My son asked whether I thought Christmas was a religious or secular holiday. I knew where my atheist son was going with this. I cut him off saying I thought it could be anything you wanted it to be. And I do stand by that. I fully recognize that many celebrate Christmas as the birth of a savior. Most of them quietly worship in their churches, but others are a bit more vocal like a neighbor who posted a sign about putting the Christ back in Christmas (the sign courtesy of the Knights of Columbus). I grew up with the more secular version of Christmas focused on goodwill and gift-giving.
One of the big differences between being in Belgium and being back in the US, is that the US really does get into its holidays, religious or secular. If you didn’t have a calendar to point out the holidays in Brussels, you would never know there was a holiday since there were no overt external signs of any. But here, I walk the dog around the neighborhood every day and I see the Christmas decorations. More decorations on my street than in the entire city of Brussels. I love it! Individuals dedicate time, effort, and money to do this. And I love it! Trivial? Waste of time? Effort? Money? Maybe…
The last few days I’ve been paying attention to the kind of decorations that predominate. How do my neighbors view this holiday- religious or secular? Do the decorations tell a story? I probably pass sixty or more houses on my daily circuit and only three have overt religious items (2 nativities and 1 cross). The rest are predominantly lights, garlands, wreaths, reindeer, snowmen, and assorted popular blow-up characters. And Disney characters and flying pigs aside (yes, someone has one and there is a dragon too!), I do wonder if all this decorating has much to do with the Christmas story at all.
Perhaps, it’s all about the time of year. A time when nature hides, dies back, goes dormant. When we as humans are denied visual stimulation through color and form. In the starkness and stillness that is winter, we are called inside to quiet. And that call can be frightening, unsettling. And yet, it calls from the unconscious. To counter this we become busy and decorate the things around us as comfort to get us through the dark, cold winter. We bring trees and stars inside. The macrocosm calling to the microcosm, stop hiding, be still, wake.
There are many misconceptions about astrology. This book attempts a survey of its effects on Western Civilization. It’s a big job! This is a history book and astrology has been around a very long time. Most of us think astrology can be summed up by those little paragraphs written about your sun sign that commonly occur in magazines and papers. Some who have delved deeper know astrology is a science- one that predated and in part, gave birth to modern science. How is it that this thread is all but missing from history books? It is said that history is written by the victors and from that perspective (I suppose), astrology did not win. Bobrick’s book is not a book about whether astrology is a valid science. Rather, this is a book about how ideas and people’s understanding of them played a role in history.
Bobrick opens the book with a very compelling case about how Columbus would never have set sail on a voyage of discovery except for having been inspired by an astrological idea that had come from the Persians through the Arabs and finally to the West by way of a French Cardinal and astrologer, Pierre d’Ailly. Known as the great conjunction theory, where Jupiter and Saturn unite, it was thought to herald great changes. The once- in- 960- year astrological event so excited Columbus, he decided it heralded the end of the world and everyone on the planet would need to be converted. He adopted the name Christophorus, “the Christbearer” and sought the financial aid of Spain. Columbus’ copy of the astrologer’s work who so influenced him, including his personal notes, can be seen in Seville. Ideas are no small matter!
Man has always been intrigued by the skies. The origins of astrology go back to Mesopotamia, the Chaldean East, including areas of Babylonia and Assyria. From there, it spread to Egypt and Greece. Astrology was known in Greece at least as early as 1184 BC. Plato was tutored by a Chaldean astrologer. Astrology eventually incorporated Pythagorean concepts. But it wasn’t until Hellenistic Egypt that astrology came into its own and combined with Greek mathematical astronomy. By 150 BC, the earliest handbook on astrology was written. These ideas spread throughout Greece and on to India.
Babylonian astrology tablet, (photo: Poulpy)
Astrological disc, Egypt (Ptolemaic 332-31 BCE)
During the Roman Empire, all classes of people were influenced by the practice of astrology. Astrologers were consulted at the highest levels and several Emperors were skilled astrologers (including Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian). The fundamental work on astrology (Tetrabiblos) in the classical world was done by Claudius Ptolemy who drew on ancient sources.
Zodiac, (6th cent.) synagogue, Beth Alpha, Israel
From Tetrabiblos (9th cent. Byzantine manuscript), zodiac & months
As the Roman Empire declined and the West fell into darkness, astrology flourished in the East and the lands held by the Byzantines. By the 9th century, Islamic, Jewish, Greek. Persian, and Hindu scholars gathered in the intellectual capital of Baghdad. This was Islam’s Golden Age when cooperation, innovation, and learning flourished! The Arabs translated Greek texts and got to work on pioneering science. Arab scholars pursued astronomy, geometry, algebra, trigonometry, calculus, introduced a system of numerals, created a decimal system, refined the lunar calendar, and built observatories. What came into existence then was what is today called “Arabic astrology”- a fusion of Greek thought and Arabic science. From this tradition, the formidable astrologer al-Biruni’s text, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology (1029), had a strong mathematical basis and he firmly believed no one could call himself an astrologer without a thorough understanding of all the sciences. Such was the nature of the profession.
Astrolabe, Islamic (1067AD), (photo: Luiz Garcia)
All of this is a fascinating way of viewing history through the perspective of the emergence of science. From this lens, astrology is the science that underpinned what we think of as modern science. This was the need to watch the skies, to take measurements, to create the mathematics and instruments for observations, and then to make it relevant. Of course, astrology is also the oldest of the occult (meaning “hidden”) arts. And so much more than those little paragraphs in magazines that pass as horoscopes.
In part 2, we’ll look at how the Church and European Courts have viewed the practice of astrology. (Have you ever seen an astrological clock or a stained-glass window with the full zodiac?)
Below is a link to this year’s conference on kundalini. Kundalini (the rise of serpent energy) has been linked to spiritual awakening and is seen as a natural progression of human development. It is personal, cosmic, and evolutionary. Anyone “on the path” should have some understanding of this phenomenon. Once, it was believed only those in ashrams and monasteries had these experiences, but now more and more people are reporting spontaneous kundalini occurrences. The speakers provide lots of insights, personal experiences, and resources. Especially interesting (to me) was the talk on current research into measuring subtle energy and developing those devices that may change medical treatments. This should be of interest to anyone practicing energy medicine/healing. Currently 1000 energy healers have undergone a variety of testing of their abilities which (eventually) will lead to certification standards. Dig in! Share your thoughts.
The Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is the most visited cemetery in the world. On a recent trip, I visited this vast, interesting place. Famed for being the first garden cemetery, it opened in 1804 but there isn’t much space devoted to what we would think of as gardens. Instead, the cemetery is chock full of ornate, closely placed tombs. If you’ve visited the cemeteries of New Orleans, you’d feel right at home here. The sixty-nine thousand tombs cover a range of architectural styles, but the Gothic crypt seems to predominate in the older sections.
Although there are over one million interred in the cemetery, and there is a waiting list today, it wasn’t always a popular burial site with Parisians. Located far outside the city when it opened, and not being attached to a church, made it an undesirable final resting place. So a bit of creative marketing helped it along. First, Jean de La Fontaine (poet) and Moliere (playwright, actor, and poet) were buried there. Burying the famous in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery increased its popularity. A decade or so later, the purported remains of Abelard and Heloise (the famous lovers) were moved to the cemetery and then Parisians clamored to get in. By 1830, the cemetery had thirty-three thousand graves!
Today, people visit the Pere Lachaise to see the tombs and architecture, and the graves of the famous. Americans are probably most interested in Jim Morrison’s grave. There’s an interesting story on how he came to be interred here. He died in Paris, but cemetery officials weren’t interested in offering a musician a place. They were persuaded when they found out he was working on a novel. The cemetery has many famous writers including Balzac, Proust, Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde. The graves of composer Frederic Chopin and actress Sarah Bernhardt can also be visited.
I’m reading a book called Becoming Supernatural by Dr. Joe Dispenza. In chapter three, he recounts research from an article in Wired (“Mind Over Matter,” Apr. 1995). Now from my perspective, this is not anything out of my understanding of things because this is the world I’ve been reading about and living in for the last couple of decades, but I know some of you are going to drop your jaws over this. Good! We want that kind of response. Your world is about to crack open. Here goes.
Rene Peoc’h is a French researcher who wanted to study the possibility that intention might operate in our world. He started with a computerized robot set up as a random event generator. Set lose in an area, the robot turned right half the time and left half the time, thereby covering the area equally over time. This is perfectly in keeping with the idea of a random generator. Then he allowed some chicks to imprint on the computerized robot as if it were their mother. So the chicks bonded with the robot creating an energetic bond on their part (at least). Once the chicks had imprinted, Peoc’h put them in a cage where they could see the robot but not go to it. What do you think happened?
photo: Thomas Quine (not the robot from the experiment)
If you hold a materialistic view of the world, you would say nothing. The random event generator can’t be affected by the minds of the chicks. It’s ridiculous! But- the pattern of movement of the robot clustered near the chicks’ cage. No longer was the robot moving randomly, but now it had gravitated near the babies. Cool experiment, right? And easily replicated. The larger question becomes if baby chicks can influence objects around them, how much influence do we have? And how do we develop and control it??? That’s what Becoming Supernatural is all about. Interested? Grab the book but be warned, the work is hard and all-consuming. Advanced yogic practices are made accessible to everyone.
Hopefully, I’ll have more to share later but I wanted to share some personal happenings here, too. I am about four months out from returning to the US (YAY! I CANNOT WAIT!!!). My third book is about to be released (FINALLY!!!). The downside is that things are about to get very busy. This blog will probably be interrupted by these major life upheavals.
Let’s find out! I visited Bruges recently and share some of my photos below.
The beguinage at Bruges (Belgium)
The 12th and 13th centuries were characterized by renewed religious fervor. New spiritual pathways emerged. Some of them were seen as heretical (like the Cathars), while others were tolerated. Franciscans and Dominicans came into existence to reorder the Church from the inside out. The beguines emerged as one of the most original spiritual pathways and they endured for hundreds of years. They can also be viewed as the first feminists.
The beguines appeared at the end of the 12th century. These women initially came from the poorer classes and sought a life of faith without taking formal vows. At first, small groups located themselves in urban settings near hospitals or abbeys. They dedicated themselves to prayer and contemplation, but worked in their communities caring for the sick. The beguines were a conundrum and a challenge to the social order. Free from the male dominance of a husband or spiritual director, the beguine was an independent entity. Her freedom also required she support herself by working. This beguine structure for the first time opened a religious path for poor women who previously had no access to it. Nuns came from wealthy classes and bought their way into the life through large dowries, impossible for poor women.
There is controversy over where the first beguine community was, but we know the movement spread quickly from Flanders through Italy, France, Poland, and Hungry. Over time a communal lifestyle prevailed and took hold. The beguines lived in a beguinage that functioned as a predominantly independent community, with rights and the ability to own property. Women often sought work in the thriving textile industries of their cities. By 1240, most of the beguines in the south of Flanders were living in communities surrounded by walls, where the door was closed at night creating its own version of a monastic center. The beguines had no founder and adopted no universal rule. There was no central authority. Each beguinage was a separately functioning entity, and this was sometimes a strength and sometimes a weakness.
Not surprisingly, beguine communities were the subject of much concern for the Church. The movement ran counter to the power structure and heresy was often a concern, but two papal bulls in the 13th century did support the movement. But it was not enough. Some beguines were burned for heresy while others received protection. By the 14th century, the beguines were suffering. They were subject to inquisitional authorities, and some beguinages closed losing their assets while others were absorbed into traditional monastic orders. Some beguinages persisted through the Protestant Reformation and the French Revolution, but only a few survived into the 20th century. These were clustered in Belgium including the one at Bruges.
I’ve been to several former beguinages in the Low Countries now. They are always peaceful, contemplative places. From these places, there are still echoes of women wanting spiritual space and a place in the world. Sauve Garde.
The Beguines:Women in Search of Sanctity Within Freedom -Silvana Panciera
The Wisdom of the Beguines- Laura Swan
Meister Eckhart and the Beguine Mystics– Bernard McGinn
Owl Killers– Karen Maitland (fiction), starts and ends at the Bruges beguinage