Friday, 26 September 2008

balance and cyclicity

An address given at Frenchay Chapel on 21 September 2008.

The Archangel Michael, whose feast day is associated with the Autumn Equinox, was a dragon-slayer. The dragon that he slew, according to the Book of Revelations, was the Adversary, the serpent from the Garden of Eden.

What a tangle of mythology is involved in this story! In the West, dragons are seen as ferocious fire-breathing beasts; in China, they live at the bottom of the sea and of wells, and bring rain and other blessings. And in other ancient stories, serpents are a symbol of wisdom. Indeed, the Gnostics saw the serpent in the Garden of Eden as a manifestation of Sophia, the personification of wisdom.

So why is a being of light slaying the dragon? To find out, we need to look at the evolution of another dragon-slaying story, that of St George. In the earliest version of the story, George tamed the dragon and led it into the city by the golden girdle of the maiden who was to have been sacrificed to it.

If we see the dragon as a symbol of the beast within all of us, we can see that it is better to tame it and harness its energies for good, not to try to kill it (for it will assuredly resurface somewhere else, when we were least expecting it). We need to balance the energies within ourselves.
So why did the story evolve into one where the dragon was killed? Because the dragon was seen as the untamed power of nature, which must be subdued wherever it was found – in women or in the wilderness.

In China, meanwhile, they saw life as the balance of opposites – yin and yang, night and day, life and death, eternally cycling around each other in the great dance of existence. Hence dragons were the dynamic energy of the elements, bringing rain and growth. They were part of the dynamic equilibrium of nature. Equilibrium means “equal freedom” – freedom to move, to grow and to change; freedom of choice.

This dynamic balance of opposites can also be seen in the dance of the seasons – “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted”. The wheel of the year turns; falling in the autumn, rising in the spring. As it falls in the autumn, and the nights draw in, we turn inward, towards home, and hearth, and spiritual things; baking, and making jam and wine; creative projects.

It also means that, instead of being harsh with ourselves when we get things wrong, we need to forgive ourselves; as Mary Oliver writes in Wild Geese:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Many religious traditions call upon their followers to empty themselves and allow the Divine to fill them. This sounds to me like a painful process. Rather, I think the work of spirituality is to relax, to find the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life. Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life? But it is not just a ceaseless round of the same old things, repeated ad nauseam. Everything changes; everything is always becoming something else; nothing is ever lost.

In Judaism, the Autumn Equinox is the birthday of the world. According to the Jewish website “Tel Shemesh”:
Rosh haShanah, in Jewish legend, is the anniversary of the day on which God created humans and animals—the beginning of the world. God creates humanity out of the dust of the earth, and out of God’s own spirit. Of humans, it says that “God created the human in God’s own image, in the image of God God created the human, male and female God created them.” Adam and Eve are born on Rosh Hashanah, as is the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. The first of the year falls on a day that reminds us that the Divine is within us and all beings. We blow the shofar, the ram’s horn, to signal the thunderous impact of this Presence on our lives, and we engage in memory—considering all that we have done during the year, seeking to make right where we have erred, seeking to become whole where we have been in turmoil, seeking to make ourselves new. It is a time of conception in all its forms. There is a tradition that the Jewish year has a “mother”—Rosh haShanah, the 1st of Tishrei—and a “father,” the 1st of Nisan (both are new years according to the Jewish calendar). If Rosh haShanah is the mother, then the shofar is the womb through which our spirits pass on the way to redemption. The ram’s horn represents the power of the Shekhinah to be hollow, to be a vessel for creation. Yet the shofar also reminds us of the ayil (ram) who sounds like El (God)—the masculine forces of the Divine. The liturgy of Rosh haShanah focuses on avinu malkeinu—our father, our king, the stern but loving father of Jewish tradition. We cast bread into bodies of water in the ritual called tashlich (throwing away), to cast away those behaviors we no longer want or need. Yet we can balance this image with the phrase in the Rosh haShanah liturgy: “hayom harat olam”—today is the birthday of the world, or more accurately, today is the pregnancy of the world. On Rosh Hashanah our world becomes pregnant with God, and God is pregnant with us. It is a time of mutual awareness and understanding. It is the time when we enter the inner world, the world of the womb, in order to be reborn into change.
Joseph Campbell wrote about the journey of the hero, who descends into the underworld, confronts his deepest fears, and returns to the everyday world bringing back a blessing for humanity. This story appears in a thousand different forms: The Epic of Gilgamesh, Jonah and the Whale, Jesus dying and being resurrected, The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and the plot of just about any film you can think of; they all conform to this pattern. We are all heroes on our own journeys, bringing back wisdom from the depths for the benefit of humanity.


Anonymous said...

Very inspiring post! I loved this part:

"Rather, I think the work of spirituality is to relax, to find the inner stillness and space that is already there. All we have to do is to remember who we really are; to reconnect with the ebb and flow of the cycles of life. Everything is cyclical – the seasons, the tides, the orbits of the planets – why not human life?"

Perfect. Couldn't add anything to it if I tried.

Yvonne said...

Thanks Riverwolf :)