Barclay 
Humans 'yoked' together
describes the situation as follows:
One thing vitiated the whole marriage relationship. The woman in the eyes of the law was a thing. She was at the absolute disposal of her father or of her husband. She had virtually no legal rights at all. To all intents and purposes a woman could not divorce her husband for any reason, and a man could divorce his wife for any cause at all. ‘A woman,’ said the Rabbinic law, ‘may be divorced with or without her will; but a man only with his will.’
Getting a divorce was very simple. The man had to give his wife a ‘bill of divorcement’ in the presence of two witnesses. This stated: ‘Let this be from me thy writ of divorce and letter of dismissal and deed of liberation, that thou mayest marry whatsoever thou wilt.’
     The passage from the Jewish scriptures to which the Pharisees refer in their discussion with Jesus can be found in Deuteronomy 24:1. The text states that a man may divorce his wife ‘if she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her’. The prevailing opinion among rabbis at the time of Jesus was that this was a specific reference to adultery, but certain rabbis, following Rabbi Akiba, considered that ‘finding no favour’ in one's wife could simply mean that one no longer thought her attractive. The rabbinic school of Hillel taught that a man might divorce his wife if:
she spoiled his dinner by putting too much salt in his food, if she went in public with her head uncovered, if she talked with men in the streets, if she was a brawling woman, if she spoke disrespectfully of her husband's parents in his presence, if she was troublesome or quarrelsome.
Divorce, it seems, was possible on the flimsiest of pretexts.
            This teaching on the sanctity of marriage is an obvious improvement on what preceded it, but the total ban on divorce, which Jesus’ teaching has been used to justify, has left its own legacy of misery and injustice, and I don’t think the text is really advocating this. We undoubtedly need to extend the principles of justice, fairness, and balance into our intimate lives, but there is a deeper meaning to the text which has been missed in all the legalistic moralising which a purely surface reading has occasioned. The mystical traditions preserve another dimension to marriage which transcends its function as a social institution. The union of male and female does not just refer to the coupling we call matrimony. The ‘sacred marriage’ is something that occurs within the individual. ‘In the beginning,’ it says in the Book of Genesis, ‘God created them male and female’. The original, perfect state of the human being is one of balance between spirit (male) and matter (female) were joined in harmonious unity and balance – the image of God -, before being sundered by the Fall.
yin-yang symbol
In the Tao Te Ching, which precedes the Christian scriptures by at least five hundred years, we read about the eternal interplay between the opposites, yin and yang. Yin refers to the characteristics of softness, passivity, femininity, darkness, the valley, the moon, the negative polarity; yang refers to characteristics such as hardness, masculinity, brightness, the mountain, the sun, the positive polarity. All reality is based upon these two opposing forces, say the Taoists. Neither is superior; both are necessary, and each contains the seed of the other. The Taoist attempts to see these forces at work in the world and in himself, and to act in harmony with them, uniting the opposite forces within himself. ‘Tao’ means ‘The Way’, and it is significant that Christianity was originally called ‘The Way’.
            At about the same time that Lao Tzu was compiling the Tao Te Ching in China, Plato was writing Symposium in Greece. In this dialogue, Plato makes reference to a myth that was probably very ancient even then, that at one time male and female were joined together, and the human being had four legs not two, but because in that state they were considered to present a threat to the gods, Zeus cut them in two, and now the separated halves are doomed to spend their time seeking each other. There was also a warning that, if the two legged creatures misbehave, Zeus would cut them again! At the heart of this myth lies the notion that male and female constitute a unity, a unity that has been lost, but which can and must be re-established within the individual.

We find the same idea within Christian mysticism. We have tended to see marriage as the union of a man with a woman in mutually rewarding partnership with, traditionally, a clear demarcation of duties and responsibilities. This indeed is so, and has its place, but there is another dimension to this teaching which we find in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
When you make the two one, and when you make the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same so that the male be not male nor the female female, then you will enter the kingdom.
The ‘sacred marriage’ is not the public jamboree, complete with white dress, bridesmaids, posh food and an exotic honeymoon. The sacred marriage occurs when the spiritually mature individual is able to balance male and female, yang and yin, activity and passivity, spirit and matter, science and mystery, striving and yielding, adventure and repose, and a whole host of other complementary forces, within him or her self.
Balancing the polarities within the self may take some doing but it doesn’t require us to learn anything new or to embark upon years of spiritual training. In fact, Robert Fulghum, in his celebrated essay All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten says that we were well acquainted with this principle before we started big school. What did we learn by the sand pit in the nursery? 
Share everything.
Play fair.
Don’t hit people.
Put things back where you found them.
Clean up your own mess.
Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Wash your hands before you eat.
Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.
Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
It’s as simple as that! And yet how difficult is it in our 24/7, work-hard play-hard, striving, competitive, comparative, acquisitive world is it to put these things into practice!  But the great spiritual message of Libra, is that just as day and night come naturally into equilibrium, so must we strive to bring that sense of balance into our own lives. The reward – personally and socially – for finding the balance is immense. As Plato’s myth intimates, when the male and female principles are joined in harmony within an individual, she attains a state in which she could almost challenge the gods.


Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Virgo (2): Beginner's Mind

Virgo (2): Beginner’s Mind

Story: The Overflowing Cup

A very clever University professor went to visit Nan-in, a Buddhist holy man. The professor wanted some advice on how he should live a spiritual life. ‘I have been studying for many years,’ he told the holy man. ‘I have read hundreds of books; I have sat at the feet of many gurus; and I have attended many different places of worship; but I have never found what I am looking for. So now I have come to see you.’
Nan-in looked kindly at the professor. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ he asked with a smile.
‘Yes, please,’ replied the professor.
Nan-in prepared the tea and began to pour. The professor’s cup was filled to overflowing, but Nan-in continued to pour the tea until it spilled out on to the saucer, and then on to the table.
‘What are you doing?’ asked the astonished professor. ‘The cup is full. No more will go in!’
‘Just like you,’ said Nan-in. ‘Your head is so full of theories, scriptures, ceremonies, and philosophies that there is no room for anything else. Before I can start to teach you, you must empty your cup.’

Sermon from September 2007

ast Saturday, 8th September, Bridget called me from Montenegro to say that the nuns in the local convent had been singing and chanting for virtually the whole day. It must be a special feast day, she thought, and she found out subsequently that her surmise had been correct. It was a special Catholic festival, the birthday of the Virgin Mary. But, one asks, why celebrate it now? Surely there’s nothing in the Bible about the date of Mary’s birth – there’s nothing about the date of Jesus’ birth, for that matter. We celebrate the birth of Jesus at the time of the winter solstice, but the Bible doesn’t say explicitly that he was born then. So Mary’s birthday is even more conjectural.
You, I’m sure, will not be surprised to learn that there is a certain astronomical appropriateness in celebrating the birth of the Virgin at this time of the year. Many centuries ago, when the Church calendar was drawn up, on the 8th September, the stars of the constellation Virgo once again became visible before sunrise after being overwhelmed by the powerful rays of the sun for about three weeks: ‘the virgin is born’. From mid-August, the stars of Virgo had been invisible; they had, poetically, been taken up into the glory of the sun, hence the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven which has been celebrated by Catholics for centuries on 15th August. So, the dates of two Catholic festivals are determined by the sun’s path in the sky, and we can add a third, because the feast of the Immaculate Conception – a big feast in Catholicism, a Holy Day of Obligation – occurs on 8th December, nine months before Mary’ birthday on 8th September. These were, originally, references to astronomical phenomena, and had deep mystical significance, but their astronomical correspondence has been lost in the Church’s fervent attempts to apply them, absurdly, to the life of an individual who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago.
The Assumption of Mary (Rubens)

But remember, as I keep stressing throughout these sermons on the correspondence of the Gospel stories with the zodiac signs, we are not dealing with history here; still less are we dealing with biology. Birth of the Virgin, or birth from a virgin, are not statements relating to physical birth in either a historical or a biological sense, in spite of what the orthodox theologians say. The original mystical message of these metaphors is that the Christ, the divine life, is always born of a virgin. The birth of the Christ spirit within the individual – in you and me and everybody else – is a spiritual birth, a rebirth, which owes nothing to flesh and blood. And it always occurs symbolically in Bethlehem, which means, in Hebrew ‘The House of Bread’, or Virgo, the sign of the harvest, the sign pictured by the ancients as a Woman with a Sheaf of Wheat in her hand, or as the goddess Isis with the child Horus in her arms.
            So, there was a connection, in the ancient mysteries, between this time of the year and the virginal rebirth of the spirit. That’s why Mark’s Gospel introduces children at this point in the narrative, and why Jesus tells us that we have to become like children if we want to inherit the kingdom of God. These sayings of Jesus have always puzzled people, particularly those people (like me) who have had a lot to do with children, and who have found it difficult to sentimentalize their behaviour. We all know that children can be noisy, troublesome, demanding, selfish, impatient, and unreasonable. In fact, it may well be that this is their natural condition, so we can’t think that the kingdom of God would be a place of peace and quiet if it was peopled only by the childlike. However, you will be relieved to hear, Jesus wasn’t asking us to copy any of these characteristics. But there are some aspects of childhood which we could well do to rediscover. One is lack of cynicism. Whatever else a child might be, he or she is not cynical. Cynicism, world-weariness, lack of delight in the world, lack of trust in human beings, is adult, learned behaviour. The word ‘cynic’ comes from the Greek word for dog, and while it may once have been the name of a respected school of ancient philosophy, today the word describes a person who has no heroes, who sees self-interest as the only real human motivator, and who is suspicious of  virtue or altruism.
            Children are free from this corrosive spiritual disease; they are still interested in the world, still see it as a magical place, while we have become what the Harry Potter books call ‘Muggles’, non-magical people, who have lost any sense of wonder and delight in the simple things of life. The contrast is brought out beautifully in chapter 4 of The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Grown ups love figures. When you talk to them about a new friend, they never ask questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he prefer? Does he collect butterflies?’ They ask: ‘How old is he? How many brothers does he have? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father earn?’ It is only then that they feel they know him. If you were to mention to grown-ups: ‘I’ve seen a beautiful house built with pink bricks, with geraniums on the windowsills and doves on the roof...’ they would not be able to imagine such a house. You would have to say to them: ‘I saw a house worth two million pounds.’ Then they would exclaim: ‘Oh! How lovely!’

Rediscovering the child-like delight in the world is a prerequisite of entry into the kingdom of God, says Jesus. Not sophistication; not knowledge; not accumulated experience; not skill; not expertise. The Kingdom of God is not something we grow into; paradoxically, it’s something we grow out of, and this gives rise to the spiritual principle, which runs completely counter to secular and even religious wisdom, that the people who understand the world best are those who have lived in it least. As Wordsworth says:

            Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison‑house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the Vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

Sometimes it takes catastrophe or even tragedy to bring us back to this primal state of awareness, in which we can experience ‘the vision splendid’, which is why the spiritual writers are not so dismissive of adversity as are politicians or economists, and it is also why, as I’ve mentioned before from my own experience, when one thinks that one’s time on earth is limited, one begins to perceive the world in a completely different way – a way akin to the way one perceived it as a child. There is no better example of this than that described by the British playwright Dennis Potter in an interview with Melvyn Bragg, just a little before his death from pancreatic cancer in 1994. He knows he’s going to die soon, and yet, he says, ‘the nowness becomes so vivid that, almost in a perverse sort of way, I’m almost serene. You know, I can celebrate life.’ He goes on:

Dennis Potter and Melvyn Bragg

Below my window in Ross, when I’m working in Ross, for example, there at this season, the blossom is out in full now, there in the west early. It’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’....last week, looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are more trivial than they ever were, and more important, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you; you have to experience it, but the glory of it, if you like, the comfort of it, the reassurance....not that I’m interested in reassuring people – bugger that. The fact is, if you see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy, can you celebrate it!

Potter here mentions the second child-like virtue: the capacity to enjoy the moment, to live ‘in the present tense’.

....if you look at a child, talk about present tense, that’s all they, all a small child lives in. So a wet Tuesday afternoon can actually be years long, and it – childhood – is full to the brim of fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety...

Fear, horror, excitement, joy, boredom, love, anxiety. How troublesome they are! We’re better off without them! Let’s just keep our lives nice and tranquil, inoffensive, trouble free. Let’s just keep shopping and eating and travelling and washing the car and watching television. Is it any wonder that the Western world has come under the spell of Prozac?
            ‘Look at these children,’ says Jesus. ‘Learn a lesson from them.’ The third lesson they can teach us is the lesson of spiritual and intellectual humility. Aren’t we so proud of our adult sophistication and our learning? Aren’t we so much more intelligent and so much better informed than our forebears who were swathed in almost invincible ignorance? In some ways we are, but in many ways we’re no more enlightened than they were. Just because we have words and concepts like ‘Big Bang’ and ‘Evolution’ doesn’t mean we have solved the problems of existence. We still haven’t got a clue about the really big questions of meaning and purpose. It’s a mysterious world. Some corners of the blanket of mystery have been lifted, but, there is much more to discover and, perhaps, some things that will never be discovered. Even so, this doesn’t stop us filling our heads with complicated and conflicting theories, about which we argue and fight, interminably. But our clever but inadequate theories actual keep us from any real understanding. This is why, according to the Buddhist parable we heard earlier, we have to ‘empty our cup’.
            ‘Emptying your cup’ is what the Buddhists call ‘cultivating beginner’s mind’, starting again, looking at the world again, getting back to that openness to experience which we had as children, but over which our pretended sophistication has thrown a veil.
 I was in England last week for my six-monthly hospital check-up, but throughout my time there this sermon was on my mind. On Tuesday night I was sitting in the kitchen trying to read when I became aware of a moth flying crazily between the lights in the ceiling. It seemed to me as if it was mad – angry, or drunk, or drugged – and I was disturbed by it, even picking up a newspaper to swat it in case it came too close to my head, which it seemed to be threatening to do. Then I began to ponder the amazing nature of this tiny piece of animated matter, this miracle of aerodynamic beauty, this entity with a rudimentary mind, countless tiny muscles and nerves, perfectly working organs of nutrition, reproduction, and respiration, with an unfathomable but fatal attraction for the light, and I decided against killing it. I turned off the light so that it would calm down and went off to bed.
            I momentarily perceived the moth a little differently from my usual perception of such a creature, and I was reminded of Walt Whitman’s opinion that ‘a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels’. Even the simplest creature defies our powers of explanation and understanding. I’m not arguing for creation against evolution here. Nothing could be further from my mind. At that moment on Tuesday, I wasn’t concerned with how it came into being. I was simply content to experience its unfamiliarity, its strangeness, its ‘mothness’, and in doing so I’ve been prompted to consider the strangeness and unfamiliarity of myself and of those around me, and of everything.
            Try it yourself. Each day take something, or someone, and try to experience it, or him, or her, as if for the first time. Look with new eyes, not the jaded eyes of your conventional sight. Consider the intricacy and beauty of their physical make up, or the mystery of their consciousness. See how your chosen subject resembles others of the same category, but consider too how each thing or person has a uniqueness which stands beyond categorisation. I love what Gabriel Garzia Marquez said about his wife of many years: ‘I have been married to this woman for thirty years, and I know her so well that I haven’t the slightest idea who she is.’
            Marquez is a poet, and poets are people who see the world with fresh eyes. The poet is one who has a unique and idiosyncratic perception of the world, who refuses to be imprisoned in consensus reality, in the cliched world of derived opinion. The poet is a perpetual beginner.
            When we allow ourselves to become beginners again, to become children again, we die to the cynical, grasping, greedy kingdom of mammon, and are reborn - virgin-born - into the kingdom of God.


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