Cancer (2): Opening Up

Cancer, by Dan Hodgkin

Mark 6:45-52

Straight afterwards, Jesus urged his disciples to get into the boat and go on ahead to Bethsaida while he was releasing the crowd. Taking his leave of them he went into the mountain to pray. It was evening and the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the land. At about three o’clock in the morning, seeing that they were struggling to make headway because of a contrary wind, he went towards them walking upon the sea, as if he meant to go past them. Those who saw him walking on the water took him for a ghost and screamed out, because they all saw him and were very frightened. But he began to speak to them straightaway. He said, ‘Take heart!  It’s me! (Greek: ego eimi, literally ‘I am’). Don’t be frightened!’ He went up to them in the boat and the wind abated and they were all utterly astonished., because they hadn’t understood about the loaves and their hearts were hard.

Mark 7:24-37

From there Jesus went to region of Tyre and went into a house where he hoped to escape notice. But it wasn’t possible for him to remain hidden for long, and a woman whose daughter was possessed by an evil spirit heard about him and she came and fell down at his feet. She was a Greek – a Syrophoenician – and she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first; it’s not right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ She replied, ‘Yes, Lord, but the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps!’ And he said to her, ‘Because of what you’ve just said, go on your way. The demon has left your daughter.’ When she went home she found the child lying on her bed, and the evil spirit had gone.

          Leaving the region of Tyre he went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, up through the middle of the Decapolis. And they brought to him a deaf man with a speech impediment and they begged Jesus to lay his hand upon him. Taking him privately, away from the crowd, he placed his fingers in his ears, and touched his tongue with spittle. Looking up to heaven he sighed aloud as he said, ‘Ephphatha!’ (which means, ‘Be opened!’ ) The man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak correctly. Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, but the more he told them to keep quiet, the more they proclaimed it. They were completely amazed, saying, ‘He’s done everything well; he makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak!’

They came to Bethsaida where they brought a blind man to him, begging him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, he led him outside the village. He spat into his eyes, put his hands on him and said, ‘Can you see anything?’ The man looked up and said, ‘I can see men, but they look like walking trees!’ Then Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes once more. This time his sight was restored and he could see clearly. So Jesus sent him home and told him not to enter the village. 

‘It is well to remember that the whole universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.

’(John Andrew Holmes)

Last week I explained how the zodiacal sign Cancer was associated in the ancient world with the stomach and food and how it also symbolises the natural tendency of the human being to be isolated, to build a barrier keeping out unfamiliar experience and unfamiliar ideas. And it is this aspect of the sign’s symbolism that I want to look at today.

The traditions we inherit and pass on, the prejudices we develop, our natural instincts, act like the crab’s shell to cut us off from what we consider to be alien or strange. It is probably a survival mechanism, built into our genes, but one objective of the spiritual life is to identify and then try to eliminate those instinctive factors which work to give us short term survival advantages, but which have now outlived their usefulness and which actually impede our development as a species.

Jesus Walks on Water (Ivan Aivazovsky)
The visceral – ‘gut’ – reactions, which all human beings exhibit in the presence of the unfamiliar, are a feature of our emotional life. They come unbidden, up from the depths, and we have little immediate or conscious control over them. We instinctively prefer those people who look like us, talk like us, and who share our assumptions and our outlook. This is why the story of Jesus walking on the water is so appropriate in the Cancer section of the Gospel. It is astronomically appropriate because one of the constellations surrounding Cancer is Argo, the mythical and magical ship of the Argonauts which, according to the Roman writer Manilius was the ship ‘which conquered the waters’. But this story is also related to the idea of overcoming our emotional reactions to things, because Water has perennially symbolised the turbulent emotional life of the individual and, by walking on the water, Jesus is demonstrating his mastery over those instinctive responses to life which will often override our intellectual convictions and which are the cause of so much emotional turbulence. Walking on the water is not a marvellous demonstration of the uniqueness of Jesus, a proof of his divinity; nor is it a misapprehension on the part of eye witnesses who saw Jesus walking on some kind of rocky outcrop and mistook it for a miracle. It is, rather, something we are all called upon to do: we too must learn to conquer the internal emotional turmoil which militates against any genuine acceptance of unfamiliar customs and people. 

There are three more miracle stories in this section, and although they seem like separate incidents, they must be taken together to get the full impact of the lesson the Gospel writer is trying to teach us.

          The first one is the story of the woman who asks Jesus to cast out a demon from her daughter. It is important to remember that this woman is a Gentile – a non-Jew - and it is for this very reason that Jesus initially refuses her request. ‘It’s not right to give the children’s food to the dogs,’ he says. This, of course, is a terrible insult, and the fact that it is uttered by Jesus himself has proved quite embarrassing to conventional commentators, who try to soften it a little by saying that the word used is rather an affectionate term for a dog, and anyway, Jesus was really only testing the woman’s faith. Does Jesus really come out of it better if we assume that he is playing some sort of game with this distressed woman? If she had been unable to respond cleverly to his insult would he have refused to heal her daughter?

          The significance of this story only becomes apparent when we read it in conjunction with the story of the deaf man, which follows. After putting his fingers in the man’s ears and touching his tongue with spittle, Jesus says the Aramaic word Ephphatha, and the man finds himself able to hear properly and to speak coherently.

          It is unusual to find Aramaic words or phrases in the Gospels. Aramaic was the first language of the Palestinian Jews, and so would have been the language of Jesus and the apostles, and commentators regularly point out that it is present in the Gospels – which were all originally written in Greek – because these would have been the actual words that Jesus said. But, as we noted in the story of Jairus’ Daughter, Aramaic is almost certainly used for emphasis in the Gospel of Mark. The Gospel writer is saying, ‘I’m writing this word in another language, so pay attention to it. It’s important’.

            The word Ephphatha means ‘Open up!’ (It was from this word that we took the name of our monthly magazine Oscailt, meaning ‘open’ in Irish.) What Jesus is saying to this deaf man is the Gospel’s message to you and me. This man was suffering from a physical deafness; we are suffering from spiritual deafness. Our ears are closed to the entreaties of those who live in foreign countries, whose skin colour is different from our own, whose way of life does not correspond with ours. We are deaf to the words even of those who live in close proximity to us, but whose traditions are different from ours. We don’t hear what they are saying, and so our opinions about them and their customs are garbled and worthless. The Jewish exclusiveness displayed by Jesus in his encounter with the Gentile woman dramatically illustrates our own clannishness, our instinctive conviction that ‘blood is thicker than water’, that ‘charity begins at home’. It’s a shocking reminder of our own refusal to listen attentively to the unfamiliar voices. It is only when we are prepared to open up that our prejudices can be eroded; and only then that the impediment in our speech will be removed and our opinions will be worth listening to. We have to break the shell of our own tribalism and exclusiveness.

            This theme is explored further in the final scene of this section, the Cure of the Blind Man (Mark 8:22-26). As Jesus enters Bethsaida a blind man is brought to him and, in response to the man’s entreaties, Jesus restores his sight. This seems to be just another example of Jesus’ amazing power to heal. But the story is different from all the other miracles recounted in the Gospels, because it is the only one in which Jesus is shown failing at his first attempt. He takes the man to one side, rubs spittle on his eyes, and asks him, ‘What do you see?’ ‘I see men but they look like walking trees,’ the man replies. Jesus rubs the man’s eyes again, and this time his sight is restored and he can see everything clearly.

            The blind man, like all the characters in the Gospels – when the Gospels are read as psychological, spiritual treatises and not as historical reminiscences – is you and I. We have received the first rub of the spittle, and we can see – that is, we have the sense of sight - but we don’t quite see people, we see walking trees – or, in contemporary language, ciphers, zombies, humanoids. We recognise their general shape and their mobility, but we have yet to grant them fully human status. What we need is a second metaphorical rub of the eyes to correct our vision, to remove the residual film which prevents us seeing people as they really are, as ends in themselves, and not as means to our own ends. Einstein expresses the same sentiment as Mark, but less dramatically and more philosophically, as follows:

A human being is part of a whole called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

          The function of all spiritual practice – from whatever tradition it comes – is to help us to narrow the gap between self-awareness and other-awareness, to remove that residual film from our eyes which is deluding our sight. But how, practically, do we achieve it? Like so many of the spiritual lessons contained in this Gospel, it takes a lifetime to learn, but I suggest, as a starter, that whenever we say the Lord’s Prayer we pay particular attention to the first two words: ‘Our Father’. Forget the dispute over the word ‘Father’ and whether it is sexist or not. This is just a distraction. The important word is ‘Our’. God is ‘our father’, not ‘my father’, and throughout the prayer we ask ‘give us our daily bread’ and ‘forgive us our trespasses’ as ‘we forgive those who trespass against us’. This prayer is written in the first person plural. It’s not about me, it’s about us.

          Be conscious of those moments – and there will no doubt be many, no matter how spiritually evolved you consider yourself to be - when you figuratively retreat into your shell, when you act and think as Jesus is shown acting with the Gentile woman, when you cut yourself off from somebody with the thought, ‘He/she/they is/are  not like me. Their problem is nothing to do with me. I am white, I am Irish, I am European, I am male, I am civilised.’ This happens more frequently than we might suspect. An essay in the book All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum, describes a subtle example of it. It concerns a man called Nicolai Pestretsov, a Russian soldier who was stationed in Angola, whose wife was killed when she came out to visit him. Nicolai’s colleagues fled after the attack, but Nicolai didn’t. The South African military communiqué said, ‘Sgt. Major Nicolai Pestretsov refused to leave the body of his slain wife, who was killed in the assault on the village.’ What impressed Fulghum about this report was the air of disbelief that seemed to lie behind the words. It was as if the journalist were saying, ‘He showed concern for his dead wife, refusing to leave her body, putting his own safety at risk – and he’s a Russian! Imagine that!’ As Fulghum comments, the journalist couldn’t quite get beyond the words, Russian, Communist, Soldier, Enemy, to see a person. To the journalist, Nicolai was just a walking tree.

            We too have to try to fight against the tendency to see people as walking trees. Try doing this. Every day select one person that you casually encounter, and make a special imaginative effort to tell yourself that this person, whose name you do not know, whose history and circumstances you do not know, is a thinking, feeling, hurting, doubting, frightened, rejoicing human being, just as you are. Wish him or her well with a silent blessing.

The Dalai Lama: 'My religion is kindness'
       The Dalai Lama
, born under Cancer (6th July 1935), and therefore no doubt acutely conscious of his own tendency to build a shell around himself, said, ‘My religion is kindness’. Kindness has to be our religion. To be kind is to treat people as kin, as family, regardless of their genetic distance from us, and this takes practice and effort. And we can practise it daily, in the ordinary events of ordinary life. Here are two small but recent examples from my own life.

            Last week I was in Oxford for Maud Robinson’s valedictory service. On Tuesday morning I went to breakfast in the college dining room and was met, very early in the morning, with a big smile and a cheery ‘hello’ from the steward, who inquired after my health, indicated the breakfast fare on offer, asked me my name, and generally made me feel welcome and at ease. Indeed, he made me feel like a human being.

            A month or so ago I ordered a book from Amazon, but they didn’t have a copy so they put me in touch with Bon Bon Books who did. When I received my copy a few days later, there was a little note which said, ‘Dear Bill, I hope you enjoy this book’, signed Ian from Bon Bon Books. I was really charmed by this, and said as much in an email to Amazon when they asked me to rate the service I received from this private seller. Yesterday I received an email from Ian thanking me for giving his company a five star assessment. Now we are Ian and Bill, not just customer and bookseller. How different from the anonymity and indifference which characterise so many of the commercial transactions we undertake.   

            The lesson? Make the people you encounter feel human. That’s all. Then you’ll be making a significant contribution to the transformation of the world.

            These little exercises and practices – and others that you may devise for yourself – are designed to take us out of our natural solipsism, the feeling that I exist in a way that is different from the way that others exist, and to bring us to an appreciation of our connectedness ‘in mystery and miracle, to one another and to the world’.

            And it can all be summarised in that one word in Mark’s Gospel ‘Ephphatha: Open Up’.

My book The Gospel and the Zodiac: The Secret Truth about Jesus is available for a mere £6.89 from


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