Feb 05 | The Tenth Star: The Gathering to God (Way of Mary Reading Journal #10)

“O body that has become the spirit’s dwelling place; enough is enough: how long can the Sea abide in a water-skin?”

-Rumi, Masnavi VI

The next two chapters of the book are massive compared to the others! This week’s is about Jesus’s death and resurrection, a weighty subject if ever there was one.

Helminski notes that the early church tended to portray Jesus as Pantocrator, Ruler of All, in iconography, showing him as having conquered death. We have seen that over time, probably due to the horror of the Black Death, artists and theologians began to put more of a focus on Jesus’s suffering on the Cross to bring comfort to those who suffered during the pandemic.

To this day, many Christians struggle with this part of the story: Why did God allow this terrible suffering? How exactly did this accomplish our salvation? Helminski writes,

“Whatever our theological beliefs may be, we witness in the story of this moment a journey through intense suffering and the possibility of immense transformation. …The possibility of a human soul’s victory over the power of death through complete immersion in Spirit, the joining again of earth and Heaven in spiritual nobility and humility of personhood within the palpable Presence of Reality, frees the heart and soul like a column of Light bursting into the Infinite.”

As Christians many of the Gospels and the letters of Paul encourage us to model this transformation in our lives (Matthew 16:24; Philippians 2:5-7a). Rumi writes through a different lens but with the same spirit:

“Whoever shall strive in tribulation for Our sake,

Heaven will give support to [their] feet.

Your outward form is wailing because of the darkness;

your inward spirit is roses within roses.”

(Masnavi IV)

Personally, I find deep meaning in the wisdom-sharing we can trace through the Gospel of John, the most mystical of the Gospels. Starting with Chapter 12 verses 1 through 8, we see Mary of Bethany anoint Jesus’s feet with spikenard, gratitude for Lazarus pouring out in an act of pure prophecy. In Chapter 13, verses 1-17, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet in a precious echo of Mary’s act. If we believe in the Incarnation, this is a shocking moment: God, the Ground of Being, has learned from us. God received an act of love from a woman and modeled it for the male disciples. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea offer the gift back again once Jesus has been crucified, showing that they don’t understand that he will be raised. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to weep, and leaves with the incredible message “I have seen the Lord!” Like Mary of Bethany, she disappears from the story after her act of prophecy. It seems clear that both experienced their own transformation:

“I am cramped like the embryo in the womb…

My mother, my bodily nature,

With its death throes is birthing Spirit,

So that the lamb may be released by the eye,

And begin to graze in the green fields.

Come, open your womb, for this lamb has grown big.”

(Rumi, Masnavi III)

One can then argue that we are called to be in perpetual dialogue with the divine, who has learned from us and is continuing to share the gifts of wisdom and new life with us.

Jan 29 | The Ninth Star: Miracles of Nourishment and New Life (Way of Mary Reading Journal #9)

“Endeavour to gain refreshment from God’s cup of Love – then you will become selfless and have no will but God’s.”

-Rumi, Masnavi V

In this chapter Helminski details Jesus’s miracles of healing, nourishment, and resurrection. Jesus’s reputation as a healer is one of the few things about which all recorders of his life, Christian and non-Christian alike, agree.

Helminski begins with the story of the wedding at Cana, detailed in John 2: 1-11. This is a much beloved story among Christians in particular, although there are many ways to interpret what is going on here. Some see it as a beautiful portrait of the Son of God as one who celebrates love and abundance. In seminary I was taught that the conversation between Mary and Jesus was full of sacrificial overtones pointing toward the Crucifixion, which brings a helpful context to Jesus’s cryptic response, “My hour has not yet come.”

When I read this story now, however, I am thrown into a wonderful ocean of Sufi imagery. Sufi poets constantly use wine and drunkenness as metaphors for spiritual ecstasy and divine wisdom. One of my favourite sayings of Hafez, translated by the Persian artist Rassouli, runs,

“O preacher! Don’t be upset

that I am devoted to the master

of the wine house, for you offered

promises, but he made them happen!”

Helminski, being a Sufi scholar herself, immediately makes the same connection:

“The metaphor of drunkenness became indicative of the ‘intoxication’ with God’s love, and annihilation in God – when the wine, the cup (or the flagon), and the Cupbearer become one.”

Through this lens, Mary’s murmured declaration to Jesus becomes something more than a mother’s pressing her child into service. Instead, Mary, spiritually mature practitioner that she is, turns to her son, master of the wine house, and in effect says, “These people need to take their joy to the next level.” And likewise, Jesus’s answer might sound more like, “What am I supposed to do about that? It’s not time for the ultimate ecstasy of the Cross and resurrection yet.” While we’re not given a sense of his tone, I imagine it as being rather playful, at least while I’m reading the story through this lens. Maybe it came with a wink. However it came, Mary enlists the servants to help transform this ordinary home and everyday celebration of love and union into the wine house, a place where we encounter true, deep, spiritual union. The promises of religious officials are fully realized by God, outside of tidy and mediated religion.

“O You who without a cup gave to the soul

an ecstasy better than eternal drunkenness,

come, if only for a moment.

Give us the blessing of that moment,

so empty of everything

including emptiness.

How long must we wait for that one moment?

Open the lock of the heart,

walk toward the treasure.

With this treasure, you’ll have the answers

to all the questions in both worlds.”

-Rumi, excerpted from a ghazal, tr. Nevit Ergin and Camille Helminski

Jan 22 | The Eighth Star: Losing and Finding Jesus (Way of Mary Reading Journal #8)

“Where is the place of the heart? The heart is hidden…The moment the bright light of the Truth reflects upon the heart, the heart becomes joyful. Then in a moment, that light disappears, but many times it happens like this so that the heart might become a heart. It burns, and many times the heart gets broken, until it melts and only God remains.”

-From Rumi’s Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz (tr. Refik Algan and Camille Helminski)

This is one of the stranger stories of Jesus’s life that we don’t focus on much in church. It doesn’t even have its own feast day! It is included among the Seven Sorrows of Mary and the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary by Roman Catholics.

In this short story contained only in Luke, Jesus travels to Jerusalem with his parents to observe the Passover. On their way home, they notice he is not among the caravan and head back panic-stricken to search for him. The story says he was missing for three days. Where once Mary sought him and found only the empty space of his absence, many years later the shock would echo back as three women sought the body of their teacher and found the empty tomb.

After this seeking, Mary and Joseph finally find him in the Temple, discussing scripture with scholars and baffled by his parents’ worry.

There are deep spiritual layers to this odd story. Helminski connects it to a similar one Rumi recounts about the Prophet Muhammad, who briefly goes missing from his wet-nurse when she approaches the Kaaba to return him to his mother and grandfather:

“Here we have again the story of finding, of rediscovering the shining, pure-hearted one, in proximity with the holy, sacred space of prayer.”

She shares a powerful passage from the Masnavi, in which Rumi has God speak:

“We have great affections toward this earth,

because it lies prostrate in humility…

Its outside is at war with its inner reality:

inwardly it glows like a jewel

while outwardly it seems a common stone…

Its outside denies it and says the inside is nothing;

its inside says, “We will show you the truth: wait and see!”

Its outside and inside are struggling:

divine aid rewards this patient endurance. …

We are the Revealer of the mystery, and Our work is just this,

that We bring forth hidden things from concealment.”

-Rumi, Masnavi IV

Helminski affirms,

“This search for the Beloved is ongoing and at the core of our human experience. …It was here [in the Temple], centered within the heart, that [Jesus] was “found” by the One Finder (Al-Wajid), the One within whose Hand is such abundance of support, who restores us and opens our hearts with gratitude.”

How long so many of us spend searching madly for the Beloved only to be greeted by the playful, even impertinent question: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Where is the Father’s house, one might ask. The religious official is likely to say the temple, or the church, or the mosque. The mystic says, “It’s in your very own heart.”

Jan 15 | The Seventh Star: Journey to Egypt (Way of Mary Reading Journal #7)

“O Beloved Protector, Friend, O Truth!

I, a mother, come to You


softly calling


to come quickly to me

            with Your blessing

            and protect my children…”

Helminski goes on to recount Matthew’s story of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. Here is yet another theme that weaves the three faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together: early and formative experiences of persecution, exile, and the establishing of a new home.

Judaism’s fundamental story is, of course, the story of the Exodus – God’s great liberation of Their beloved people from slavery, the great gift of the Covenant, and the promise of a new home. Not only did this impact the two succeeding faiths thematically, but both experienced their own oppression because of their faith. Many Christians found themselves regularly harassed and executed by the Roman rulers for refusing to sacrifice to idols or pledge loyalty to empire. Likewise Muslims struggled in the early years of their faith at the hands of polytheist tribes who sought to limit their freedom of worship. While Christians built up a reputation of enduring persecution, torture, and execution, many simply fled to seek safety, and the Prophet Muhammad led his own followers on the same path, fleeing first to Egypt and then to Ethiopia, where they were sheltered by a Christian king who offered them protection. They also received protection during their second exile from Mecca, this time from Jewish communities in Medina who shared their homes and food.

Though human beings are known for their forgetfulness, this shows us that care for the stranger and the refugee is at the heart of all three faiths. We would do well to remember Rabbi Hillel’s words when asked to summarize the Torah standing on one foot: “That which is harmful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn.” (Talmud, Shabbat, 31a).

It was not only fellow human beings who offered sanctuary to these three great families of faith. Helminski writes,

“All three Abrahamic faiths are joined in the experience of persecution and the seeking of refuge. And again and again, we witness the natural world rising up in support of those seeking to align with the Eternal Source of Beneficence[.]”

We see this reflected in the story of Hagar and Ishmael being saved by the sudden eruption of the Zimzam spring, the miraculous waters of Meribah in the wilderness, and folk tales of the Holy Family being shielded by juniper and rosemary bushes and also sustained through the sudden outpouring of springs.

All of these stories are illustrations of God’s boundless compassion and care for all creatures.

“God is enough for us; and how excellent a Guardian…

And they returned with God’s blessings and bounty,

Without having been touched by harm:

For they had been striving after God’s goodly acceptance –

And God is limitless in [Their] great bounty and grace.”

(Surah al-‘Imran, 3:173-74)

Jan 08 | The Sixth Star: Presentation of the Infant Jesus in the Temple, Forty Days of Love (Way of Mary Reading Journal #6)

“Until the tender-throated babe is born,

how should the milk for it

flow from the mother’s breast?

Go, run across these hills and dales,

so that you may become thirsty and hunted by heat;

then, from the thundering cloud,

you will hear the voice of the water of the stream[.]”

– Rumi, Masnavi III

After the birth of Jesus, Mary observes a time of separation to bond with the baby and respect the ancient purity codes while her body recovers from the birth. Traditionally, this period lasted for forty days after the birth, and was brought to an end with the presentation of the child in the Temple as well as a sacrifice to God in thanksgiving and dedication.

Helminski links these forty days to stories in the scriptures of all three Abrahamic faiths as well as the time required for the development of a fetal heartbeat.

In the Christian tradition, the Feast of the Presentation is observed on February 2nd, where we light candles in honour of the prophetic proclamation that Jesus would be a “light to enlighten the nations.” Luke 2:22-40 tells the story of Simeon and the prophet Anna meeting the Holy Family in the Temple. Simeon gives Mary joyful and rather ominous news:

“This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

(Luke 2:34b-35)

In Muslim tradition, the story is a bit different. The Quran possibly echoes a short proclamation in the Syriac Infancy Gospel, possibly composed in the 6th or 7th century.

In Surah 19, Mary returns to her people “in time,” carrying the baby. Those who see her believe that Jesus is an illegitimate child, and say, “O Mary, you have come to us with something amazing! O descendent of the prophet Aaron, your father was not an evil man nor was your mother unchaste.” (19:27-28)

Mary says nothing, for the angel who brought her water and dates in the desert has instructed her to remain silent. Instead, she points to the baby. The people are baffled until he speaks!

“I am a servant of God. [God] has given me the Book and made me a prophet, ad made me blessed wherever I may be, and [God] has enjoined upon me prayer and charity as long as I live, and has made me kind toward my mother. And [God] has made me neither arrogant nor bereft of grace. And so peace is upon me the day I was born, and the day I shall die, and the day upon which I will be resurrected to life once again.” (19:30-33)

Helminski writes,

“When God allows Jesus to speak, he manifests [Mary’s] spiritual power as well as his own. It was through Mary’s profound fortitude and trust in God that the voice of Jesus opened, in support of them both, to uphold Truth. …With the speech of this holy infant, came the arrival of justice through Mary’s surrender and love, God’s Love.”

This story, like that of Simeon and Anna, is a story of unexpected and powerful truth-telling, a foretelling of the remarkable life that Mary’s son would lead.


dear Mary,

what Beauty

was rapt

in her presence,

that she heard

Your Voice

and was still –


to Your Will,

and, yet, her own

strength –

with which

You gifted her

to stand strong

before the people

to affirm

Your Holiness

she carried

in her arms.”

Jan 01 | The Fifth Star: Birthing Jesus (Way of Mary Reading Journal #5)

“[They asked her,] ‘You who are highly favoured, tabernacle of the Most High, unblemished, we, all the apostles ask you… Tell us how you conceived of the incomprehensible, or how you carried him who cannot be carried, or how you bore so much greatness.’

But Mary answered, ‘Do not ask me concerning this mystery. If I begin to tell you, fire will come out of my mouth and consume the whole earth[.]”

-Gospel of Bartholomew 2:4-5

(Edgar Hennecke, New Testament Apocrypha, Vol. I, p. 492)

In this chapter we come to the glorious mystery of the Incarnation. Despite the way Christmas pageants harmonize the biblical narrative, only Matthew and Luke contain birth stories, and they don’t necessarily agree on the details.

The Quran also contains a birth narrative for Jesus. In Surah 19, Mary, having already spoken with Gabriel, ventures out into the desert, and while there, goes into labour. She leans against a palm tree and wails: “Alas! I wish I had died before this, and was a thing long forgotten!” (19:23)

A voice responds, “Do not grieve! Your Lord has provided a stream at your feet. And shake the trunk of this palm tree towards you, it will drop fresh, ripe dates upon you. So eat and drink, and put your heart at ease.” (19:24-26a). The Quran claims that the angelic voice rises up “from beneath” Mary, which leads Helminski to connect it to a verse in Surah al-Bayyinah which refers to rivers flowing beneath the Garden of Paradise. Mystics also say that the palm tree, barren and dead when Mary came, sprouted again when she touched it.

This story echoes an account in the Proto-evangelium of James in which Mary sits to rest on a rock on the way to Bethlehem, and a spring of clear water bursts forth. This place became the site of the ancient Church of Kathisma, which seems to have contained both altar and mihrab, welcoming Christians and Muslims to offer prayers to Mary there.

Helminski writes,

“In both the Quran and in the Bible the account of Jesus’s birth, whether in a stable, in a cave, or in the desert under a palm tree, is related to have taken place in a lowly, simple place, with nature awake and aware, the stars witnessing with their light, or the fertile grace of the palm with water bubbling up from beneath her to quench Beloved Mary’s thirst.”

These two stories of erupting springs also mirror the story of Hagar and Ishmael, rescued by angels in the wilderness. That spring still exists to this day in the city of Mecca, which grew up around it. Pilgrims on the hajj drink from it as part of their rituals.

In all three Abrahamic traditions, the bubbling up of “living” water is a symbol of God’s abundant grace. It’s an image the adult Jesus uses when he speaks with the Samaritan woman:

“The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4: 14b)

Helminski writes,

“In the Quranic birth scene, God miraculously provides food and water to Mary (as had been bestowed upon her when she was in the sanctuary of the Temple) just after she expresses a desire for her own death. For many mystics…Mary is an example of how we must die to our limited self, empty out our own egoistic desires or inclinations, that we might be filled with God’s abundant, beautiful sustenance, with the breath of God[.]”

“Our body is like Mary.

Each of us has a Jesus inside.

If a pain and a yearning shows up inside us,

the Jesus of our soul is born.”

-Rumi, tr. Omid Safi

Dec 25 | The Fourth Star: Magnificat, Mary’s Song of Praise (Way of Mary Reading Journal #4)

“The secrets of the Divine Majesty

are drunk by the ear

of one who like the lily

has a hundred tongues

and is speechless.”

[Rumi, Masnavi III: 21].

Once Mary has conceived, she rushes off to her kinswoman Elizabeth to share in the delight of their amazing news.

Before they can do more than exchange greetings, Elizabeth proclaims that her baby has “leaped” in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice:

“And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.’

(Luke 1:40-42)

This moment feels oddly echoed in Luke 11:27, when an unnamed woman cries out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus responds with, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” which may seem like a denigration, but it could be seen as an affirmation that Mary’s faithfulness is something that can be aspired to by anyone at all.

Helminski, noting the similarities between the Magnificat and the Song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2: 1-10, writes,

“So the story of the fertile blessing of Beloved Mary’s conception of Jesus is held within these stories of barrenness of her mother and [Elizabeth] to whom beautiful fruitfulness was later granted, with resonance to the ancient traditions of such hearts as this earlier Hannah’s yearning for fulfillment and a response arriving from their Sustainer. Without even such a need on Beloved Mary’s behalf, her deep purity and receptivity drew such precious fruitfulness to her. And yet it was not without difficulties, without immense challenges to her heart.”

One of the most painful truths of mature spirituality is that devotion and works of goodness do not ensure a blessed or easy life in the material sense. However, one may discover that as one seeks deeper intimacy with the holy, such Dark Nights of the Soul (as St. John of the Cross describes them) may bring one to the Beloved in an entirely unexpected and new way.

As Helminski explores Luke 1: 53, “[God] has filled the hungry with good things,” she writes,

“[Mary’s] practice encourages us to ‘stay hungry’ for God’s Presence. Is not glorification the practice of all the prophets[?] In praising Beloved Mary, or praising the Prophet Muhammad, or other prophets and messengers of God, we are praising the Infinite Source held within them with awe, to which they are an open door; into that Presence of sustaining Love. It is not we who are self-sufficient, but the Divine Reality that is nourishing us moment by moment.”

In this way God can truly be said to be like our Mother, carrying us within the womb of Her love and taking delight when we hear the voices of prophets and leap for joy inside Her.

Dec 18 | The Third Star: Annunciation of the Word (Way of Mary Reading Journal #3)

“Every particle of our being

is a mouth to drink your Love.

Through that Love

even the bitter becomes sweet.”

As a small child I received a beautiful book called The Glorious Impossible, written by Madeleine L’Engle and illustrated with frescoes by Giotto. I don’t remember much about the written content, but I do remember how it began:

“An angel of the Lord came to Mary.”

Helminski writes,

“The Annunciation to Mary calls us to recognize that the creative action of God is limitless. The Gospel account of Luke also affirms this: “For with God nothing is impossible.””

Surah 19 of the Qur’an, known as Surah Maryam, tells the story of the annunciation as well, and parallels Luke fairly closely:

“She said, ‘How can I have a son, when I have not been touched by any man and I am not unchaste?’

[The angel] said, ‘Just like that! Your Lord says, ‘It is easy for Me. And We will make him a Sign for people and a Compassion from Us.’”

Surah Maryam 19: 20-21

It’s tempting to be caught up in the biology of such a mystical encounter and fall into the binary of insisting either that “It happened just in this way,” or “It never happened at all.”

Speaking personally, do I think God could have caused this to happen? Sure! Do I think God did make it happen? I really couldn’t say, and it doesn’t matter much to me. I’m far more interested in what the story tells us about the nature of God, and the character of Mary, the “highly favoured one.”

Much has been made of her virginity, a category which is in itself rather dubious. But surely Mary’s lack of sexual experience was not the sole reason God chose her for this. Her response to the angel, which really shimmers in the King James Bible, says a lot about her:

“Behold, the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word.”

Helminski writes,

“Completely she surrendered, in full trust, to the unfolding of what was to come, which she alone would bear. …We have been given will to accompany the unfolding with the best effort, eyes to discern the best way to proceed, hearts to know by longing, and ears to hear the Words of guidance that have been given through all manner of beings – the angels, the bees, the intimations of roses and wild flowers, the roar of the lion and the song of the nightingales of God, calling us to let go of the baggage weighing us down – the encumbrances of the wayward, resistant ego.”

What’s so fascinating about Mary’s surrender to me is not only that she opens herself to the wild fullness of God, but that unlike other prophets she does not hesitate or say, “O my Lord, please send someone else,” (Exodus 4:13) or “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6). She also freely accepts that if she has been chosen to do such a thing, it’s because God thinks she can. This demonstrates profound ego-lessness. She will do it without worrying about what others think, or whether she can do it prettily or even particularly well. None of that matters, because she’s been waiting for a moment just like this: a moment of ultimate surrender to Love and Love’s purpose.

“Does anyone write something on a place

that has already been written over,

or plant a sapling where one already grows?

No; [they seek] a blank piece of paper

and [sow] the seed where none has yet been sown.

…Be bare earth; be a clean piece of paper

untouched by writing, that you may be ennobled by the pen of revelation,

so that the Gracious One may sow seed within you.”

[Rumi, Masnavi V: 1961-64].

Dec 11 | “A reed filled with wind,” (‘Seed chat,’ Advent 3, 2022)

“Listen to the reed how it tells a tale,

complaining of separations – 

Saying, ‘Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed,

my lament, has caused [humans] to moan.’”

These lines were composed by the Persian Sufi poet Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī, more commonly known in the West as Rumi. They are from his masterwork the Masnavi-ye-Ma’navi, part of the opening segment called “The Song of the Reed.”

In this poem, a reed is hollowed out to make a flute, and sings with mournful longing for the reedbed – its source. Despite its homesickness, this song is an act of bittersweet worship which the reed is proud to offer.For Sufis, Muslim mystics, this story is an illustration of the soul’s longing for the divine, its Source. This story is why, if you ever go to see the whirling dervish ceremony in Turkey, you’ll notice it begins with a solo improvisation on the reed flute.

“Every one who is left far from [their] source

wishes back the time when [they were] united with it.

In every company I uttered my grieving cry;

I consorted with the unhappy and with them that rejoice.”

Locked up in prison, John receives word of Jesus, and sends his disciples to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ answer is coded – he couldn’t send them back to, in the hearing of Herod’s prison guards, relay the message, “Yep, definitely the Messiah, and by the way I’m staying on 1234 Capernaum Drive!” 

It wasn’t time yet.

The coded message includes a list of wonders that people have witnessed Jesus perform. I will briefly note that back then wider society viewed disability as limitation rather than difference, and so the lifting of such so-called limitations was seen as freedom and integration. But even that assumption is subverted as we remember Isaiah’s earlier proclamation that “every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” – talk about God creating accessibility! Today we might re-imagine these transformations as liberation not from one’s body but from being viewed by others as pitiable or less-than. If current society disables, the Kingdom ables, extending fullness of life to all bodies.

This is what Jesus promises, enacts, and, eventually, embodies himself.

His message to John, while coded, contains the answer: Yes. I am the Messiah.

The disciples of John leave to relay this information, and Jesus turns back to the crowds. While the writer of Matthew wants to make clear that John is not the Messiah, they still want us to know that John was an important prophet pointing the way.

Jesus’ rhetorical questions about John might be a bit puzzling, but having heard about John’s clothing of camel’s hair in last week’s reading, the “soft robes” comment makes more sense. “If you were looking for a rich guy, joke’s on you.”

But now – finally – we’re back to the reed. What does Jesus’ reed comment mean?

Well, one answer is that the reed was associated with Herod, as well as mansions and stately homes built along the banks of the Jordan. Imagine some rich guy coming to take in the late morning sun on his waterfront patio only to notice a bunch of people getting dunked in the river by some howling nutbar in a camel’s hair tunic!

So the reed, linked to Herod and wealth, makes sense when joined to the soft robes comment.But I wonder if there might be another, more playful and mystical understanding we can glean from it on this Sunday of joy, with help from Rumi as we draw close to the anniversary of his death, observed by Mevlevi Sufis all across the world on December 17th.

While studying the Masnavi with Omid Safi I learned how reed flutes are made. A reed is sourced, dried, cut, and hollowed out with a knife. Then, to make the holes, a white-hot cylinder of metal is pressed against the stalk, before the whole thing is oiled and cured. An intense process of transformation, most of which involves emptying. This process, Omid explained, is understood by Sufis as a metaphor for surrendering the ego, making space for God to dwell within, and offering up a prayer of longing for the original oneness between the soul and its Source.

We can see then that, in a sense, John was a reed after all – but not one shaken by the wind, tossed about every which way without any grounding. He was filled with the wind, made hollow through acts of worship and purification, and offered that wisdom to others so that they might also become like him.

But he was not the Messiah – only the messenger. Remember, until you add breath, a flute is just an empty reed. And in John’s case, it wasn’t just ordinary breath he was telling us to prepare for. It was the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Rumi straight-up makes this connection, writing:

“The noise of the reed is fire, it is not wind:

whoever has not this fire, may they be nothing!

It is the fire of Love that is in the reed,

It is the fervour of Love that is in the wine.”

Jesus, One who baptizes with fire and breathes peace into us, still points to John to show us a model of faith. But he says those in the Kingdom to come will be even greater than John.

So, friends, I wonder – if the call is to make our house fair as we are able, if the call is to make space through which air and fire can flow and within which a refugee family can find shelter, how can we make room?

Sermon starts at 24:20

Dec 11 | The Second Star: Within the sanctuary (Way of Mary Reading Journal #2)

“Stay close,

under the mantle of Your veil;


is not meant

for everyone,

but Mary drew herself


into Your Sanctuary

beyond the intimations of family,

that she might know

Your Heart.”

The story of Mary continues with her being brought to the Temple for dedication. Helminski writes,

“The story is told of her slipping away from her mother and immediately striding up the stairs of the Temple; she did not look back, so readily eager and ineluctably drawn was she to the Holy Sanctuary.”

Both early Christianity and Islam make special note of Mary’s relationship with Zechariah, as mentioned last week, who mentored her in the faith.

My friend Seemi Ghazi, an interfaith scholar and professor of classical Arabic at UBC, writes,

“Zakariyya offered Maryam a sanctuary and trusted her cultivation of her inner world. The physical sanctuary…was Maryam’s prayer-niche (mihrab in Arabic) located within the Jerusalem Temple, but the literal signification of the Arabic term mihrab is ‘a place of struggle or battle.’ Though we revere Maryam for her serenity, she engaged in a profound inward struggle without which her mihrab, as a site of inward battle, could not have become her mihrab as a site of sanctity and retreat. Through struggle Maryam became her own mihrab, ‘Maryam Full of Grace.’”

In Islam, the mihrab is a niche in the inner wall of the mosque which points toward Mecca. A passage from the Surah al’Imran is often inscribed over this niche:

“Whenever Zechariah visited [Mary] in the sanctuary,

he found her provided with food. He would ask,

‘O Mary, from where did this come to you?’

She would answer: ‘It is from God;

See how God grants sustenance to whom [They] will,

Beyond all reckoning.’”

(Qur’an: Surah al-‘Imran 3.37)

In the Temple, the inner sanctum or Holy of Holies was only accessible by the priest. This was a “thin place,” with a veil drawn across it to evoke the separation between the outer and inner worlds. Helminski, echoing Seemi’s wisdom, writes,

“Beloved Mary, immersed in her devotions…joined both within herself.”

In the mystical branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this image of contained and enclosed sanctity is often represented by a rose:

“What which God said to the rose,

And caused it to laugh in full-blown beauty,

[God] said to my heart,

And made it a hundred times more beautiful.”

[Masnavi III: 4129].

In the season of Advent, all of us are called to our own mihrab. The season of winter is a gift because it encourages us to draw inward and contemplate how light is born fragile, like a seed held quietly in the dark earth until ready to blossom in secrecy. Life needs the warm arms of darkness to nurture it before it can burst forth into light. Mary knew that, if her call was to be dedicated to God in every way, she needed deep roots. Only trees with deep roots grow strong enough to embrace the sky.

“And remember [zhikr] in the book, Maryam –

see how she withdrew from her family to a place in the east

and placed a veil [hijab] to seclude herself from them.”

[Qur’an, Surah Maryam 19.16-17]