Pisces (2): Resurrection

Mark: Chapter 16

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices with which to anoint him. Very early in the morning, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. The sun had risen. They were saying to each other, ‘Who will roll away the stone from the door of the tomb for us?’ But when they looked up they saw that the stone had already been rolled away, even though it was very large. Going inside the tomb they saw a young man dressed in white sitting on the right hand side. They were astonished. He said to them, ‘Don’t be so shocked! You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, the one who was crucified; but he has been raised up. He’s not here. See the place where they laid him. Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going on ahead to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.
      When they came out they ran away from the tomb because they were trembling with astonishment. And they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid. 

Story: The Elephant and the Rope

This is the procedure adopted by circus trainers to ensure that elephants never rebel – and I suspect it is also what happens with a lot of people.

When still a baby, the elephant is tethered by a very thick rope to a stake hammered into the ground. The elephant tries several times to get free, but it lacks the strength to do so.

After a year, the stake and the rope are still strong enough to keep a small elephant tethered, although it continues to try, unsuccessfully, to get free. At this point, the animal realises that the rope will always be too strong and so it gives up.

When it reaches adulthood, the elephant still remembers how, for a long time, it had wasted its energies trying to escape captivity. At this stage, the trainer can tether the elephant with a slender thread tied to a broom handle, and the elephant will make no attempt to escape to freedom

Written in March 2008

Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection (sometimes called The Awakening) was first published in 1899 when he was 71 years old. A couple of decades earlier, he had experienced something of a religious conversion and this novel, his final one, expresses his religious convictions more comprehensively and more clearly than any of his other works. I’ve read it four or five times – it’s one of those novels I feel obliged to return to every now and again – and it never fails to uplift my spirits and to deepen my appreciation of the powerful images of new life which the Christian tradition presents to us at this time of the year. Tolstoy’s novel is about one man coming back from the dead: not as a reanimated corpse, but as a transformed individual, one who has found strength to break the ropes of convention and selfishness that have bound him since childhood, and to leave the tomb of corruption in which he has been buried by his acquisitive and hypocritical society. He has been reborn to a new life of service, wholeness, and freedom.
The novel opens with a description of the springtime. ‘The sun shone warm, the air was balmy, the grass, where it did not get scraped away, revived and sprang up everywhere.....All were glad: the plants, the birds, the insects, and the children.’ But, in contrast, ‘grown up men and women did not leave off cheating themselves and each other. It was not this spring morning men thought sacred and worthy of consideration, not the beauty of God’s world, given for a joy to all creatures – this beauty which inclines the heart to peace, to harmony, and to love – but only their own devices to enslave each other.’
Maslova in the Dock
        The man who gradually rediscovers the beauties of God’s world is Prince Nekhlyudov, who, at the beginning of the novel is living a life of dissipation and frivolity in keeping with his wealth and his position in society. But, despite his status, he cannot escape the irksome task of jury service, so he finds himself reluctantly sitting in court one day, listening to the tedious account of a murder which has taken place in a local brothel. Three people are accused of the crime, a man and two women, and it is the younger of the two women who catches Nekhlyudov’s eye. Her name is Maslova, and he recognises her as the former servant of his two maiden aunts, the woman whom he callously seduced a decade before. He had forgotten about her. He vaguely recollected that she had left his aunts’ employ because she was pregnant, but now he learns for the first time about the life of degradation to which she has been reduced, and he realises the part he himself has played in her downfall. As the evidence is produced, he realises that she is obviously innocent of the crime she is accused of, but because of a mix up in the wording of the jury’s verdict, and the haste with which the court president wants the case to end so that he can meet his mistress, she is sentenced to four years penal servitude in Siberia.
            Nekhlyudov’s feelings of shame and guilt mark the first stage in his resurrection. He decides to follow Maslova to Siberia to see how he can help her, and the rest of the novel describes the stages of his gradual transformation as they occur during his journey. He is forced to look at himself and the life he is leading, and to the mores and values of a society which grants to him power and status, but which totally neglects and exploits the poor and the vulnerable.
            The legal system comes in for savage attack. Maslova’s treatment by the court is shameful because she is poor and has no one to plead her cause, but everywhere he looks Nekhlyudov finds similar examples of injustice perpetrated in the name of justice. Very early on we learn of a widow who is having her property taken from her by crafty lawyers whose knowledge of the intricacies of law enable them to swindle her perfectly legally. These men are ‘legal criminals’, a category which comprises millions of rich and powerful people who have shaped the laws and customs of society so that they can live in luxury on the backs of the dispossessed and powerless. How different are things now, a century after Tolstoy wrote Resurrection? How is it that the richest people in our society pay the least tax? How is it that 78% of British MPs are millionaires?How is it that the ability to pay a slick lawyer can so frequently enable the obviously guilty to walk away scot free? How is it that the children of American Senators and Congressmen are not fighting in Iraq? How is it that the person who will become the next President of the U.S.A. will be the millionaire who can spend the most on media image manipulation? As Bob Dylan said four decades ago, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ And as Tolstoy’s narrator comments: ‘How can we – all of us - who are ourselves evil ever hope to correct evil’?
            Nekhlyudov also begins to see through the church (Tolstoy was eventually excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church). In the courtroom there is an old priest who administers the oath to defendants and jurors. How ironic, muses the novel’s narrator, that this priest has, over decades, required countless thousands of people to swear upon a book in which there is a condemnation of all such swearing of oaths? (Matthew 5:34) More significantly, Tolstoy condemns a church which offers stupefying ceremonies to the people instead of teaching them the fundamental precepts of the gospel. The procurator of the Russian Orthodox Church is a man called Toporov, who believes in nothing, but whose attitude to religion is the same as that of a poultry-keeper to the disgusting, rotting food he feeds to his hens; they seem to like it, so it is right to keep on feeding it to them. The people seem to like meaningless ceremonies and superstition, so let’s keep giving it to them.
At the end of the novel, Nekhlyudov takes his copy of the Bible and reads the Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, and realises that in these few neglected pages lie all the moral guidance we human beings need in order for us to live fulfilled and compassionate lives. ‘A perfectly new life dawned that night for Nekhlyudov; not because he had entered into new conditions of life, but because everything he did after that night had a new and quite different meaning for him.’          
The Gospel of Mark, which we have been considering for a year now describes a similar kind of journey. The Gospel comprises a series of narratives, which seem on the surface to be historical reminiscences strung together almost randomly, but which, on closer examination, show themselves to be profound teachings on the spiritual life, very carefully arranged so that the interior journey of the aspirant towards transformation reflects the annual journey of the sun in the sky.
            Each of these stages is a step on the way towards wholeness – ‘redemption’, if you like that kind of language – and although they are presented consecutively, we are not meant to infer from this that we have to approach them sequentially. Individuals will vary in the way they assimilate these lessons. Some we will find easy; others will take a lifetime to master.
            Here, by way of recapitulation, are the twelve steps towards redemption – awakening, resurrection - presented to us by the Gospel of Mark.
            The lesson of Aries, the springtime sign, concerns our relationship with the past. We are not to let the past with its sins and its guilt, and its failures paralyse our present. ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ says Jesus to the paralysed man, ‘so pick up your bed and walk!’ This first section teaches that embarking on the spiritual life requires courage and a willingness to break free from debilitating personal habits of thought and behaviour, and from social and family relationships which hinder our resolve to pursue the spiritual life.
            In the Taurus section we learn that steadfastness, sticking to our resolve is vital to our spiritual growth; we must not be like the seed that grows well for a while but which then is choked by thorns – the physical appetites, and the cares and concerns of the world. Taurus also teaches us that light will come if only we persevere.
            Gemini, the Twins, highlights the fragmented nature of the psyche; that in each of us there is a whole crowd of personalities jostling for attention, and we have to try to create a harmony between them, ‘to get them to sit down at the same table’ as Art Lester puts it. This section also teaches us that our ordinary condition is that we are asleep, reacting to circumstances rather than choosing our actions. Waking up from this sleep – as Jairus’ daughter is awakened by Jesus – is a necessary step on the way to wholeness.
            Cancer teaches us that we are closed off from others like the crab is enclosed in its shell, but we must break through this carapace and be prepared to encounter ‘the other’. We are semi-blind, the story tells us; we can see other people, but they seem like trees walking about. We need to learn to see others as ends in themselves and not as means to our own ends.
            In Leo, which includes the scene of the Transfiguration, we are taught about the true nature of the human being. We are all children of God, divine beings, eagles who think we are chickens. Each of us is a glorious emanation from God with a vital and unique part to play in the drama of the universe.
            However, no sooner are we told this than we are taught the virtues of humility and service, the great lessons of Virgo. ‘Don’t get above yourself,’ says Jesus to his apostles. ‘Never mind arguing with each other about who is the greatest. Serve one another, and, in addition, cultivate the mind of a child and learn to perceive the world afresh.’
            The equinoctial sign of Libra, which the sun enters when day and night are equal, carries the lessons of mutuality and reciprocity, of entering into caring and supportive relationships with people. Here we learn about the ‘sacred marriage’, the union of male and female, of yang and yin, within the individual psyche. We are taught, too, that wealth can be a severe hindrance to our spiritual progress, deflecting us from the life of the spirit by fostering self-indulgence and distraction.
            In the Scorpio section, which comes as Jesus and the apostles approach Jericho, the lowest inhabited place on earth, we are warned not to seek power over others, and taught about those hidden connections which bind us one to another, so that no individual acts to and for himself alone; our actions, for good or ill have consequences for ourselves and for others.
            At the beginning of the Sagittarius section, Jesus rides into Jerusalem on an unbroken horse, symbolising the mastery of the bestial by the divine, mastery which each of us is called to attain. Each of us is a ‘place where two roads meet’. Here we learn about the power of prayer and of faith to bring about remarkable changes in our world.
            In Capricorn we learn about the attitude we should cultivate towards all religious authority – bishops, priests, ministers, traditions, church councils, holy books and the like. We must not cravenly follow the lead of others. We must take responsibility for our own spiritual progress.
            The Aquarius section teaches the importance of standing out from the crowd, and of being willing to offer our unique gifts to society. We also learn that coming to a state of enlightened transformation will turn our interior universe upside down.
            Finally, in the lengthy Pisces section, we see a dramatic presentation of the crucifixion of the false self which has kept us enslaved in our own egotism and craving but which has never been able to deliver the happiness it has constantly promised.

           In the final few verses of the Gospel of Mark we read about the Resurrection, the empty tomb, which happens on the first day of the week – Sunday -, just as the sun has risen. These references to the sun are not accidental or peripheral. The interior journey of the sun in the sky reflects the life journey of the spiritual aspirant. Just as the sun is ‘resurrected’ each year at the equinox, and each day at dawn; just as winter is transformed into spring; just as the caterpillar is transformed into the butterfly; just as Nekhlyudov is transformed by his journey to Siberia, so the spiritual journey outlined by Mark results in the birth of a new creature, a resurrected creature, someone who has overcome the sleep of the unlived life and who is now prepared to enter into life with new attitudes, new visions, new hopes. Jesus’ disciples are to meet him in Galilee, that is, back where it all started. Galilee comes from the Hebrew word ‘galil’ which means circle. Resurrection doesn’t take us away from the cycle of ordinary life, it sends us back on to it once more, but this time, in the words of T.S. Elliot, ‘we’ll know the place for the first time’.
            All valid religion is a call to resurrection. Not to life after death, but to a new kind of life achievable now. As Balzac says, at the end of his novel Louis Lambert, ‘The resurrection is brought about by the winds of heaven which sweep the worlds. The angel borne upon the blast saith not, “Arise, ye dead!” but “Arise, ye living!”
            This is the message of the Gospel. This is the real message of Easter. 

The Resurrection, by Fra Angelico


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