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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