Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Sagittarius (2) Moving Mountains

Mark 11:12-14

He went into Jerusalem to the Temple and when he'd looked round at everything he went off to Bethany with the twelve because it was already late. The next day, as they were leaving Bethany, he was hungry, and seeing a distant fig tree in leaf he went to see if he could find anything on it. But he found nothing but leaves, because it wasn't the fig season. He said to it, 'May no one eat fruit from you ever again!' and his disciples heard him.

Mark 11:20-26

Early the next day as they were passing along they saw the fig tree withered to its roots. Peter remembered and said to him, 'Rabbi, look. The fig tree which you cursed has withered!' In reply Jesus said to them, 'Have faith in God. I'm telling you the truth. Whoever says to this mountain, "Be lifted up and thrown into the sea!' and who has no doubt in his mind but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him! Because of this, I say to you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that it is yours and it will be. And whenever you are praying, if you are holding a grudge against somebody, forgive him, so that your father in heaven may forgive you your failings.'


Story: The Map and the Man

It was a particularly rainy Saturday afternoon. Two children, John and Rebecca, were becoming increasingly bored, and their father, who was under strict orders to keep them entertained while their mother went shopping, was running out of ideas. He wanted to watch the sport on television and to read his newspaper, but the children had demanded his attention. He’d tried them with paper and coloured pencils, but this barely entertained them for five minutes. He’d tried the television, but they’d seen all the cartoons a dozen times. For some reason they didn’t even want to play on the computer. And there were still a couple of hours before their mother returned!

            Suddenly, he had an idea. Picking up a magazine from the table, he quickly flicked through the pages until he came to a map of the world. ‘Look at this, kids,’ he said. ‘I’m going to cut this map into pieces – a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – and if you can put it together again, I’ll take you both to McDonalds for tea! Is it a deal?’

            The children agreed to give it a try. Their father cut up the map, gave them a pot of glue, and set them to work on the kitchen table. He, meanwhile, put on the kettle, made himself a cup of coffee, and sat down with his newspaper in the living room. He was feeling very pleased with himself. ‘It’ll take them at least an hour,’ he thought with a smile.

            But barely ten minutes later he heard, ‘Finished, dad!’ He couldn’t believe it. He went through into the kitchen and there, sure enough, sitting on the table, was the completed map. ‘How on earth did you finish it so quickly?’ he asked.

            ‘It was easy,’ said John. ‘The map of the world was complicated, but on the other side was a picture of man. We just put the man together.’

            Yes,’ said Rebecca. ‘If you get the man right, the world takes care of itself!’


************ 
Written in December 2007
 
 ‘If the sun and moon should doubt

They’d immediately go out.’

(William Blake, born 28th November 1757)

One of the best selling novels of 2007 was the curiously titled Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, by Paul Torday. It’s about an apparently hare-brained scheme to introduce salmon into a completely inappropriate Middle-Eastern environment, so that the native Yemenis can learn to fish. One of the characters in the book, Sheikh Muhammad, who devises and finances the project, explains why this would be so beneficial. After describing the many divisions among his own people he says:

 

In Britain there is violence and aggression, too – your football hooligans, for instance – but there is one group for whom patience and tolerance are the only virtues. I speak of salmon fishermen in particular, and all fishermen in general..........All classes and manner of men will stand on the banks side by side and fish for the salmon. And their natures, too, will be changed. They will feel the enchantment of this silver fish.....and when talk turns to what this tribe said or that tribe did, or what to do with the Israelis or the Americans, and the voices grow heated, then someone will say, ‘Let us arise, and go fishing.’

 

The Sheikh goes on to explain his belief that the salmon is a ‘magical creature’ which brings us all nearer to God – ‘by the mystery of its life, by the long journey that it makes through the oceans until it finds the waters of its own streams, which is so like our own journey towards God.’

            The novel is a humorous but ultimately a very serious account of how this one man’s vision, which, in the beginning, seems so preposterous, is eventually realised, demonstrating the enormous power of faith to overcome seemingly impossible odds.

  
Byzantine Icon of Jesus Cursing the Fig Tree
         
It is indeed a novel about faith, and as I was reading it I couldn’t help calling to mind the passage from Mark’s Gospel which we heard this morning, in which Jesus says to his disciples: ‘Have faith in God. I’m telling you the truth. Whoever says to this mountain, “Be lifted up and thrown into the sea!” and who has no doubt in his mind but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him! Because of this, I say to you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that it is yours and it will be!’

            Jesus says these words in commentary upon the strange incident with the fig tree. Remember the story. Jesus, feeling hungry, sees a distant fig tree in leaf and goes to see if there is any fruit upon it. Finding none, he curses the tree with the words, ‘May no one eat fruit from you ever again!’ The next day, Jesus’ disciples notice that the fig tree has withered to its roots.

            Books have been written about this incident – about the fig tree as a symbol of Israel, about the significance of the fact that Jesus should have known there was no chance of any figs because the text clearly tells us that it wasn’t the season for figs, about Jesus’ almost spiteful behaviour as a consequence of this knowledge - and I am sure that much of what these learned tomes have to say is very relevant, but I am principally interested today in the way in which this action of Jesus demonstrates what has come to be called ‘mind over matter’.

            But, before we get on to that, I’d just like to comment on the place of this incident in the narrative. It comes in the Sagittarius section of the Gospel and Sagittarius, as I explained last time, is one of the three Fire Signs, which were, to the ancient mind, concerned with the virtue of faith. The symbolism is not all that difficult to grasp: fire is a natural symbol of that enthusiasm which galvanises people into action and which is so infectious that it spreads around urging and encouraging even the faint-hearted and the unsure. We talk of people being ‘fired up’, ‘burning with zeal’, and of their fervour and passion kindling similar responses in others.  



The Constellation Ara (Altar or Curse)
 
 
But there is another reason why Mark places this incident here. One of the constellations surrounding Sagittarius is called Ara, and this is generally translated ‘The Altar’, because ‘ara’ means ‘altar’ in Latin. But, in Greek, the language in which the Gospel of Mark was originally written, the word ‘ara’ means ‘curse’. Mark is deliberately incorporating the name of this Sagittarian decan in his story. When I discovered this, I had another of those ‘eureka’ moments which proved to me once again that I was on the right lines, and that Mark was using the constellations of the sky to structure his Gospel.

Sagittarius symbolises the ‘dual’ nature of the human being. As we saw in the last sermon, the ancient astrological writer Ptolemy called Sagittarius ‘bicorporeal’, ‘two bodied’, and I explained how Jesus riding into Jerusalem on an unbroken horse (not a donkey!) symbolises the mastery of the bestial part of our nature by the divine part. In the incident with the fig tree, Mark further explores that divine power we possess which sets us apart from the animal kingdom and which gives human beings the potential to exert, for good or ill, all manner of control over each other and over the natural world.

Such an idea is not terribly popular these days and it is becoming a commonplace of intellectual discourse to put us firmly in our place. Copernicus, they say, destroyed the idea that the earth was special, and Darwin destroyed the idea that human beings were special. We are, we are told, simply a ‘strand in the web of life’, one species among many; our minds are the product of our bodies, what the materialist philosophers call an ‘epiphenomenon’, a by-product, as Bertrand Russell said, of our brain chemistry. When the brain dies, the mind and its memories and aspirations die with it. What’s more, each mind is self contained, atomized, relating only to the specific body of which it is the product, so all such notions as ‘thought transference’, extra sensory perception, precognition, are dismissed as fictions. ‘Why do we humans have such an exalted view of ourselves?’ asked a friend of mine only two weeks ago, ‘We’re nothing special. Why do we consider ourselves so much better than the animals we share the earth with?’   

You’ve probably heard similar sentiments. You may even have expressed them yourself. Whenever I hear such ideas I’m tempted to respond with ‘Shakespeare, the Pyramids, Newgrange, Beethoven, Emily Dickinson, Michelangelo, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marie Curie, Leonardo da Vinci.’ These – and countless millions more – demonstrate, to me at least, the unique place the human species holds among the species of the earth. The very first verses in the Bible tell us that we and we alone are created ‘in the image of God’ and, no matter how the distinction came about, and no matter how tarnished the image of God may be in us collectively, it is nevertheless abundantly clear that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. In his celebrated essay, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine, D.H. Lawrence says that there is a very clear hierarchy of being in the natural world.
 

Life is more vivid in the dandelion than in the green fern or in a palm tree. Life is more vivid in a snake than in a butterfly.

Life is more vivid in a wren than in an alligator.

Life is more vivid in a cat than in an ostrich.


And, of course, life is more vivid in a human being than in any of these other creatures, and it is mere sentimentality – and dangerous sentimentality - to pretend otherwise.

            While our biological professors may attribute that human superiority to the law of natural selection alone, the religious traditions – and especially the Gnostic or esoteric elements within the religious traditions – take a different line. For them – and I obviously put the author of the Gospel of Mark in this category – the universe is not a physical entity in which mind has entered rather late in the day as a strange offshoot of the physical human body, but mind itself is the primary substance from which the physical universe has crystallized. Mind is not a product of matter; matter is a product of mind, and is therefore subject to mind. As the British physicist Sir James Jeans said, when confronted by the crazy properties of sub-atomic particles, the material world looks to be composed of ‘mind stuff’. Or, as the Gospel of John tells us, a little more poetically, ‘In the beginning was the word.....’- in the beginning was the idea

            If this is the case, then we as a species do not produce mind, we participate in it, and this may give us a clue about what the Bible really means when it says that we are created ‘in the image of God’, and it may also help us to understand how our mental processes can and do affect the physical world, and why what we call ‘prayer’ can be efficacious. If by prayer we mean ‘focusing the mind’ rather than ‘pleading with God’, then it is not outrageous for us to affirm that our individual and collective mental activities can have an influence upon the natural world, and to declare with Tennyson that ‘there are more things wrought through prayer than this world dreams of’.

  
 
          Materialistic science may dismiss such things – it has to because it has its own dogmas to preserve - but it can only do so by denying those experiences which are pretty regular occurrences of everyday life. Every single person here could give examples of strange phenomena which seem to indicate that our minds not only have some power over the material world, but also that they are somehow connected one with another. So, knowing who is calling before you answer the telephone; feeling that there is something wrong with a person and then finding subsequently that you were right; experiencing coincidences which seem to point to hidden connections and subtle laws of attraction; even the feeling of being stared at, when we get that unaccountable urge to turn round only to find a pair of eyes fixed upon the back of our head. Gardeners tell us that the plants they love seem to grow better than those they are indifferent to. Such experiences are indeed common, and just because they do not fit into our current materialist paradigm of reality is no reason to declare that they are all figments of the imagination.

            I am not particularly sensitive to such things, but even I could give some examples from my own experience. Here’s one. Some years ago I performed a ceremony for a couple of archaeologists who wanted their marriage blessed on the spot where they had met. So, the wedding party trudged up a muddy hillside in Ennis (on the west coast of Ireland) one very dreary mid-week afternoon. It was drizzling rain and the clouds looked very threatening. Before the whole group had reached the top, I said to bride and groom, ‘Maybe we should get things moving because the rain could start at any minute and then we’d be in trouble.’ They agreed, so we began. They were new-agers, ‘earth spirit’ people, and they wanted the ceremony to begin with an invocation to the spirits of the place, so my opening words were, ‘I call upon the spirits of this place to bless our ceremony.’ and at that precise moment the clouds opened and the sun began to shine, and it continued to shine for the rest of the afternoon. It was one of the most uncanny and unexpected experiences of my life; coincidence maybe, but it certainly seemed like the answer to a prayer.

            Two further points before I close. First, if we have such powers then it is incumbent upon us to use them wisely. If thoughts have power, then we have to direct them towards positive things. Black magic and Voodoo are based upon these very powers and what they aim to effect in the world is not always directed at the common good. Remember the old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it’. Wise advice, which is why the Lord’s Prayer contains the statement, ‘Thy will be done’, and why the Muslims will say, ‘Inshallah’, ‘if God so wills it’, which means that we want this particular thing to occur only if it is in accordance with the divine mind. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Father of American Literature, and one-time Unitarian minister, makes the startling claim in his great essay Nature, that the turmoil of our collective consciousness actually contributes to the turmoil we see about us in the world – that, in some way, even natural disasters are linked to the disordered mind of humanity in the collective. The implication of this strange and radical idea is clear and was pointed out by today’s story: get the person right and the world will take care of itself. Maybe one reason why churches exist, why monasteries and nunneries exist, is so that the collective mind can be influenced positively, so even our relatively small gathering here can make its own contribution to transformation of the world by directing its thoughts into loving channels.

            And, finally, we tend to overlook the advice that Jesus gives at the very end of this piece: before we make our prayers we have to forgive anyone who has offended us. This is absolutely crucial. We cannot harbour vengeful thoughts when we make our entreaties to God. In freeing ourselves from vengeance, we contribute positively and lovingly to the collective mind, and we also ensure that we do not misuse our powers, that our prayers are not directed vindictively against another, and that the objective of our prayer is not to gain personal power over others.

            If we learn to direct our God-like gifts rightly we can contribute significantly to the transformation of the world.

 

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Sagittarius (1): Where Two Roads Meet

 
Sagittarius, by Dan Hodgkin


Sagittarius is the Archer or the Centaur, and is the third of the Fire signs. It is associated with zeal, foreigners, travel, horses, religion. Notice how Mark says that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a young unbroken horse, before zealously venting his spleen on the hypocritical religious activity of the Temple. Two of its decans - Lyra (the Eagle or Lyre)) and Draco (the Dragon) – do not appear to be significant, but there is a clear allusion to the third, Ara (the Altar, in Latin; the Curse, in Greek).

Mark 11:1-11
When they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany towards the Mount of Olives, he sent out two of his disciples.  He said to them, ‘Go into the village opposite and as soon as you enter it you will find a tethered colt on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it.  If anyone asks you what you are up to, tell them that your master needs it, and he will send it straight back.’ They went off and found the young horse tied up by the door outside, where two road meet, and they untied it. Some of those standing there said to them, ‘Why are you untying the horse?’ They replied as Jesus had instructed them and they were allowed to go. They took the colt to Jesus and placed their coats on it. Jesus mounted it. And many people spread their coats on the road; others cut down branches from the fields Those going on ahead, and those who were following were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who is coming in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’

Mark 11:15-19
They came to Jerusalem and going in to the Temple area he began to throw out those who were buying and selling in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. And he wouldn’t allow anyone to carry their goods through the Temple. He taught them: ‘Isn’t it written, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations?” You have turned it into a den of thieves!’ The chief priests and the lawyers heard of it, and they looked for a way to kill him; but they were scared because the crowd were amazed by his teaching. And when evening came, they went out of the city


Story: The Wolf and the Dog

One day a dog met a wolf in the forest. The dog said to the wolf, ‘Mr. Wolf, why are you so thin? Haven’t you eaten recently? You really must learn to look after yourself better!’
‘I eat when I can,’ said the wolf, ‘but it’s not always easy to get food. I’m getting older and I’m not as quick as I used to be. The animals I eat seem to be able to get away from me these days.’
‘You should come and live with me,’ said the dog. ‘I live in a big house; it’s warm and cosy; my master feeds me three times every day and I can sit and doze in front of the fire any time I like. Sometimes he lets me out for a few minutes so I can run around the forest. There he is, over there, waiting for me to go back to him. Come with me. He’ll look after you.’
‘I think I will,’ replied the wolf. ‘Why should I be out here in the cold, grabbing what food I can when I can be fed for free? Lead the way.’
As the dog went on ahead, the wolf noticed that the dog had a little circle round his neck where the fur had worn away. ‘What’s wrong with your neck?’ he asked.
‘Oh, it’s nothing. It’s just where my master fastens a chain around me each night to keep me in my place while he is asleep,’ said the dog, a little ashamed.
‘Sorry,’ said the wolf. ‘I won’t be coming with you. I’d rather be half-starved and free than well-fed and a slave. Goodbye!’
And the wolf vanished into the forest.


********

Written in December 2007
 
To be in a passion you good may do,
But no good if a passion is in you.
(William Blake, born 28th November, 1758)
 

 
I wonder what images were floating through your mind as I read the passage from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Whatever they were, they were probably coloured by memories of hearing this story in your infancy, or perhaps by Hollywood presentations of it. Your mental picture might even have been influenced by the numerous sermons you’ve heard over the years, all of them emphasising the great humility Jesus showed by choosing to enter into Jerusalem in this way.
But one thing is certain: if your mental image included a donkey then you weren’t really paying attention to the actual words I was reading today, because nowhere in his account does Mark mention a donkey. Matthew does – he has Jesus riding on two animals at once, which is something of a feat even for Jesus – but Mark tells us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a horse, and so does Luke.
The Centaur Chiron, by Armand Point
It is also likely that, as I read the passage, you were thinking: ‘Why is he reading this during December? Surely it belongs to Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter Sunday, and this is always in the spring.’ I agree; this is when it is generally read these days. But I think that in some of the very earliest Christian communities, this passage would have been read at this time of the year, because, since November 21st, the sun has been in the zodiacal sign of Sagittarius, which is symbolised by the Centaur, a mythological beast that is half man and half horse, the very image which, with a bit of imagination, is conjured up by the figure of Jesus as he rides triumphantly into Jerusalem.
Sagittarian Emily Dickinson
The association of Sagittarius with horses and with centaurs goes back through the millennia. In the ancient world Sagittarius symbolised the urge to travel, either mentally or physically, and represented the desire to break through the bonds of convention, to explore, to take some risks, to gamble even, and today, strongly Sagittarian people are difficult to chain down. They chaff at restriction, and even when they are physically restrained by circumstances, they are prone to extended journeys of the mind. Emily Dickinson, born on 10th December 1830, rarely left her home town, or even her house, but her mental explorations were as extensive as those of the most inveterate explorer. She wrote:
 
 
I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer House than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--
 
‘Possibility’ is where most Sagittarians would like to dwell. That’s why you will often find them in the bookmaker’s office, or on the race track, or the sports field. They want to see how far and how fast they can go. And sometimes they go too far too fast for the more conventional among us to comprehend or to tolerate. In another poem, Emily tells us that:
 
They shut me up in Prose—
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet—
Because they liked me “still”—
 
They may have liked to shut her up, but, she says, if they could have seen her brain go round they would have realised that trying to enclose her was as effective as trying to keep a bird shut up in a field. Her mind was free to roam where it wished. Pedestrian, prosaic, conventional, unimaginative responses to life were unthinkable to Emily, and, like the dog in our children’s story today, no true Sagittarian would willingly swap the life of mental and spiritual freedom for a pampered life of comfortable slavery.
           
Sagittarian William Blake
The planet associated with Sagittarius by the ancients was Jupiter, the planet of expansion, benevolence and generosity. The composer, Gustav Holst – a student of astrology – whose Planets’ Suite is one of the most popular pieces of modern classical music, called Jupiter The Bringer of Jollity. William Blake, born on 28th November 1752, expressed the essence of Jupiterean expansiveness when he wrote, ‘Damn braces, bless relaxes!’; ‘You never know what is enough, until you know what’s more than enough!’ and ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’.
 Blake’s famous lines from Jerusalem,
 
                                    Bring me my bow of burning gold,
                                    Bring me my arrows of desire
 
capture another Sagittarian image, that of the archer aiming his arrows at the heavens, symbolising the seeker after wisdom reaching beyond his physical self in order to capture the things of God.
Sagittarian Bill Hicks
            Sagittarians are also known for speaking their mind – sometimes rather unwisely and indiscreetly – but their unashamed bluntness makes them exceptionally effective satirists, and some of the world’s great exponents of the art have been born under Sagittarius: Voltaire, 21st November, 1694; Jonathan Swift, 30th November, 1667; Samuel Butler, 4th December 1835; Mark Twain, November 30th 1835, and in recent years, the brilliant comedian Bill Hicks, 16th December 1961, and Hicks mentor Richard Pryor, 1st December 1940. Contemporary satirist Jon Stewart was born on November 28th 1962, just four days after the seminal satirical programme That Was the Week that Was, was first shown on British television. Jesus took a ‘scourge’ to the money changers in the Temple: these satirists were (and are) the scourge of the religious and political establishments of their day.
So, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a horse, not a donkey. And it’s not just any old horse either. At the beginning of the piece, Jesus instructs his disciples to go into the city where they will find a horse ‘on which no one has ever sat’, and bring it to him. Think about this for a moment. A horse on which no one has ever sat is an unbroken

horse, an untamed horse: the animal that Jesus had deliberately chosen was more like a ‘bucking bronco’ than a harmless seaside donkey. And although the Gospels tell us nothing about Jesus’ skill in horsemanship, it must have been considerable because he brings the beast under sufficient control that the crowd, instead of sensibly running for cover, stand calmly by and throw palm branches in his path.
And should we want any more evidence that this period of Jesus’ life was not characterised by the passive humility that centuries of sentimentality have heaped upon it, the next two incidents in Mark’s narrative will provide it. Jesus curses a fig tree so that it withers and dies, and then he goes into the Temple and drives out the market traders and overturns the tables of the moneychangers – John’s Gospel tells us that he took a whip to them. Neither action is that of the donkey-riding, ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’, about whom we learned in Sunday school.
These three related incidents – the horse-riding, the cursing of the fig tree, and the casting out of the moneychangers – are intrinsically unlikely, the first two for obvious reasons, the third because the Temple precincts were very closely guarded, and Jesus would have been given the bum’s rush before he could have done any significant damage. But remember – and I cannot stress this principle enough – the more unlikely the scriptural story the more we need to look beneath the surface meaning to find out what it is trying to tell us.  We have to stop asking the wrong questions. These are spiritual parables not historical reminiscences, and they do not simply ask us to ‘believe’ in them, but to respond to them. We should approach them as poems to be explored rather than as incidents to be amazed at, or, as we liberals tend to see them, as dubious stories to be dismissed as exaggerations.
To grasp the significance of Jesus’ horse ride, we need to consider the role of the horse in the actual and the symbolic worlds of ancient people. The horse was the human being’s greatest ally among the animals, since it was his principal, if not his only, means of land transport. Without the horse, human movement and activity were restricted; with it, we were able to undertake the arduous process of subduing the natural world, since the horse gave us the capacity to add strength, speed, and physical endurance to our considerable mental powers. The horse was everywhere invested with qualities of nobility, loyalty, and power. Men loved horses for their utility and versatility; women, then as now, were subconsciously attracted to them for the pure and beautiful virile energy that they display
But they are not born as our natural allies. They are born wild and turbulent; they instinctively rebel against human dominance, and in order for them to be any use to us at all they have to be brought into subjection. Their natural uncontrollable energies have to be harnessed to a will that is stronger than their own. They have to be ‘broken’ and when raw power is brought under the control of intelligence, a formidable alliance is formed.
The Sagittarian Centaur (Dali)
In such a context was born the mythological image of the centaur – half man, half horse – which married the twin qualities of intelligence and strength. And it is not too difficult to see how the centaur came to symbolise the human being – part god, part animal; part creative intelligence, part destructive passion. Ptolemy, the ancient astrological writer, called Sagittarius ‘bi-corporeal’, ‘two-bodied’, half one thing, and half another, half physical, animal passion, half aspiring, questing angel, and it is surely no coincidence that Jesus’ apostles find the horse their master is to ride at the place ‘where two roads meet’. The place ‘where two roads meet’ – the animal and the divine – is the human being.
 The 18th century English poet Alexander Pope describes this dual nature of the human being in his Essay on Man:

 
Plac’d on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise and rudely great;
 
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err.
 
Chaos of thought and passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abus’d, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
 
No one has described the ambiguous, ‘centaur’ nature of the human being better. We are all centaurs. For the most part, the centaurs were portrayed in mythology as wild and savage creatures, all the more dangerous because their dominant bestial power was mixed with human ingenuity, but one of their number, Chiron, was a friend to humans, and so great was his wisdom that many young people were entrusted to his care. ‘The youths Chiron educated learned to laugh in the face of danger, to scorn sloth and greed, and to face all that came to them with courage and good cheer. They grew up skilful and strong, modest as well as brave, and were fit to rule by having learned how to obey.’
Indeed, Chiron taught what he himself had accomplished: the marriage of passion with intelligence, which produces the outstanding, heroic, undaunted, creative human being.
 
Jesus Cleansing the Temple (Giotto)
            It is images such as this which will enable us to understand the spiritual meaning of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In sedately riding an unbroken horse into the holy city, Jesus symbolises the mastery of the bestial by the spiritual, the mastery of what we might today call the ego (or, in Freudian terms, the Id) with its selfish cravings, by the powerful forces of self-knowledge and self-control. And it is the objective of all spiritual practice, in whatever tradition it comes down to us, to attain this level of control over the wilder aspects of our nature, to become one who, in George Bernard Shaw’s words ‘is a real force of nature, instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’. The greater jihad (holy war), said Muhammad, ‘is the struggle against the lower self’. In short, we should strive to become creatures of will, not of whim.
            But being in control of our passions does not mean eliminating them. This is why the next scene in the gospel story is so important. Jesus’ violent conduct towards the traders in the Temple is not the automatic behaviour of one who has allowed his instinctive reactions to get the better of him momentarily. He is not likely to repent of his action subsequently with a shamefaced, ‘I don’t know what came over me,’ type of apology. Jesus is in control of himself, and so his anger is not the ‘red mist’ of animal rage, but the justifiable, studied, and willed expression of indignant condemnation, which all of us are called upon to exhibit when circumstances warrant it. Our passions, our desires, our bodies, are only our enemies when they control us; when we are in control of them, when they are our servants, they are the source of the greatest of human qualities and joys. 
            So, the great lesson of Sagittarius is that the human being is the creature – the only creature – in which two roads meet, that there is a duality in us which needs to be acknowledged and even celebrated, but we have to ensure that the low road of animal passion is brought under the control of the high road of divine aspiration.
            How do we do this? Perhaps this little story from the Native American people – which I was going to tell the children, but which I couldn’t find a way to spin out long enough – may help. It changes the metaphor, but the meaning is clear enough:
 

‘Why is it that sometimes I feel that I want to do helpful things, but at other times I just want my own way?’ a little Cherokee boy asked his grandfather one day.

‘It’s because there is a battle inside every human being,’ replied his grandfather. ‘The battle is between two creatures. One creature is kind and gentle, full of peace, generosity, compassion, and trust. The other is full of anger, hatred, greed, selfishness, pride, and arrogance.’
The young boy thought for a moment, and then he asked: ‘Which one will win the battle inside me?’

‘The one you feed,’ replied his grandfather.
 

Learning how best to  nurture the peaceful, creative, aspiring, aspect of the self, while bringing the wilder aspects under control – in short, learning to put passion at the service of intelligence – is one of the great tasks of the spiritual life.

 
 




 
 
 
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