Archive for May, 2020

The Eyes of Majnun (Fire in the Wineglass #7)

Today’s lesson explored the story of Majnun and Layla, which I’ve written about in a previous entry from my earlier Sufi journal. In that entry, I focused more on Majnun’s sense of unfulfilled longing as a metaphor which helped me to put a container around my grief at not being able to receive the Eucharist. Today, I want to focus more on the notion of what Omid-jaan called “the eyes of Majnun.”

The story we read involves a caliph (a pope-like figure who like the kings of the ancient world enjoyed an authority which combined earthly with spiritual power) who hears the stories and poetry of Majnun’s longing for Layla. Entranced, he imagines that Layla must be a most incredible beauty, and so instructs his officials to bring not just her but her entire village to stand before him. He figures all of them must be beautiful, and Layla must be exceptionally so.

The women of her community are finally brought before him, and he is puzzled to discover that all of the women are…well, ordinary; “not fabulous Fatimas,” Omid-jaan chuckles, “but average Aishas.”

Looking among them, he finds that not one stands out in particular, and so is forced to call out for Layla to step forward. He is even more astonished to see her step forward: again, while she isn’t ugly, she’s no striking beauty either.

“How can you be Layla?” he cries. “Majnun was mad for your beauty, but you look like a plain Jane to me!”

Omid-jaan grins as he explains, “In this tradition, you’ve gotta watch out, because the women talk back!”

And Layla does: “HUSH. I am Layla, but you are not Majnun.”

The lesson is that only when one allows oneself to become ‘mad’ or ‘love-crazed’ (the literal meaning of the name ‘Majnun’) will one truly see the Layla of the poetry, the dark exquisite beauty of the stories.

We are all of us called to have these eyes of Majnun – but not only for the world around us, but for ourselves. All too often, I myself will see and testify to the beauty in others. This friend is physically stunning and fit. That friend is more physically plain, but has a heart of true beauty and tenderness. This friend is endlessly creative and innovative. That friend is a warrior for justice.

I, on the other hand, am nothing.

And all the while, each friend may be looking at me and seeing beautiful things within me.

We must do our own work, combat our own goldsmiths, seek out our own healers, but also we need companions to be our mirrors, to help us on the way.

We also should never forget that our body, as downplayed or denigrated as it may be, is a friend to us on this journey. Omid-jaan said quite evocatively, “Every part of the body is a friend to you on the spiritual path.” Through spiritual work, he explains, Sufis claim that God may make use of your eyes, your ears, your hands, your feet.

St. Teresa of Avila knew this as well, penning the beautiful prayer, “Christ has no body now but yours.” As a 15th century Spanish mystic she, like her contemporary St. John of the Cross, may have integrated this wisdom from the spiritual communities and traditions around her.

Omid-jaan went on to talk about the nazar, or “the glance.” Many people know the word nazar as referring to “the evil eye,” or a negative glance that must be countered with folk magic. You may have seen the many blue-eyed talismans hung on trees or doorways in the Middle East and Central Asia. But this word is not meant to only refer to negative glances. Classical Islam sees it also as referring to positive glances, and indeed this is one of the most interesting practices I’ve encountered in Sufism: the long, lingering gaze offered between dervishes. The first couple of times it happens to you, it’s deeply arresting, even uncomfortable. We’re not accustomed to looking at one another for such long periods of time, and with such intimacy. This, though, is almost literally a practice seeking to embody the eyes of Majnun.

When I considered how I might look at the world with the eyes of Majnun, what that glance would look like, though, I didn’t think of those Sufi glances first. What I thought of was the way my husband looked at me when I walked down the aisle toward him in my wedding dress.

What struck me so much about that look was that I expected one thing and experienced another. Every couple has a shared language spoken and unspoken. My husband often gives me a certain look when he thinks I appear especially pretty: a look of delight and excitement that involves grinning with gleaming eyes and tucking his lower lip behind his teeth.

That’s what I expected to see as I came into his line of sight, but that’s not what I saw.

Instead, he looked almost shaken, on the verge of tears.

Photo by Miya Cancar.

This shifted my entire perspective on the wedding itself. He is not a religious person, while I am. I expected that for me the ritualized part of the day would hold more meaning than it would for him, and so I was prepared to see him look at me with the eyes of delight that he always gave me. What did the ritual matter if we were already so deeply connected?

This new look, a look that suggested he was deeply, deeply moved, suggested to me that the ritual did have meaning – that indeed, he was looking not at me, the person he had been partnered to for many years, but to someone who had taken on a new image: the image of a wife. Our shared universe had changed dramatically.

What if, I then thought, I looked at the universe the way he looked at me on that day – if I looked at it as not just “business as usual” but as the God-haunted Spirit-filled place it was? What if I looked into the eyes of each person – cruel and kind, evil and good, rich and poor, young and old – in a way that suggested that they were no longer simply beings passing me by, but creatures that had been suffused in light – in the Christian context, having been made holy in the awesome echo of Christ’s death and resurrection?

How could I ever go back to being angry or frustrated or disgusted with them?

Let me be clear, I think seeing the world with the eyes of Majnun is probably the work of a lifetime.

That moment of meeting my husband’s eyes and seeing that look was only one moment. I’ve actually never seen him look quite that way since.

But I’ve never forgotten it.

If my whole life is striving to see that, and I only see it at the very end, I still think that might be enough.

Knocking over bottles (Fire in the Wineglass #6)

Today’s lesson from the Masnavi started with the most delightful story about a parrot and a greengrocer. It actually put me in mind of JoJo, a cockatiel that belongs to one of the women who lives at Hineni House (he lives with her parents).

Like many birds, JoJo is fascinated with his own reflection, and has mirrors in his cage. The resident always laughs when she tells me that one of the few phrases he can say is “Pretty boy!” She’s also told me that he likes to dance, which he does by bobbing up and down.

On Easter her parents came for a socially distanced visit, and they brought JoJo, leaving his cage on the front stoop. She brought him inside, and later sent me a video of JoJo on her dresser, dancing in front of the mirror while she sang his favourite song, which, of course, is “Lullaby of Birdland.” I howled watching it, particularly as the crest at the top of his head rose and fell as he admired himself.

JoJo. Photo by Moriah Anderson

The story of the parrot is quite familiar in this light! A greengrocer procures a parrot as a pet, which can speak with human words, and is a delight to all who enter the shop. One day, however, while the greengrocer is out, he flutters about and makes a mess by knocking over a bottle of rose oil. It shatters and covers the whole shop with oil and its fragrance. Upon returning, the greengrocer, angry, swats the bird, causing the feathers on the top of its head to fall off! The poor thing goes bald, and remains that way forever.

For a long time, it refuses to speak again, embarrassed and ashamed. The people are sad to see it this way, and the greengrocer tries to placate it to no avail.

Finally one day a dervish walks by the shop and the parrot notices him – because he has a shaved head! Shocked, the parrot finally breaks his silence: “HEY! Did you knock over a bottle of rose oil too?”

I cackled when reading it, but what a lovely lesson comes out of the story: Never assume that someone who appears similar to you is in the same situation. The parrot saw a kindred spirit, but this dervish had voluntarily shaved his head as an act of faith. It was not a punishment for anything.

Omid-jaan explains that analogy is a tool used among Muslim legal scholars like Rumi to make judgements about appropriate behaviour when there are not explicit prohibitions in the Qur’an. When a question arose about whether or not something was allowed under Islamic law and it concerned something not mentioned in Scripture, they would attempt comparisons with similar situations. It could be said here that the parrot does something like that, but to his own shame.

You can’t compare the external with the external, Omid-jaan explained. Rumi says that while one reed may be sweet and useful for sugar, another may be more useful for crafting a ney. Likewise, some bees make honey, while others just sting.

More importantly for our purposes, Rumi adds, although it’s fair to say that the Prophet (PBUH) was a man (he said that’s all he was himself), one must not then imagine that one is on the same level as he was.

This isn’t to make him an object of worship, but merely to say that, in other words, you’re not off the hook for your spiritual work just because you’re both human! And even if you understand that, don’t think you’ll arise to his status if all you do is “ape” him without understanding the reasoning behind his actions. The inner self must be cultivated as well as the outer.

To go back to JoJo, whom I and all of the residents of Hineni House love, it’s not that he’s a uniquely beautiful bird, or that he does things that we’ve never seen before (I have definitely seen countless videos of birds dancing to music on YouTube). What matters can be seen in the other photos the resident shared with me: she was absolutely radiant in each one as she held him, and as he sat on her shoulder. What makes him beautiful and beloved among all of us is the love she has for him. What we’re called to do is see through the eyes of love – and appropriately enough, that’s what next week’s entry is about!

“If you love me,” (Sermon May 17th, 2020)

This sermon was meant to be preached on Zoom, but due to technical problems I couldn’t share it there. Enjoy it here instead!

Love is the star map (Fire in the Wineglass #5)

In today’s lesson, we went on to the first of several stories Rumi tells throughout the Masnavi, narratives which I immediately began to think of as parables.

On Wikipedia a parable is defined as “a succinct, didactic story in prose or verse, that illustrates one or more instructive lessons or principles.” In the West we would most commonly associate this type of storytelling with Jesus, but it was actually quite a popular teaching tool in the ancient East, so I don’t personally think it’s inappropriate to refer to these stories as such.

Today’s parable concerned a king, a maiden, a healer, and a goldsmith. The king happens to see a servant or slave girl and becomes completely entranced with her. He secures her possession and brings her to his court, but when she arrives she immediately sickens. The king commissions doctors and healers to heal her, but none of them can (Rumi makes it clear that all of these healers are incredibly arrogant, and that the more tactics they try, the more she sickens).

Finally, the king, deeply grieved, runs barefoot to the mosque and wails out his prayers to God to help, drenching the rugs with his tears.

This is clearly the corrective needed to the arrogance of the doctors, and the king receives a dream that a healer will come who can help.

The next day, the healer arrives – a humble and gentle soul who comes and discovers the ailment: love.

The girl, he discovers, is heartsick over a goldsmith living in a town where she used to live.

The rest of the tale doesn’t go like how you’d expect! The healer and the king converse, and send messengers to bring the goldsmith to the king’s court! They lure him there with flattery, and he leaves behind his children and friends. He is then wedded to the girl, and they spend six months of bliss before the king fixes a poison potion and begins to slowly feed it to the goldsmith. As he sickens, his beauty and strength fade, until the girl loses interest. Finally, at his death, she is freed and falls in love with the king.

I was fascinated by this story and desperate to know how to interpret it, particularly when it ended and Rumi immediately chastises the reader for hating the king! He insists that the king is not doing wrong in poisoning the goldsmith, but I couldn’t fully understand why until I listened to Omid-jan’s lesson.

Omid-jan explains that, like any parable, the characters all represent something beyond their simple titles and individual lives. They are not separate beings based on real people, he said, but represent faculties or tendencies within all of us.

The king is the intellect, or spirit. These things which are often separated between cold logic and warm creativity in the Western mind are not necessarily separate things in Islam. The king is the desire within us for union with God, the one that holds wisdom.

The maiden is the jaan, or soul, a pure and innocent thing which is often subject to unhealthy desires.

The goldsmith is the ego, or the nafs. Omid-jan referred to it quite delightfully as “the Gollum self.” He only wants more, no matter how much he already has.

Finally, the healer is understood to be a spiritual teacher, although it’s not necessarily a figure outside of us. We have that figure within us too.

The parable therefore becomes a story about the intellect liberating us from the abusive ego.

Knowing this changed my understanding dramatically. My first emotion at the conclusion of the story was annoyance with the king. Omid-jan laughed as he said, “Those of us who are Marxists might not immediately like this story! The ruler always gets what he wants while the working man gets bumped off! But it’s not about that.” And the more I considered the story from this new perspective, the more entranced I was by the king’s actions.

The king chooses his jaan (he even refers to her as “the jaan of my jaan”) heedless of her poverty and invites her into a new possible world of delight and love. The intellect is not in conflict with the soul – it desires union. In her innocence, however, she immediately begins to miss what’s left behind in her old world, including this ego, an old love who seems fickle and easily flattered. He leaves behind everything at the behest of these messengers, including his children, not because he desires the jaan but because they flatter him, calling him noble and beautiful and praising his work as a goldsmith.

What struck me most was that neither king nor healer judge the girl for her heartsickness. In fact, they bring her the object of her desire, and give her time to indulge her love – and in the Richardson translation I used, it clarifies “until she is wholly restored to health.”

What really struck me, though, was reading this story with a lens of abuse. If we imagine this jaan-maiden in a sort of abusive relationship with the ego, the actions of the king become heroic. He doesn’t force her to fight her own battles against her abuser. He also doesn’t use strength or brute violence against the abuser himself. Rather he invites this abuser to his place, offering a safe environment to both of them where he can observe them both. He then uses subtle measures to show the jaan clearly what kind of a person the smith is, without judging her choice of him.

Rather than using force and the shallow attraction to beauty, both of which will fade over time, the king uses long-lasting tactics, like cunning. He allows her to see the truth, without forcing her or making decisions for her. He allows her to choose her own path forward.

How awesome is that?

Something else that really delighted me was the exploration of the astrolabe. I was first introduced to these Medieval star map devices through Omid-jan’s book Radical Love. I had never heard of them, and had a wonderful time marveling over pictures of them online. Omid-jan expands upon a lovely saying within this passage: “Love is the astrolabe of the mysteries of God.”

I wasn’t quite sure how astrolabes worked, and somehow knowing that through his explanation made the intent of the passage much clearer. When lost, say in the desert or at sea, one is meant to take the device and point it at the sky, lining it up with the stars that are visible. It gives us pinpoints through which to orient ourselves.

Me with my astrolabe pendant, purchased from LitelLowys on Etsy.

Love, Omid-jan then explained, particularly radical love, is our astrolabe to God’s mysteries. Looking through the lens of radical love will show us the way home, the way to God.

I actually bought an astrolabe pendant just before going into social isolation. I wanted to remember the saying. Wearing it now will give me an even greater joy.

Praise be to God, lord of the worlds, for the gift of love, and for the persistence of our intellect in bringing us to the garden of God’s delight.

Guests of the Heart (Fire in the Wineglass #4)

Last Friday’s lesson was incredibly rich and rewarding for me, but so much came up that I couldn’t get my thoughts together for a post that day. Since then, a lot of my thoughts have been poured into a sermon I’ll preach on Sunday, so I’ll tease out all that was left behind. Enjoy this one, late as it may be!

What struck me right off the bat as I listened to Omid-jan was a notion I’d never heard before: the notion that God creates us in order to better know Godself.

This blew my mind, particularly as a somewhat closeted process theologian! I’ve always considered the idea that God would create the cosmos in order to be in relationship – that would be the Trinitarian within me. But to imagine also that God would want to craft an imageof Godself in order to contemplate God’s own being…that’s amazing.

Omid-jan called this “temporary distancing.” Separation is not meant to be our lot forever. You can imagine how moving I found this considering the times we’re living in.

The first image that came to mind was of a mother carrying a baby in her womb. I can imagine that, however arduous pregnancy may be, there’s a sense of profound intimacy unmatched in any other state of being that’s hard to let go of. There’s no relationship quite like it on earth. And yet, how joyful we are when we can actually see the face of our beloved child! Perhaps it is so for God, our Mother – certainly St. Julian of Norwich, whose feast we celebrated on May 8th, understood this. And while that intimacy may be changed, it does remain, for mothers also feed their children just as God or Christ feeds us.

Another thought that really caught my imagination came up shortly after this one. Omid-jan explained that Rumi teaches us that we must become vulnerable to pain in order to know love and empathy. If the desired state is unity with God and with all things, then we must allow ourselves to become permeable, to have hearts of flesh instead of hearts of stone. Rumi talks about opening the heart, but the word he uses is the same as one used for cutting or filleting meat – it’s a pun.

This on its own is beautiful enough, but what really got me going was Omid-jan’s labeling of emotions as “guests” who deserve hospitality.

I love this idea! To get personal for a minute, I spent most of my childhood being told to reign in my feelings. I was constantly referred to as “too emotional,” or “sensitive” (and I could tell it was always a slur). While it is true that my emotions tend to be big and loud, this criticism most often came out when I was reacting to being bullied by other kids. It made me hate my emotions, feel afraid or ashamed of them, like they would take hold of me and leave me a huge puddly mess incapable of communicating or keeping friends. I spent years trying to silence and banish them, and it’s only been in the last decade or so that I’ve begun to try to understand them better.

Holding a Qatayef, a traditional Ramadan treat, in a shop in Nazareth. The man who owns the shop makes hundreds every day. Talk about sharing the love.

To think of them as guests is so helpful! What do we do when we have guests? We let them in, and allow them to make themselves at home. We tend to their needs, and ask them lots of questions. We are gentle and open and curious. We feed them and give them a safe place to rest.

It reminds me of a story Sherif Baba told us some time ago of a great Sufi leader who heard that someone had made plans to kill him. This man arrived at the leader’s office with a gun, and the leader’s staff, terrified, attempted to bar him entry. The leader said, “No, no, let him in.” The man arrived and shouted, “I’m going to shoot you!”

According to Baba, the leader said, “That’s nice. Would you like a cup of tea?”

The man stood there, stunned. The leader instructed his staff to make tea, and bring in snacks.

The two of them sat and talked for several hours. Finally, the man left…dropping his gun into the wastebasket on the way out.

If you treat emotions like guests, they will behave like guests.

This whole time, I’ve been conditioned to see them as robbers or criminals. I’ve bolted the door or locked them into one room in the house and crowded all of my furniture against it. What a gift it’s been to reclaim the idea that they are too loud and big for all of my attempts to push them away – to me, that means there is a strength within me that pushes back against the injustice I visit on myself, a holiness confronting the adversarial force or shaitan, if you will.

Let me be clear that this doesn’t make me stronger or better than anyone else who is able to tame their emotions or push them down. Despite my struggles I received plenty of strength from other sources, things that fed the desire to be in balance, things like love and friendship. I have been very lucky in life to have these things. We all have this voice, this desire, that speaks on our behalf and fights for us, but for some, it’s not given the food it needs to grow, and through no fault of the person herself. For some, basic survival is all they’re given the strength for – as if survival through any means necessary, including dissociation and self-harm, is a small thing.

This is the lesson we are given by Rumi. In order for others to feed their voice of love, we must allow ourselves to feed and model that voice.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me that those big feelings which I so hated as a child and a teen have given them the courage to speak their own truth. When I’ve made my anger manifest through speaking out against injustice, when I’ve allowed myself to cry in front of others, when I’ve testified to the joy I have in God, when I have given my emotions the vast expansive space they need through creating music and art, the people around me have felt safe to open the door to their own guests.

All of us are called to this, to open the doors of the heart.

It’s not easy, but I think it’s the only choice we have in the world we’re living in.

Wind through the strings (Fire in the Wineglass #3)

Omid-jan’s third lesson in the course focused on the first eighteen lines of the Masnavi, specifically the Song of the Reed passage which I’ve referenced in other pieces on this blog.

It’s funny what extra wisdom you can receive when someone is sharing in the learning with you, particularly the most obvious things! Omid-jan showed us a beautiful ney (reed flute) he had received as a gift from a well-known Sufi musician, and was explaining how these instruments are crafted. Pointing the end at the camera, he said, “You can see of course that this is hollow. Before being prepared for a musician naturally there would be no hole here. It would be filled. The reed must be hollowed out in order to make a sound. Then a white-hot piece of metal is applied over and over until it makes the holes for your fingers.”

The reed, says the song, makes a crying sound, a lament, because it is taken from its home, the reed bed. It is then subjected to pain, in a sense – the emptying out and the branding. But all of this is what is needed to make the most haunting, gorgeous sound, and of course most of the Sufi services that I’ve been to begin with this sound, alone, to remind us.

There really is nothing quite like it. My best memory was of waking up during the 24 hour sema I attended in Seattle around 3 or 4am, just to the sound of the ney. It really made me feel like I was in a whole other universe, one where, as Omid-jan said later in the lesson, “There is no you or I.”

The harp, of course, although not a reed instrument, does have a hollow place: the sound board. This is where the strings are anchored, and where the sound is concentrated. There are several ways to play the folk harp (smaller ones can be put up on tables), but the standard way is to be seated and to lean the instrument back against one’s right shoulder. When you do this, you can feel all of the vibration right against your heart. It’s a beautiful feeling.

Photo by Danni Monks

It’s always interested me as well that the process of electronically amplifying the harp is counter-intuitive. I can’t tell you how many people have tried to stick a microphone right inside the soundboard (and you can imagine that when those people are men they rarely listen to me telling them this won’t work). There is almost no real enhancement of the sound when this occurs, and what does come out is muddy and dark. I’m sure there’s a more detailed explanation for why this happens, but my very uneducated guess is that the vibrations are simply too strong and thick. Each string to a human ear may only contain one note that’s perceptible, but really the tone itself is made up of multiple overtones that all sing in harmony together. Within the soundboard itself, which is somewhat enclosed, I imagine it’s much more difficult for a microphone to unify these tones. Instead of one pure note, you get a multitude, a choir even. One might as well try to mic heaven!

But something even more beautiful occurs with the addition to wind to my lovely harp-jan. When I carry her to wherever we need to go, if it’s windy, the wind will blow through the strings and make an incredible celestial sound. I’ve yet to record this sound but one day I’d like to very much so you can hear it. It’s hard to describe: “shimmery” is perhaps the closest one might get. She has her own voice, her own soul, in a sense, totally divorced from mine, and yet when I do sit down with her, we do become one being, one soul. I cannot replicate that wind-song on my own, and she cannot make my own songs on her own. We need each other, and yet we are not fully separate. Knowing this keeps me humble.

As Omid-jan would say, “It’s all God!”