|Scorpio, by Dan Hodgkin|
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached him saying, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask.’ Jesus said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ They said to him, ‘Allow one of us to sit on your right hand and one on your left hand in your glory.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink the cup which I shall drink, or to be baptised with the baptism with which I shall be baptised?’ They said to him, ‘We are able!’ Jesus said to them, ‘The cup I shall drink you shall drink, and the baptism I shall undergo, you shall undergo but to sit on my right or on my left is not in my gift; it’s for those for whom it has been prepared.’ When they heard this, the other ten began to be annoyed at James and John and, calling them together, Jesus said to them, ‘You know that those who consider themselves leaders among the Gentiles lord it over them, and the greatest among them exercise dominance. Well, that’s not the way it is among you. No. Whoever wants to become great among you will be your servant and whoever wants to be first among you will be a slave of all. Because the son of man hasn’t come to be served but to serve, and to give his life in order to purchase the freedom of many.
Written in October 2007
‘Adversity makes men; prosperity makes monsters.’ Victor Hugo
Last week I saw a little boy, six or seven years old, walking to school with his mother. He was wearing a black cloak and a pointed hat; his face was white, except for a little trickle of red at the corner of his mouth. He was obviously involved in some Halloween festivities in school. How different from my days, I thought. Fifty years ago there was no celebration of Halloween in England, and even twenty years ago, as my teaching career was coming to an end, there was scant attention paid to the festival, and certainly none in school. It’s yet another example of the Americanisation of our culture, I thought. But then, I thought again. This particular way of celebrating it – with fancy dress and ‘trick or treat’ expeditions – may be novel and commercialised, but this time of year has ever been acknowledged as a strange time, a time for leaving the rational behind a little and entering into the mysterious ‘otherworld’, the world we tend to ignore when the sun is shining.
And it was there when I was growing up. It just took a different form. Within the Catholic tradition, this time of year is devoted to praying for the dead, the souls in purgatory, and All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day close out October and open November. In the earlier Celtic tradition we have the feast of Samhain, marking the end of summer, which, according to Wikipedia, was time to take stock of the herds and grain supplies, and decide which animals would need to be slaughtered in order for the people and livestock to survive the winter.
There is a definite feel of encroaching winter now. The trees are bare, and the leaves seem to be piled up everywhere. The nights are longer, the sun lower in the sky. This is the beginning of nature’s fallow time, when growth above ground has come to a halt, and all of nature’s activity seems to be concentrated below the surface. According to the Greek myth, this is the time of year when Persephone goes back to the Underworld, and her mother Demeter, the goddess of grain and fertility, is so distraught by her absence that she forbids any new growth upon the earth.
|Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde|
The sun has entered the zodiacal sign of Scorpio, the sign which symbolises the hidden depths of the human personality, all those ungovernable emotions, secret desires, buried motivations, which we try to suppress or to ignore, but which burst through our superficial rational consciousness from time to time, to disturb or even to wreck our tranquillity. People who are strongly Scorpionic are said to be ‘deep’, intense, uncompromising, with a powerful will, and a tendency to strong emotion which can often manifest as jealousy and possessiveness. It is a strongly sexual sign; not with a recreational, hedonistic approach to sexuality, but with a deep feeling of sexual connectedness, an appreciation of the mystery and power of human union. Scorpios are not to be trifled with emotionally, and there is often something about the eyes which indicate a passionate and forceful character. Scorpio is said to be ruled by Mars, the god of war and bloodshed, and so it is a sign of strength, aggression and ambition, and its symbol, the scorpion, a creature of the shadows with a deadly sting in its tail, should warn us that Scorpios make very bad enemies. It may be that people born at this time of year are more aware of these things than most, but all of us have these traits within us in some measure. Robert Louis Stevenson, born 13th November, 1850, wrote his classic work Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde about this potentially very troublesome aspect of the human psyche: buried under the thin layer of sophistication and politeness lies a much more sinister and demanding character.
Scorpio is also associated with suffering and death, hence the motifs which constantly surface at this time of the year – the ‘death’ of the vegetation, the ‘undead’ who walk among us, the dead who have gone on ahead of us; the ‘suffering’ of the earth as it withdraws its plants; the ‘suffering’ of the holy souls in purgatory. It is also associated with rebirth; the earth is lying fallow, gathering its strength for another burst of life next spring, when Persephone will return to her mother, and the vegetation will be resurrected.
|Cable Car down to Jericho|
In the Gospel of Mark, the Scorpio section takes place as Jesus and his apostles approach Jericho. As I’ve said before in this series, there is nothing accidental or arbitrary about names or locations in this Gospel. Jericho is an appropriate place to teach about the things of Scorpio, because it is the lowest city on earth, 825 feet below sea level, so, descending to Jericho symbolises the descent into the depths of the human person where we have to confront our most mysterious and troublesome motivations. Near Jericho Jesus is approached by James and John, given the nickname ‘Sons of Thunder’ by Jesus, indicating something of their ‘martial’, aggressive character. These ‘sons of thunder’, ‘sons of Mars’ have a question for Jesus: ‘Let us sit, one at your right hand, and one at your left, when you come into your kingdom,’ they ask. What do they want? Power! It’s a typical scorpionic request, a typical human request. We all want glory and honour and power, not only in secular affairs, but in spiritual ones, too. But ambition of this kind should play no part in our spiritual life. Dane Rudhyar, one of the 20th century’s most respected astrological writers, says this about the Scorpio in his Astrological Insights into the Spiritual Life:
(The mystical way) … asks moreover that all forms of ambition be relinquished – and ‘spiritual’ ambition may be the most dangerous, withal most subtle, kind of ambition…. There should be no feeling whatsoever of competition in one’s endeavours, especially if one is part of a group of seekers or disciples. It does not matter if one appears to be first or last, for the competitive spirit is a form of violence, and there can be no violence in the soul of the true disciple on the spiritual Path. The zodiacal sign Scorpio tends to be associated with violence and competition, because the Scorpio type of person is often too emotionally and personally involved in making of human relationships what to him or her is a ‘success’.
Reading these words by Rudhyar for the first time, I had another of those ‘eureka’ moments, when I realised that my speculations about the Gospel of Mark were correct. He doesn’t mention the Gospel, but he deals with precisely the same issue as is dealt with in the Scorpio section – the quest for personal power, the desire to control others and to achieve some kind of public accolade for one’s spiritual attainments. Jesus is adamant that such things should have no part in our motivations. Each of us is on an individual path towards God; no one is above another; no one should seek to lord it over another. Once again, Jesus mentions that service to one’s brothers and sisters is the highest form of spiritual activity. Just as he has come to serve, so we who seek to follow him must see ourselves as servants.
But Jesus says something else which is also connected to the things of Scorpio. He asks James and John a question: ‘Are you prepared to suffer, as I am about to suffer?’ This gets to the heart of things. Spiritual reward does not come just because one has been a member of some religious group or other; it doesn’t come because one has believed the right things, known the right people, performed the right rituals. Spiritual advancement comes through suffering.
This is very hard to take; particularly so for 21st century people, committed to a life of ease, pleasure, and prosperity. Where does suffering fit in? Why do we have to suffer?
We suffer because we have no alternative. Suffering is part of what it means to be human. Simply knowing that we are mortal involves us in inevitable suffering. From those first painful moments of awareness when we are small children, through the deaths of family and friends, and on to the realisation that our own death is not too far away, we participate in what Wordsworth calls ‘the still sad music of humanity’. We can try to ignore it, to bury it, to pretend that it doesn’t affect us, but it silently operates on our psyche, often manifesting in distressing complexes and strange phobias.
We are the only species that can suffer in this way. We are the only creatures to have knowledge of our own certain demise, and this should be enough to engender within us overwhelming feelings of pity for our fellows, along with admiration for the heroism with which most people live their lives in the midst of such uncertainty, vulnerability and inevitable finality. This certainty of our own death and the deaths of those we love is one reason why all talk of some future Utopia, in which we can live together in peace and happiness because the politics and economics of life have been sorted out for us, is merely a naive and foolish pipedream. No matter how prosperous we become; no matter how peaceful we become; no matter how comfortable, educated, sophisticated, cultured, healthy, or long-lived we become, there will always be the spectre of death haunting our days, tempering all our joys with sadness.
But, you might ask, what if God, or science, removed the consciousness of death? How would that affect things?
Twenty years or so ago, I used to have a Jehovah’s Witness friend, who came to visit me every second Saturday for an hour’s discussion of religious topics. As a Jehovah’s Witness, he believed that, one day soon, Jesus would come back to earth, the righteous dead would be resurrected, and everyone would live for ever in a world of peace. I asked him what would happen if I were to be rewarded in this way, but that someone I loved didn’t make it. No problem, he said. The memory of them would be blotted out from your consciousness, so you wouldn’t feel the pain of separation from them. What an appallingly dehumanising prospect! No pain, no love, no memory of certain people. Whatever beings would inhabit the Jehovah’s Witness paradise would not be human beings.
Maybe the secular world will one day overcome death, or at least postpone it indefinitely. Ask yourself: Will human love be possible for those who do not fear death? To triumph over death may yet become our greatest technical achievement, but what will we lose as a consequence of it? Aldous Huxley’s vision of a Brave New World from which pain and suffering have been removed and people are kept in a chemically induced state of pseudo-happiness is too terrifying even to contemplate.
But the spiritual traditions tell us that bearing the pain of our own mortality is actually a condition of our human development. Without suffering we would cease to be human. Perhaps we might welcome this. Maybe the burden of our humanity is too great to bear. I know that for some people this is so. The Russian novelist, Dostoyevsky, born under Scorpio (11th November, 1821), and so acutely aware of these things – as anyone who gets below the surface of life must be aware – deals with this whole issue in his novel The Brothers Karamazov, one of the greatest novels ever written, and I do recommend that you read it if you haven’t already done so. In fact, the whole of Dostoyevsky’s work deals with these deep issues of human existence. Dostoyevsky himself was no stranger to suffering. His father was murdered; he was arrested and came within seconds of being executed; he spent years in a Siberian prison; he had epilepsy and emphysema; his marriage was difficult; some of his children died young; he had heavy debts from gambling. And yet, his ability to plumb the depths of human experience and come to an understanding of love, grace, forgiveness, and redemption in such incomparable ways can only have come from his first hand experience of life at its rawest. Paradoxically, Dostoyevsky came to God through pain and suffering, not in spite of them.
Dostoyevsky knew what all great souls know, but which we, in our hedonism and cowardice refuse to accept. William Blake put it like this in his Auguries of Innocence:
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the world we safely go.
We find a similar idea in The Friendship Tree, a book written about Davoren Hanna, by his father Jack. Davoren was born with terrible handicaps. He couldn’t walk, he couldn’t speak, and yet he had a remarkable poetic gift which was nurtured by his parents at enormous cost to themselves and their own peace and tranquillity. Davoren’s mother died, partly, at least, from the strain of caring for her son, in 1990, and Davoren himself died, aged just nineteen, in 1994. At the end of his book, Jack, Davoren’s father, sums it all up: ‘Earth to earth, and dust to dust, we say, but in between, such roaring, such flights, such sorrows, such heart-bonding, such words of nurture and celebration, such song.’ Are we up for this, do we want to sing in ecstasy, or do we just want peace and quiet, a full stomach, and longer eyelashes?
James and John wanted the prize without the pain, spiritual enlightenment without effort. But this Gospel, along with all the great works of spiritual literature, tells us that this is impossible. And this is the important lesson of Scorpio: we can’t have the heights without the depths; we can’t have a crown without a cross; we can’t get to Jerusalem unless we are prepared to go through Jericho.