Star-Lore Part 3: Mark as a Guide to the Spiritual Life

Part 3:

Mark as a Guide to the Spiritual Life

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. 'Do you understand what you are reading?' Philip asked. 'How can I,' he said, 'unless someone explains it to me?' (Acts 8:30-31)


This constellation-based schema – clear, consistent, irrefutable – prompts a number of questions about the nature of Mark’s Gospel, the most important one being, ‘What kind of document is this?’ It is certainly not a hastily compiled, rudimentary biography of Jesus, which Matthew and Luke added to and improved upon, as many believe; still less is it likely to be a series of random reminiscences made to the author of the Gospel by the Apostle Peter and presented  ‘in no particular order’[1] as Papias claimed in the second century, and which some branches of orthodoxy still teach.[2] Scholars have found this particular statement by Papias quite puzzling because Mark seems to have a reasonably coherent chronological order. But Papias is no doubt denying a zodiacal order because such an order would undermine his claim (a claim made by generations of scholars and preachers) that Mark’s story is basically history.
            But nobody writes history or compiles reminiscences in this way. Nobody writes a biography, however sketchy, which says nothing about the appearance or education of the subject, little about their family, and which recounts the events of just one year of the subject’s life.
            On the other hand, Mark’s Gospel is not ‘myth’. Of course, it can be considered a myth in the way this term is (mis)used currently (i.e. to mean ‘an untruth’) but then, so can most of the world’s literature. Although mythic elements are incorporated into the text, the Gospel does not fully satisfy any of the more scholarly and comprehensive definitions of myth.[3] To ask ‘is the Gospel of Mark history or myth?’ is to present us with a very unsatisfactory choice: it is neither, although it contains elements of both.
Mark’s Gospel is a unique literary creation. It has no doubt undergone a number of revisions, but the version we now possess preserves the structure of a much longer document, which probably originated in an esoteric or Gnostic school whose purpose was to provide spiritual guidance for the coming age of Pisces. The astrological schema is neither ornamental nor merely functional. In each zodiacal section, the astrological meaning of the sign informs and defines the nature of the lesson(s) we need to learn from that section. All the component parts of a section - miracles, oral teaching, actions - are linked by their zodiacal context. The stories are not ‘remembered incidents’ randomly strung together like beads on a chain, but deliberately constructed narratives (or narratives adapted from mythology or from the Jewish scriptures) designed to provide material for meditation and reflection to spiritual aspirants in a wisdom school.
The zodiac – the apparent annual path of the Sun in the sky – is a natural symbol of the path of life, and in each of the zodiacal sections we are presented with an important issue which every human being has to face. Just as Hercules has to complete twelve tasks on his way to find the golden apples,[4] so the aspirant must complete twelve spiritual tasks on his/her way to ‘resurrection’ or self-transformation. As we learn from Acts, Christianity was originally called ‘the Way’ or ‘the Path’ (Acts 9:2). The Greek word for ‘path’ is hodos,[5] and this word is a possible root of the word ‘zodiac’.[6]
 The miracle stories are not assigned to a section randomly. For example, the three healings of specified diseases[7] in the Aries section belong together because each one illustrates in its own way the necessity and the possibility of grasping the new life symbolised by the spring. The leper (Mk 1:40-45) is one of the ‘living dead’; the paralysed man (Mk 2:1-12) has been rendered powerless because he is crippled by his past (his ‘sins’), and the man with the withered hand (Mk 3:1-5) is operating on half his potential power. In Matthew’s Gospel, these stories are scattered around and so, lacking a unifying context, they can only be seen as yet more isolated examples of Jesus’s amazing power. However, by placing them close together and linking them thematically with other images of beginnings and newness, Mark gives them a symbolic power which they lack when separated.

A Summary of Mark’s Twelve Spiritual Tasks

The principal lesson of Aries, the springtime sign, concerns our relationship with the past. We are not to let the past with its sins, its guilt, and its failures paralyse our present. ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ says Jesus to the paralysed man (you and me!) ‘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 to us and hidden things will be revealed to us, 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, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’, wrote Walt Whitman of this very condition. 'My name is Legion,' says the demoniac. We have to come to terms with it. This section also teaches us that in our ordinary state 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. Here we learn about reincorporating the feminine – the neglected, moribund polarity – into our religious life (Talitha cumi, Little girl awake!).
            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 need to ‘open up’ (Ephphatha). We are semi-blind; 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 apprised of our elevated status 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 cultivate the mind of a child 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’[8] (ἄμφοδον). 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. We also learn that two 'thieves'  - the past and the future - steal our lives. 
            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 yearly 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, 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’s disciples are to meet him in Galilee, that is, back where it all started. Galilee comes from the Hebrew word galal which means ‘to roll, to encircle’.[9] 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 does not say, “Arise, you who are dead!” but “Arise, you who are  living!”[10]
            This is the sublime message of the Gospel of Mark. 

The Cancer Section (6:30-8:26)

As an extended example of how the various components of a zodiacal segment fit together, let us look more closely at Cancer. Withdrawal, ancestry, traditions, clannishness, food, nurture; these are all associated with the sign Cancer, and these are the principal themes of this section of Mark’s Gospel as even a cursory glance will show.
            Cancer, along with its associated planet, the Moon, is said is to ‘rule’ the stomach and one of the dominant themes of this whole section is food. It begins with the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand  and it goes on to discuss the Jewish obsession with dietary laws, the tradition of ritual cleansing before food, and later it deals with the Feeding of the Four Thousand and ‘the leaven’ or yeast of the Pharisees.
There are two feeding stories. This has given headaches to traditional commentators for many years, some scholars suggesting that Mark included two accounts of the same event, showing him to be less than a competent historian – just as Jesus’s strange journey[11] shows him to be a poor geographer. Liberal scholars who view the Gospel as ‘exaggerated history’ will often explain these stories by saying that all the people really had food hidden away, but they were too mean to advertise the fact. After listening to Jesus, they were ashamed of their selfishness and willingly shared what they had and everyone was satisfied. But this kind of explanation – harmless enough in its way – is rather patronising to the Gospel’s author, implying that he allowed evangelistic piety to cloud his judgement.
            But the author of this Gospel was no fool to be patronised, still less was he a poor historian or a poor geographer. The author knew perfectly well what he was doing. He deliberately has two feeding stories because he wants to make a very important point relating to Jewish clannishness. The stories are indeed the same except for a few details. But the details are crucial to a proper understanding of their meaning: the feeding of the Five Thousand takes place in Jewish territory, the feeding of the Four thousand occurs in a predominantly Gentile area (the Decapolis). So, the two stories show that God’s spiritual ‘manna’ is to be distributed to all people, not just to the Jews, and, read together, they constitute an attack on the narrow exclusivism and parochialism which characterised much Jewish thinking at the time the Gospel was written, and which have characterised much religious thought and practice before and since that time.
   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 overcome 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
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 strive 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 unrelated 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 was rather an affectionate term for a dog,[12] 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?[13]
            Considered as literal history, as an actual event in the life of Jesus, this incident is quite despicable. However, considered as an enacted parable, in which Jesus plays the part of humanity, it is a powerful demonstration of ‘the heedlessness’ we all show in our dealings with strangers.[14]
            To appreciate the significance of this story we must 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 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!’ What Jesus is saying to this deaf man’s ears is the Gospel’s message to you and me. 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. 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 develop what the French call l’ouverture d’esprit.
            This theme is explored further in the final scene of this section, the Cure of the Blind Man. 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 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. (Goldstein, page 26)

         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.

         Each of the zodiacal sections can (and should) be analysed in the same way. When we stop asking irrelevant – and distracting – ‘historical’ questions of the text, we can begin to see what its real purpose is, and we can begin to see something of the genius behind it.[15]

Part 4 shows how this approach answers a few questions.  It ends with a few conjectures.    

[1]Mark who was (or, who became) Peter's interpreter wrote down accurately though not in order (or, without orderliness) all that he remembered of what Christ had said or done. He did not hear the Lord, nor was he a follower of his; but at a later date, as I have said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to meet the needs of his hearers, but not as if he was giving a systematic compilation of the Lord's oracles. Mark therefore made no mistake, but he wrote down some things as he remembered them, for he had one purpose in mind, not to omit anything he had heard, and not to falsify anything in it.’ (Barclay, 1966, page 120; emphasis added.)
[2] See, for example, Barnett, P., (1986) Is the New Testament History?
[3] E.g. ‘A usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon.’ (Merriam-Webster)
[4] See The Labours of Hercules, by Alice Bailey
[5] ὁδός, οῦ, ἡ
[6] The word ‘zodiac’ comes from the primitive root zoad, ‘a walk, way, or going by steps’, and is related to the Greek word hodos, ‘road’, and the Sanskrit sodi, ‘path’. (Seiss, page 17)
[7] As opposed to generic healings such as 1:34 ‘Jesus healed many who had various diseases’.
[8] i.e. the animalistic and the angelic
[9]  גלל   A noun from this root  גיל (gil) describes a circle or time: an age (Abarim)
[10] La résurrection se fait par le vent du ciel qui balaie les mondes. L’ange porté par le vent ne dit pas: – Morts, levez-vous! Il dit: – Que les vivants se lèvent !
[11] See above, page 12
[12] The word is κυνάρια (kunaria) and it means ‘little dogs’, ‘whelps’ (Liddell and Scott). It is obviously a reference to pet dogs which lives in the house alongside the children; but it is not an affectionate term, it’s a technical one.  
[13] See the astronomical basis of the woman’s response on page 12
[14] A similar story appears in the Sufi tradition:
Bahaudin el-Shah, great teacher of the Naqshbandi dervishes, one day met a confrère in the great square of Bokhara.
The newcomer was a wandering Kalendar of the Malamati, the ‘Blameworthy’. Bahaudin was surrounded by disciples.
‘From where do you come?’ he asked the traveller, in the usual Sufi phrase.
‘I have no idea,’ said the other, grinning foolishly.
Some of Bahaudin’s disciples murmured their disapproval of this disrespect.
‘Where are you going?’ persisted Bahaudin.
‘I do not know,’ shouted the dervish.
‘What is Good?’ By now a large crowd had gathered.
‘I do not know.’
‘What is Evil?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘What is Right?’
‘Whatever is good for me.’
‘What is Wrong?’
‘Whatever is bad for me.’
The crowd, irritated beyond its patience by this dervish, drove him away. He went off, striding purposefully in a direction which led nowhere, as far as anyone knew.
‘Fools!’ said Bahaudin Naqshaband, ‘this man is acting the part of humanity. While you were despising him, he was deliberately demonstrating heedlessness, as each of you does, all unaware, every day of your lives’.  (Shah, Wisdom of the Idiots, page 21)

[15] See my book The Celestial Journey of the Soul for an analysis of each of the sections.


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