Very soon after I found out about the Notre Dame fire, an acquaintance posted the following to a private occult forum:
Sun in Aries squaring Saturn conjunct Cauda Draconis in the 4th house (real estate). Mars in the 9th house (religion).
Scrolling through Twitter a bit later, I saw a few other astrological posts about the devastation of that grand cathedral and then, quite quickly, as many from scientists and “science fans” proclaiming that astrology is obvious bullshit and astrologers are all delusional, superstitious idiots, or else grifters and frauds. It was as obvious as it was petulant; it was the dictionary definition of “too soon”.
Astrology is a common tool of humanity, a means of digging out meaning from the events of life and finding out our part in the universe.
Now, be honest: Did you have an immediate eye-rolling response to that last sentence? Do phrases like “search for meaning” and “our part in the universe” immediately strike you as clichéd? Rest assured, the astronomers of Twitter and readers of “IFuckingLoveScience” agree.
What is the rest of humanity missing that these Children of the Enlightenment see?
The answer, I’m afraid, is a stark, dead universe lacking in poetry.
Astrology, of course, is not the only approach to meaning; it just happens to be a particularly useful and effective one. Magic, mysticism, religion, poetry, and art all perform this duty. Even the sciences do so when they are pursued to sufficient depth. To paraphrase Gordon White, if you go deeply enough into anything, it becomes theology.
And here we come to one of the great persistent points of confusion which makes such a discussion necessary in the first place: How do we define meaning? Even the words we have to use to phrase the question cause problems. Meaning, like pornography, is a know-it-when-you-see-it proposition; it is not a fact but a sense. Very importantly, meaning is not the same as explanation.
Isn’t it interesting that when a child asks an adult, “Why is the sky blue?” or “Why did grandma have to die?”, the immediate response is not to discuss the “why” but the “how” or the “what”? The sky is blue, of course, because of light refraction caused by atmospheric moisture and particulates, and grandma had to die because she was very old and her immune system was weak so she got sick and couldn’t fight it off so that was that. The answers to those questions famously do not satisfy the child, who then asks another “but why?”, and rather than rethinking the problem, the adult merely gets annoyed and keeps giving more of the “how” and “what” until both are frustrated.
It should be clear from the fact that we have different words for them that “why”, “how”, and “what” are different questions. “How” is about process; “what” is about substance; “why” is about meaning. And meaning, it turns out, is so fundamental to our experience that the child’s first impulse was to ask after it! Why are we adults so bad at responding in kind?
As more information, video, and photographs of the Notre Dame fire started to hit news sources and social media, there were also more and more posts berating people for being sad about it or imputing less than noble motives behind the emotional outpouring. Some of these were transparently political, such as insistences that sadness over the collapse of Notre Dame’s roof and endangering of its contents was hypocritical in light of the crimes of the Catholic Church — an observation which ignores all of those odd little bits of meaning like history, art, architecture, skill, and labor. But others were simply based in the accusation that many of the mourners around the world had never even visited Notre Dame, aren’t French or Catholic, and so forth.
But, again, this ignores the deeper truth of the situation. People who may have never even thought of entering through the doors of Notre Dame before have been slapped suddenly with a strange sort of existential realization that perhaps the option has been revoked entirely and, more intense still, one of the greatest efforts and creations of human genius has just burnt to cinders before the eyes of the globe. If it can happen to a protected historical landmark, it can happen to anything, anywhere — or anyone, for that matter.
One thing that astrology and the Notre Dame fire both do is remind us of time, of change, and of eventual destruction, death, and decay. At their best, however, both cathedrals and astrology also remind us of the vaulted heavens, of the smallness of our bodies but the infinite expansiveness of our souls, of the endless outwardness of the cosmos and corresponding inwardness of the mind. Whether or not the cathedral is rebuilt as it was, whatever was or wasn’t able to be saved, it can never be rebuilt exactly as it had been — and it was never the same from moment to moment anyhow. The same is true of our bodies and minds. Just as the Notre Dame roof caved in, just as our skulls will eventually collapse from heat or the weight of centuries, yet the space within both simply rejoins the space from which it had been (only ever apparently) separated by the confines of stone and bone.
Here, then, is meaning.
We could have a whole other discussion about the accuracy and usefulness of the information gained from astrology — such as the smaller but still notable fire in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, one of the holiest sites in all of Islam, at the same time as the Paris blaze — but for as great as that is I find the greatest benefit to be gained from the study of astrology is what I learn about myself and about the connection I enjoy with the cosmos which I share with every other person for whom I conduct readings. This, too, is meaning, above and beyond the facts.
It is not my goal, here, to convince anyone of the non-bullshit nature of astrology any more than I care to prove to you that music is a discipline worth keeping around. The fact is that they both arise from something intrinsic to the type of sentience which not only sees itself of the world but also sees itself as in relation to the world. In a civilization which sells meditation as a productivity tool and does not have words for the worth of something which do not immediately and semi-consciously tie it back in with assumptions of capital and materialism, I despair of anyone who does not simply have it to be capable of gaining the understanding of meaning-as-such distinct from what-and-how processes. Philosopher of religion Jeffrey Kripal insists that such a shift in perspective requires that a person be “flipped” by the weight of bizarre and numinous experiences; a fundamental revolution in many peoples’ way of living in the world is required to let them tell the difference.