Spiritual Mentors: Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

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Rumi was born in what is now Afghanistan in 1207, but most of his life was in Persia and Turkey, where he wrote..voluminously. He was a jurist, a theologian, and a Sufi mystic who influenced writing in the Middle East for centuries and has become popular (and accessible) in the West through translating and paraphrasing in modern vernacular languages.

Sufism is a subset of Islam. (I’d call it a cult of Islam, but that word has become so loaded with negative meaning by many commentators that I resist its use.) Sufism is, let’s say, a mystical subset of Islamic beliefs, as Zen Buddhism is to Buddhism, as Kabala is to Judaism, or as Yogaism is to Hinduism. Mystical Christianity also flourishes, and- I believe- has been a primary vehicle for moving The Way of the Christ through the centuries, in its most well-preserved forms.

All of the world’s mystical traditions look toward the revelation of God around them (which is precisely what Jesus stated again and again is what he wanted to do: reveal God the Father).

Looking deeply for God requires discipline; the practitioners of the mystical disciplines are drawn to them by the unquenching and relentless and often uncomfortable desire to know more about God.

And what they learn, or experience, is often difficult to communicate to others. The “previously known” boundaries of what they knew about God begin to blur, even dissolve! There is a unity of all things that defies much of the language we have available to us as humans. Some will attempt to describe the Light they have perceived in poetry, or in painting, or even in dance.    

aa dance aa sufi 5

The Sufis like to dance. I don’t know if Rumi himself was a Dervish dancer, but he would have experienced them often because even the watching of the dancing is participation in it.

Spinning in ectasy. Notice the hands: One hand is up and open for receiving from God, the other hand is holding and giving, sharing God’s blessings received, to others. The headpieces represent tombstones of their individual egos.

But we do know Rumi wrote poetry- reams of it. And that poetry, now accessible to Westerners (primarily in America through the paraphraser Coleman Barks), has made Rumi a favorite of all who seek a more intense experience of the Light. It is the Light which I understand as Christ, which is how the gospel of John describes Christ in its first chapter).

Examples and excerpts:

~from “Say Yes Quickly”

Forget your life. Say God is Great. Get up.

You think you know what time it is. It’s time to pray.

You’ve carved so many little figurines, too many.

Don’t knock on any random door like a beggar.

Reach your long hands out to another door, beyond where

you go on the street, the street

where everyone says, “How are you?”

and no one says How aren’t you?

~from “Unseen Rain”

Don’t let your throat tighten

with fear. Take sips of breath

all day and night. Before death

closes your mouth.

There’s no love in me without your being,

no breath without that. I once thought

I could give up this longing, then though again,

But I couldn’t continue being human.

~A Community of the Spirit (one of my favorites, in its entirety)

There is a community of the spirit.

Join it, and feel the delight

of walking in the noisy street and being the noise.

Drink all your passion, and be a disgrace.

Close both eyes to see with the other eye.

Open your hands, if you want to be held.

Sit down in the circle.

Quit acting like a wolf, and feel the shepherd’s love filling you.

At night, your beloved wanders. Don’t accept consolations.

Close your mouth against food. Taste the lover’s mouth in yours.

You moan, “She left me.” “He left me.” Twenty more will come.

Be empty of worrying. Think of who created thought!

Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?

Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. Live in silence.

Flow down and down

in always widening rings of being.

All of these are from the collection-‘Selected Poems” (Penguin Classics), translated by Coleman Barks with John Moyne. Many, many Rumi collections are in in print and available wherever books are sold. Well, maybe not..everywhere. But most places!)

Many of Rumi’s poems are not so easily understood at first. In that regard they are like Zen koans; they open the door to contemplation and thought on “heavenly” things or, at minimum, thoughts outside of one’s own jabbering ego-mind. So, call them poems of Sabbath, of rest and reflection.

And Light.

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Merry Xmas

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John 13:34-35   “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
This command was made by Jesus on the night before his arrest, the day before his trial and crucifixion. His disciples were gathered with him in the Upper Room. A bit earlier he had demonstrated to them the radical notion that Love was not only a noun, but a verb. He did that by washing their feet- the lowest task that could be imagined by anyone at the time.
Now, he had begun to tell them specifically about what would be happening in the coming hours. He knew the game was on. He knew there was a conspirator in their midst. He knew the end was soon coming.

These are last hour instructions, the summation of everything the disciples have heard Jesus say during the last 2-3 years. “Remember me” he has said over and over as he served them their Last Supper together. Remember what you have seen and what you have heard; go and do likewise.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

“If you love one another..everyone will know you are my disciples.”

The Way behind Jesus, the path upon which he invited, and invites, his disciples to follow him, is simple: Love God, and love your neighbor.

It is so simple, but it is also dangerous. It takes a great deal of self-denial and humility. It takes a willingness to give time, give resources, and give that which seems most elusive at times- hope. It takes courage.

That “substance” of being disciple has been redefined by those who, and I will say it straight out: The substance of being a disciple has been replaced, redefined, and reworked by those who want to be disciples but do not have the courage.

They do not have the courage to wash feet- to do the dirty, humiliating, hands-on work that Jesus demonstrated was necessary again and again.

They do not have the courage to see the person in need, pick him up from the ditch, pay for his care, then offer the caretaker more when he returns nor are they willing to stand between a woman in trouble and hypocritical bullies ready to throw rocks.

We are about to see what has become a yearly onslaught by those tip-toeing, fearful wannabe disciples, as the Xmas season begins. We are about to see the difficult substance of being a follower of Jesus denigrated,  as the easily spoken words about being a Christian- are lifted up as

The. Most. Important. Thing.

Form over Substance.

An easy, outward and very visible example: The use of the X in the word “mas.”  I remember my aunts fussing about this one Xmas decades ago, and it was something which I then took on as a personal crusade, even as a kid. It seemed dishonoring of Christ, to replace him with an X.

But then, years later, I learned that following Christ was not about words, or form, it was about doing, and being, and following. Here’s what else I learned:

X is the Greek letter Chi. It is the first letter of the word “Christ.” It began to be used early on by those hundreds of stenographers who laboriously copied the manuscripts of Matthew, Mark, Luke John, Paul, and many others of the early church fathers.

X was also rumored to mark the meeting places in the Roman catacombs where believers and followers of The Way would gather. These were largely illiterate folks, remember. With every X they scratched on the wall of a catacomb they were honoring their Savior, as they were when they would trace Xs in the dirt with their feet when meeting others along Roman roads. Oddly, every time I write the Chi– the X– I feel like I am in a tiny way honoring those many, many illiterate peasants and others, who moved Christ through those first centuries with their stories, their presence, their deeds, and their gatherings together in times which demanded real and raw courage.

X was such a commonly used name for Christ that Constantine, in the year 325, the year he proclaimed the Roman Empire to be the Holy Roman Empire, took the Chi, added a Rho- C,R- and made it into a symbol on his soldier’s shields and flags. An unfortunate day in Christian history, perhaps, but not one which meant to dishonor the Christ at all! Later, in the 1500s, X enjoyed something of a revival when movable type began to be used- the Gutenberg and other presses, you know? Since every single letter of a document or page had to be carved out of wood or fashioned from rock or metal, it became desirable for printers, whenever possible, to shorten words, a kind of printed shorthand. There are many instances, for instance of the The Lord’s prayer and other familiar texts being printed without vowels to save tremendous labor.

How is X-M-A-S pronounced? It has always been pronounced “Christmas.” “Christmas” itself is a slightly shortened version of “Christ’s Mass”- Mass, a worship service.

X is NOT dishonoring. It is traditional. It does not make Christ any less holy than do the letters C H R I S T, which are also merely symbols that are used to communicate the person and office of Jesus the Christ.

But this is only one tiny however obvious element of faith that those who celebrate form over substance will quibble with. Words- the proper use of words seems to reign supreme in the religion of many. It is, after all, so much easier to talk about words, than it is to allow oneself to be transformed by the Word made flesh, and lying in a feed trough in a stable. It is so much easier to talk about how much you love Jesus than it is to do something, anything, sacrificially to help a neighbor in need.

 “The War on Christmas” is another headline and argument that is evidence of the superficiality of the religion of many. “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” becomes the significant theological and spiritual benchmark as people seek to measure the “Christianity” of others.

Several years ago, a major Dallas Church established the Grinchalert. com website where people could tattle on various businesses that weren’t using the right words, the right holy-sounding words in the conduct of their business. Consumers could write into the site and express their outrage or pleasure over how they had been spoken to or how they felt while doing business. They could label their experiences as “Naughty” or “nice.”

 I quote from the Dallas Morning News: “The comments come from not only Texas but nationwide. A resident in Tulsa commented that the city voted to change the name of its Christmas parade to Holiday Parade of Lights. So Tulsa’s on the naughty list.

So are Sears and K-Mart in Grand Junction, Colo., because employees say “Happy Holidays” and not “Merry Christmas” when selling Christmas trees.
Target made both the naughty and nice lists. One shopper disliked the lack of items with religious references to Christmas. [Naughty] But another shopper from Appleton, Wis., commented that Target displayed large “Merry Christmas” signs above the checkout lines.” [Nice]
Unquote. Oh my.

“Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

One might ask, “Where’s the love?” in such a website, such an outward, silly, potentially unfair, and distracting endeavor? And it’s a good question. My answer is that there is no love at all to be found, except for the veneer thin love of right-sounding words.

OK, so what  is the substance of Xmas, then? If substance is far far far more important than form, what is the meaning, the substance, of Xmas?
The substance of Xmas is the same substance that should fill every day- Thanksgiving, The fourth of July, Labor Day, the first, second, and 83rd days of summer, Election Day, and our birthdays- all of them. The substance is the human manifestation of the divine, a manifestation which Jesus revealed, then went on to further reveal could be manifested in each person who followed him. 

He was born a baby, not an angel. He grew up as a child, a child who had some inkling of his Father’s business, as he said, but as a child who played, laughed, depended on his parents, became an adult, and learned. Just like the rest of us. He had a job, observed all the outward forms of his Jewish faith- Bar Mitzvah, Sabbath prayers, Passover- and then, one day, after hearing the preaching of his cousin John the Baptist, woke up.

He awakened to his Christ-ness, his role, his full humanity and his full divinity. He fought that role in the wilderness, but overcame the very real opportunity he had to retreat into the easy and popular choices available to him. Instead, he moved into the world, for the world.

As the Apostle Paul would later write, day by day he took on the form of a servant, eventually becoming that highest form of a servant- one who washes feet- one who puts all others ahead of himself, one who would go so far as to serve a meal to his betrayers. And then beyond.

Beyond.

He called others to follow him, and frustrating as it must have been, he allowed them- his disciples- to keep following him even as they continually fell back into their own cultural biases of pride seeking, judgment, discrimination, and jealousy.

He reached through his own barriers of prejudice toward those who were unwanted, unlovable, and unknown to all but his father. He said, “Love God” and then showed those disciples how to do that by loving your neighbor in the same breath.

He scorned those who were obsessed with form: “You whitewashed tombs,”  he called them, “so beautiful on the outside, but full of dead men’s bones on the inside.” But he loved them anyway, even the ones who would try him, condemn him, nail him, stab him, taunt him, and be glad when he was finally dead so they could go home.

He died in perfect and ultimate servanthood.

That’s the substance.

X marks the spot. X is the mark on each of his disciples, imperfect though they and we are. X is our call to celebrate, not denigrate. X is our call to include, not separate. X is our reason for being, all the time. Not just for this season or any season.

So, Happy Holidays! And..

Merry Xmas.

David Weber, November 26, 2012

The Dilemma of Death (part 6 of a series)

“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.” (Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, The Free Press, 1973, p.26)

I watch my dogs lying in the early afternoon sun. They are on their sides, utterly relaxed into the small variations in grade beneath them. A dandelion clump pressed against a ribcage does not seem to have the power over them that the corner of a misplaced pillow might have over me. Both of them are asleep within moments of lying down, utterly at ease in a safe place with their “pack” (myself, the other dog, and the cat who will occasionally make an appearance). They sleep as if they have been very busy all morning, like they’ve been running and running and are now exhausted. But they have not been especially busy at all. This is how they always rest- wholly and completely, without a single anxious thought about the future gnawing at their psyche. What looks like exhaustion to us is, in fact, perfect relaxation, complete wholeness between the dogs’ consciousness and physical bodies, without a single thought toward “splendid uniqueness.”

“The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self consciousness that goes with it.” (ibid.) In other words, animals have no awareness of the one way journey through physical life which they, like everything else, are on. They give no regard to their own Death; they are not anxious about tomorrow. (Tomorrow? What is that anyway?) Obviously, on some level, carnivorous animals are aware that the physical death of their foodstuff is a desirable state. And it may well be that some animals- dolphins and elephants come to mind- may recognize a consciousness within themselves that is finite. But humans are the only ones who institutionalized the awareness of Death Impending. Humans are the only animals who allow “Death’s second self” (That’s Shakespeare for Sleep) to be interrupted, ever, by thoughts of Dying. Humans are the only ones who can become neurotic about the prevention of things which might be harmful enough to cause death, or who are able to be addicted to substances which alleviate- in always failing measure- their preoccupations with Death.

Every faith tradition has some dogmatic and/or doctrinal tenets that deal with the awareness of Death with which all humans live. All faith traditions acknowledge the pain- fallenness, insanity, suffering- that accompanies this awareness of Death, and the vital need for acceptance of both that awareness and of Death itself. In lieu of that acceptance, the adherents of some faiths are given the option, within their faith’s teachings, of looking beyond death, into eternity. (I’m not here in this series to judge the content of various end of life scenarios, only to acknowledge that do exist and perform vital functions in the whole lives of many persons and communities.

The commonality of our pain takes different specific forms but all of them have dirt in common. All of our lives, after Death, end up in some way, in the dirt. As ashes, or sealed within a metal vacuum which slows down but does not stop the process of decomposition, or laid directly onto the dirt which begins immediately to absorbs the liquids and fats of life, dirt is our bed, sometimes quickly, always eventually.

It is dirt over which we stand in “towering majesty.” It is dirt which contrasts so harshly with our names, our perceptions of our Selves, and the legacy we imagine ourselves leaving behind. It is dirt which covers our face to the world and finally blocks the world to our face.

Dirt is just..so damn final!

And that’s our dilemma. It is a dilemma for every human being on earth, too, and has been since the very first time human consciousness reached into an imagined future and put the 2+2 of life and death together. It added up to dirt then and adds up to dirt now, despite all kinds of conveyances, rituals, religions, and proposed alternative scenarios which have been placed in front that final “resting place.” (And note that phrase- “resting place.” It is one of many, many, many phrases and words used about Death which attempt to take a little bit of Death’s sting away.)

Elysian Fields await, beyond the River Styx, near the New Jerusalem, in the sweet by and by. We’ll visit some of those places and see what they might reveal about our fears, and our hopes.