Archive for January, 2023

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

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.”

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)

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.”

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