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.

 

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