Archive for March, 2020

Majnun on fire (Radical Love Journal #5)

On Sunday I found myself seated and prepared for my first online service. The atmosphere was muted if stoic. Priest, deacon, and liturgical assistant kept social distancing behind the altar. The Archbishop preached from her home. The organ hummed its way through the melodies that had been chosen. I sang without much hesitation. Why not?

We came to the Eucharistic prayer. I beheld my love in bread and wine, behind this odd little window of lights and electrons. And suddenly, I was broken open.

I started wailing immediately. My husband came in. “What’s wrong?”

Like a toddler I howled, “I c-can’t t-t-take the Eucharist!”

He just stood there, hands on my shoulders, while I bent in half. The deacon gathered up the vested chalice and began to move it away with the kind of solemn proficiency one usually sees employed by paramedics. I was looking through the window into Holy Week for one teetering moment. Mary Magdalene and Mary the Blessed Virgin held me in their arms. They understood.

Later, I pored over Omid-jan’s book again, and found such solace I wrote a new song. He gave me the tools I needed to put a container around my grief.

Several passages of the book made reference to Majnun and Layla. I had not heard of these, and became curious.

Fakhr al-Dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī writes:

This radical love

is a fire

When it enters a heart

it consumes everything

in the heart

even the Beloved’s image

is effaced away

from the heart

Majnun was burning in this love

They told him:

“Layla is coming”

He said:

“I am Layla”

and lowered his head

Awed by this, I scribbled “Who is Layla?” in my book.

I discovered that Majnun and Layla were lovers in an epic tale of unrequited passion which is known across the Eastern world, from the Middle East through Central and South Asia. Lord Byron referred to the story as “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Colonialist, but helpful in the sense that similarly to Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers their lives were destined to never be together. The story is an old Arabic one, likely referring to the Najdi Bedouin poet Qays ibn al-Mullawah and Layla bint Mahdi, his beloved. “Majnun” is actually a nickname he received which alludes to madness, for he was apparently so wildly in love with Layla that others believed him insane.

The most popular version of the story is probably Nezami Ganjavi’s 12th century Persian masterwork, but it’s spread wide across the Eastern world, and Sufis in particular began to use the pair as a symbol of the love between dervish and divine. Layla becomes the image of the Beloved, always pursued, always bringing the dervish to the edge of madness in their desire.

One piece of poetry attributed to Majnun runs thus:

“I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla

And I kiss this wall and that wall

It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart

But of the One who dwells within them.”

I felt myself bewitched by these words, by this concept that felt so very close to me. I sat down and wrote. It was tentative at first; a lot of my sacred songs actually come out quite easily, and I barely remember writing them later. Usually this is when I feel I’ve tapped into something outside myself. But this wasn’t quite so simple, and perhaps that’s because the longing, the desire, the despair, was all mine. God wanted and deserved my love letter.

My heart read Nezami’s words and cried them out anew:

Unleash upon me the saga

of being in love

O friend

Be my Layla

For

I am

Majnun

I couldn’t stop playing the piece. I still can’t. And I can still barely comprehend the truth that waited for me in Omid-jan’s pages just a bit further along, again in the words of ‘Irāqī:

The Beloved is jealous in love

He demands that the lover

love no one

other than Him

need no one

other than Him

Therefore He made Himself into everything

so that whatever the lover loves

Whatever the lover needs

is Him

All this is Him

but is manifest through me

There’s no doubt!

It’s me

But through Him

And so of course, of course I, Majnun, am also Layla. I, the mad lover, am also the one that I seek, especially in my deepest, most unbearable longing.

Perhaps indeed only in the depths of that longing can I fully know.

Praise the Lord of the worlds for showing me this truth. Alhamdullillah.

Veronica (Lenten Music Reflection #5)

St. Veronica is such an intriguing character. For those who don’t know her story, she is a legendary character that tradition places on the way of the Cross, possibly just minding her own business when she spots Jesus being pushed along toward death by the crowd. She reaches out and wipes his face with a cloth, and his image is forever printed on it.

It can only take a second for our lives to change completely. Likewise, God can pass us by in an instant. Veronica teaches me to always have my hand out, because I never know who will need to hold it.

Days for Roses and Jasmines (Radical Love Journal #4)

We are:

Drunk

head-whirling

rogue

love-glance playing

Who in this whole town isn’t like us

like this?

Hafez:

Don’t sit for a moment

without wine

and a beloved for the ages

These are the days for roses

and jasmines

Holy days

-Hafez

These days? These days of terror and social-distancing and hoarding and racism and pain?

Somehow, despite so much, my stubbornness in faith has always continued. I call it stubbornness because I don’t see it as a virtue. A virtue is something intentionally picked up and carried like a joyful burden. My faith is a joyful burden, but only because I seem incapable of letting it go. On the most hopeless days of my life, when I felt the most alone and solitary on the face of the earth, I still had at least some energy for annoyance: Where are you? Why aren’t you with me like you promised? Do you even exist?

It’s not that having the thoughts is anathema to me. I’ve never been particularly concerned with talking “appropriately” to God, because I think God’s quite far beyond the odd little social conventions we have among one another. It’s more a deep inner struggle, one that refuses to let go, that refuses to accept silence as the end.

You promised love. You promised strength. You promised and I shall wrestle you until you bless me. Jacob ain’t got nothing on me.

I refuse to sit without wine and my beloved.

The last few days have been a roller coaster of emotion. Sometimes there have been tears, sometimes a love and a gratitude so strong I thought it would rip me in half. Praying with colleagues over Zoom. Listening to my Hinenites, the women of the intentional community where I serve as director, talk with relief about how glad they are to be together. Catching up with old friends all over the world. And sometimes, despair.

But this is all as one expects.

Look:

love mingles with lovers

See:

spirit mingling with body

How long will you see life

as “this”

and “that”?

“Good”

and “bad”?

Look at how this

and that

are mingled

How long will you speak of

“this world”

and “that world”?

See this world

and that world

mingling

Rumi

Today, with that same sense of defiance, I tidied my balcony. I swept and threw away yard waste and debris. I arranged several pots. I prepared others to receive new seeds. I gave some a chance to burst forth secret life.

It helped a little.

But what helped ever more deeply was a sudden nighttime call from beautiful Eda, Masa, and Seemi, walking together on the beach – and the required 2 metres apart no less!

“Tomorrow is the Persian New Year!” Masa said. “AND Mother’s Day, AND World Poetry Day!”

“Oh!” I cried, full of delight. “Then let me read you some!”

“Yes!” they said. And then Seemi added, “Wait, don’t pick one. First, you say Bismillāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm, then let the book fall open.”

I did remember this from the previous year, and I did so. My fingers found Kharaqani.

Choose wholehearted surrender to God

and your journey home

will be

short

The first time I read it, and indeed when I read it for them, I found the words a bit chilling.

But that’s far too literal a reading, and indeed, even if it were, could returning home to my beloved, hidden in a garden with enough wine to last eternity, be such a frightful thing?

No, the mystic does not live a life of seeking Paradise by walking off cliffs or running into oceans — again, at least, not literally. The mystic does not live in “this world” and “that world.”

There is only the Presence which surrounds us, now as ever.

Canticle (Lenten Music Reflection #4)

During a prayer meditation in one of my seminary classes, I was consumed with a powerful mental image of chasing a beautiful woman in a white dress through a field. She was laughing – this was a game! We were playing a lover’s game. She had come to my window and beckoned me outside, and now I had to catch her. She wanted to be caught, but she wasn’t going to make it easy for me.

This image didn’t come from nowhere. We had learned in another class of the early rabbis describing the Torah as a woman who playfully sought to be pursued in this way.

For all of the challenges I have with Scripture, I cannot shake this image of her from my mind.

She wants me to understand. She wants me to want to understand.

A Jesus Inside (Radical Love Journal #3)

Last weekend, I led a retreat for the residents of Hineni House, the intentional community where I work as director and chaplain. We drove out to a truly stunning Airbnb in Garden Bay on the Sunshine Coast and had the chance to enjoy each other’s company and reflect on our chosen topic: the desert.

We had a lot of time to relax and be together: chatting, cooking, laughing, playing games, teaching each other to crochet, playing harp and ukulele and piano, writing songs, and going for walks. But I had also crafted three guided meditations to help them contemplate what the desert might mean for them, spiritually.

Each meditation was focused on a different passage. The first was Matthew 4:1-11, exploring temptation and what it means to isolate oneself to gain deeper understanding of the divine (something I’ve been considering in a very new light as the world begins to embrace social isolation to combat the spread of Covid-19). The second was Exodus 3:1-6a, where I led them to contemplate finding something strange and beautiful in the desert, and to ask themselves what it meant for them, what it might be calling them to do and be. Finally, the third was a portion of Surah 19 from the Qur’an, where I called each of them to imagine themselves bringing forth new life – and the consequences that always follow from such an action, and how they would respond, or, perhaps, allow the voice within to respond.

This was the first surah I really heard in one piece from the Qur’an, rather than just snippets (usually random sentences referencing peace or compassion quoted by people of all faiths in times of danger and mistrust against Islam). It was Seemi who told the story, woven expertly into an account of her daughter’s birth. I was totally enthralled, and a little ashamed that it had taken me this long to hear it.

In both the Matthew and the surah meditations, I encouraged the Hinenites (my pet name for residents of the house) to see these passages as inversions of the story of the Fall. You can read my exegesis of the Matthew passage in my sermon from Lent 1 on March 1st. With the surah, though, I had found myself caught up short by the discovery that here, Maryam is in a sense providing an act for her son to echo later. Like Jesus she is called out into a deserted place, rather than having a temptation laid in front of her within a garden of delights – but she also finds herself almost reconciled to this tree as she leans against it in the throes of labour. Unlike the tree of life this one is not a delight to the eyes as yet, but as she laments all that has happened to her (perhaps even speaking words that Eve uttered herself as she was expelled from the Garden), the tree willingly gives up fruit for her, fruit that she is welcome to, fruit that she is invited to eat rather than prohibited from eating. And in the strength of that fruit, Maryam returns having borne Jesus.

So too are we called to bear forth shocking and beautiful things.

Through Omid-jan’s beautiful translation, Rumi explains:

“Every task has a guide that leads humanity onward.

There is a pain, a yearning, a suffering, a love for it that has to be aroused inside the human, so that we set out to accomplish it. Without this longing pain for it, no task is accomplished — whether it is regarding the world, the next world, trade, imperial rule, knowledge, stars, or whatever else.

Until the birth pangs showed up inside Mary, she didn’t aim for the blessed tree that’s mentioned in the Qur’anic verse “The birth pangs drove her to cling to the trunk of the palm tree.” It was that pain and yearning that led Mary to the tree. A barren tree became filled with fruit.

Our body is like Mary.

Each of us has a Jesus inside.

If a pain and yearning shows up inside us,

the Jesus of our soul is born.

If there is no pain, no yearning,

the Jesus of our soul will return to its origin from the same secret passageway that he came from…

If there is no pain, no yearning,

we will remain deprived,

not benefiting from that Jesus of the soul.”

None of us know what it is we will bring to birth by love or anger or envy or bitterness. It is only through clinging to the One who is the Source of all Life and Love that we may turn that pain and yearning to good. And even then, it won’t always be the case.

Either way, dear ones, don’t despair. The world has had more than enough of despair. Strive, with sweat, tears, and blood, for hope. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s impossible. In the desert of your pain, fall against the palm tree and strive for hope.

And whatever happens, whether you succeed or fail, listen again to Rumi:

“On Resurrection Day,

all of one’s deeds will be weighed

on the cosmic scale:

Prayers

Fasting

Charity

Then love will be brought forth

Love doesn’t fit

even in that scale.”

Slight delays in posting

Hi, friends!

I had a “Letters from the Coast” entry all ready to go when my faithful old laptop finally kicked the bucket.

Once I’ve rescued stuff from my hard drive it will post! In the meantime, expect another Radical Love journal entry tomorrow!

Thanks for your patience. <3

Maybe (Lenten Music Reflection #3)

As the earth continues to groan under the weight of our excesses, I find myself wondering more and more what God’s plan could possibly be for a species so selfish and wasteful with the beautiful gift of creation. Sometimes I wonder if there even is something out there at all.

Well, maybe there is.

Maybe there’s something so profound and strange and wonderful we could never fully know with our own tiny minds. Maybe the love that thing feels for us would explode our tiny hearts.

We will more than likely never know for sure – but maybe one day it’s possible.

And even if not, I choose to believe in the endlessly inviting nature of this Presence, this Being who desires us in a way we could never understand.

The one constant is love. Maybe that’s all we need.

Holy Play (Radical Love Journal #2)

In late October of last year, I attended sohbet at a friend’s home with Sherif Baba, a Sufi sheikh and teacher. For Sufis, sohbet, which means “conversation,” is an address of the leader to the community. I had attended a few with Baba and his translator and student, Cem, in the last couple of years, and of course those who follow this blog will remember him from my “Song of the Reed” series documenting my experience at Rumi Fest 2019.

Baba’s sohbets are all fire and love and storytelling. Although he does offer time for questions, mostly it is an act of deep listening on the part of students to the teacher. I was caught up, as usual, in the beauty and humour and wisdom of this truly lovely soul.

Afterward, I came to sit at his feet with my friend Samime, and was given the gift of a name. Of course I bent deep to hide my tears, but they could not be hidden. He put his hand on my head, and it rested there for a long time. Samime hugged me. Then Baba offered me his plate, and I ate a piece of fruit from it.

It was a deeply holy experience.

Some time after, outside waiting for my taxi, I turned to find Baba picking his way up the stone stairs leading down to the semahane. He came and stood next to a tree close by which had a swing hanging from one of its branches.

Holding one of the ropes, he beckoned me. It had to happen all in gestures, because he doesn’t speak much English.

I came forward, curious.

He motioned for me to sit in the swing. Although I could, it had clearly been set up for a child, with the seat very low to the ground. I sat in it with my knees up around my ears, and giggled.

He tugged at the rope, swinging me gently. I rocked forward on the balls of my feet, then back slightly onto my heels, then forward again. Now I started laughing. I must have looked ridiculous, but also I thought of how amazing this was, how wild and beautiful to do something so playful and whimsical with a Turkish Sufi teacher.

Some women came up from the house, saw us, and started to laugh themselves. Baba grinned widely at them and, indicating me, cried, “Perfect baby!” in his lilting accent.

Later, Samime mentioned to me that he had spoken to her about how we are all, like little children with their mothers, called to “hold onto the skirt of ashk.”

Ashk is a word that figures hugely in Baba’s teachings. On his website it’s defined as “divine love; a love with no end[.]” It’s meant to evoke passion and fire, the love that binds us to endless searching, endless desire for God. I suspect as well that this is the word that Omid-jan translates as “radical love.”

And yet, in this instance, Baba showed me that while ashk is rather a serious matter, like romantic love it can also be very playful.

This makes perfect sense. God knows that all sentient creatures play. I once saw a grown man bring his pet rabbit to Kits beach and play tag with it by letting it chase him around a tree, then chasing it back. My cat will do the same thing with me around the corners of my kitchen.

But it’s not just that we play. We play in order to learn. Kittens learn to pounce on feather toys. Puppies roll and growl and nip. Monkeys hang onto their mothers before swinging themselves.

Not all divine wisdom comes in lightning bolt bursts or waterfalls of peace and wisdom. Sometimes it’s more like a tickle, or tossing a ball, or a shared giggle.

Mystics, full of divine wisdom, are often noted for this humour. Omid-jan translates a delightful passage from the great Persian master dear Abu ‘l Hasan Kharaqani thusly:

One night Abu ‘l-Hasan Kharaqani was praying to God.

He heard a voice from beyond:

“O Abu ‘l-Hasan!

Do you want Me to tell people

everything I know about you

so that they stone you?”

Shaykh Kharaqani answered back to God

“O my God!

Do you want me to tell them everything I know

about your loving mercy and forgiveness,

everything I see from your generosity?

If I do,

no-one would ever bother with acts of worship,

no-one would prostrate in prayer!”

The voice of God answered:

“You say nothing;

I say nothing.”

This passage was such a delight to me, because a few lines before I had read a different passage from another Persian poet Qa’ani Shirazi that brought me to tears:

My only shame

is this

On the Day of Judgement

I won’t have sinned

enough

to match

the enormity

of Your forgiveness

It was such an incredible sentiment, one I hadn’t actually heard before, that I was caught up short. I pondered on it for a long time, full of emotion. Then I turned a couple pages on and found the Kharaqani story and burst out laughing. Only a mystic, and indeed only God, could lead us along such a bumpy road as this!

So often, there is laughter among us. Sometimes the explanation for it is simple. A funny story. A running joke. But sometimes, there is little explanation beyond the fact that all mystics share a common language, and once you’re among that family, you recognize it and delight in it. It’s almost like being in a marriage, or a very, very long friendship. You know each other so well you can’t help but giggle at the things you know so well, the way my best friends and I once did – and still do.

Laughter is only the response to the play, of course. And as I consider this, I remember beautiful Cennet, one of my other Sufi soul friends, wise beyond words and almost luminous with grace, telling me that sometimes while singing the old hymn “Lord, listen to your children praying,” she would switch out the words: “Lord, listen to your children playing.”

Shabli says:

“The mystics are

children

in God’s lap.”

May we all learn to lean into the playfulness of prayer, and the prayerfulness of play.

Oily Bibles and Oilier Exorcists (Letters from the Coast)

Last Saturday found me puzzling my way through this article on the “miraculous” oil Bible of Dalton, Georgia. The basic story is that two friends, Johnny Taylor and Jerry Pearce, claimed that a Bible belonging to them began to miraculously ooze oil. For the two men, the production of the oil was a holy sign, connected to mystical visions they’d had concerning Trump and God’s support of the administration. People from all over the country came to see it, and made claims that the oil had healing properties, although Taylor and Pearce were always careful to say that the oil was more of a symbol pointing to a healing God.

Unlike the usual grifters, they also didn’t charge for samples or take money from others. Pastors whose communities they visited might take up offerings for them, but it wasn’t encouraged.

The story ended the way you might think it would. Someone caught a glimpse of Pearce buying mineral oil from an auto shop in huge quantities, and while he vigorously denied ever using it to fool people, it seems quite clear that’s exactly what happened.

I had never heard of a holy relic producing oil, but I understand the symbolism. Oil is a deeply sacred symbol in many world religions. I’ve also of course heard of other substances “spontaneously” coming forth, like tears of blood from stone statues.

As I read, I suddenly remembered one of the still images I had collected for a project I’d done in seminary on exorcism. The image presented a black man being “exorcised” by a white man holding a large and ornate crucifix and a Bible, both of which he pressed against people’s heads, or even lightly slapped them. The exorcist’s name was Bob Larson, and while he is not Catholic there are many photographs of him online dressed in clericals and carrying one of these large crosses, which I suspect he sells to people. I discovered then that many Evangelical or Fundamentalist exorcists used tools like this.

Their relationship to Bibles in particular is quite…well, witchy to me. Except that’s not even a good word for it, because most witches I know would never treat a physical object quite as talismanically as these folks treat Bibles.

The crucifix was a new thing though. I had always thought that most Christians of that type would avoid anything that could be deemed “too Catholic.” But I supposed if you already believe in Bibles as magical items it’s an easy step.

And then it hit me.

It probably wasn’t that they had a theology of what happened when one used a crucifix. It more likely boiled down to The Exorcist – the film based on the book from the ‘70s. They were all replicating a ritual handed down to them from the gods of pop culture.

It’s hard to overstate the cultural impact this film had on North American Christianity in particular. The ‘70s and ‘80s were a time when North America was ramping up toward the Satanic Panic, which left thousands of people across the continent convinced that we had entered an era of widespread Satanic activity. Preschool staff were charged with so-called Satanic ritual abuse and pastors wrote hysterical books about the dangers of back-masking and heavy metal music. Buoyed up by this frenzy, pop culture itself began to mirror the interest, as it always does in order to make money. The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, The Possessed, Fear No Evil, The Visitor – these were only a few of the films that came out in that time musing on Satan and demonic forces.

Although the panic itself died down, the echoes of those deeply weird years still ring in Evangelical and Fundamentalist communities, who simply shifted their ire toward other cultural mainstays like Harry Potter.

And, of course, they kept all of the cultural artifacts that arose from those films and bands and books.

I’ve always been interested in the way that Hollywood deals with religion, but I was especially surprised to discover that the influence really did go both ways. I’d noticed that ordinary folks tended to think of a very particular set of images when they imagined what an exorcism might look like, but I hadn’t fully considered that a relatively mainstream Christian movement might be so deeply affected by these things. I wonder if that might have something to do with the fact that nondenominational churches, which make up the bulk of support for this type of work and magical thinking, are usually unaffiliated with higher levels of ecclesiastical authority or even other spiritual communities in general, and in my opinion have a fairly low bar for ordaining pastors and ministers. There’s often not much formal education, and little oversight once someone actually becomes a pastor. Like the oil Bible community, the majority of these megachurches are made up of “consumers” of religion, who go to meet a traveling speaker or speakers rather than gathering at the same place at the same time as a more traditionally structured parish would.

There are clear advantages to this way of doing things, and I’d be the last person to insist that only the highly educated be “allowed” to become pastors and ministers. But one of the things formal education does do for those who are to be given care over others is to insist upon a deep exploration and often deconstruction of the self and its motivations. Seminary does not always do this, and it seems to me that Bible college rarely does, but one can only benefit from being in a community where all strive toward a common goal of deeper understanding of holy texts and one’s own soul. This pulls us from the seductive world of reading alone, and pushes us to identify and maybe even challenge the cultural forces that have shaped us.

There’s a whole other article or seventy within me about the bizarre ways that Hollywood works out its God issues onscreen in front of the masses, but I’ll simply end by noting this:

If I had had only pop culture to go on, I would never have entered the priesthood. For one thing, Hollywood priests are exclusively men. But for another, more important point, it is a very rare film within the last fifty years that portrays God as anything other than a mute and rather sadistic force that delights in torturing those who love him (and, aside from heartwarming and rather brilliant exegetical works like Dogma, God too is always male).

Thankfully, I had what I had been taught about God, and indeed God Herself, to call me into new life.

Claim my Heart (Lenten Music Reflection #2)

To whom do we belong? Is it really only ourselves, or is there something else that has a claim on us, something that calls us to be more than our fear, more than our conviction that we are worthless, more than beaten down and “civil” and quiet and pliable and wanting to go along to get along? Is there something that calls out to us saying, “I want you. No, not perfect you. Not faithful you. Not convention-worshiping you. I want doubtful you. Imperfect you. Boundary-breaking you. Rule-questioning you. Querulous you. Depressed and lonely and broken you. Not to change you, or to refine you, or to mold you into what I would much prefer. Just to hold you, and tell you that you are as I made you, and I am well pleased.”