Maybe you have already heard of the poet Rumi. In the US, translations of Rumi outsell all other poetry books combined. One factor contributing to his recent popularity might be a manifestation of our increased interest in spirituality; or maybe the continuing growth of Islam in the West. But whatever factors help explain this phenomenon, I think Rumi’s relevance and popularity has grown because his poetry is both passionate and playful, and because it celebrates the sacred in our everyday lives. If you’ve never heard of Rumi or heard his poetry, you’re in for a treat.
Before we get to the poetry though, I’d like to spend a little time talking about a few of the themes that run through his work, to give you a brief background in Rumi, and, most especially, to have us examine the ways we might share some of the feelings he expresses. Although Rumi’s poetry is intensely personal, it is also universal. (And isn’t that always the case—that the more personal, the more universal?) It must be; he has managed to reach out to us from the distance of seven centuries, from a place very foreign to post-modern America, and from a religious tradition unfamiliar to most of us.
Jalaluddin Rumi was born in what today is Afghanistan in 1206 CE. His father was a well known preacher and legal scholar, and the family lived in many of the important centers of learning. Rumi married and had several children. When his father died, Rumi took over his position and also continued his spiritual studies. When he was 42, he met an enigmatic mystic named Shams who changed his life, transforming him into an ecstatic and charismatic preacher. Two years after their meeting, Shams suddenly disappeared and this had a profound effect on Rumi; he stopped preaching in public and devoted the rest of his life to training initiates and writing poetry.
Rumi was a follower of the mystical dimension of Islam known as Sufism. Another term for Sufi is Dervish, as in “Whirling Dervish.” Westerners called them “whirling” Dervishes because it is part of their spiritual practice to attain trance-like states by slowly and rhythmically spinning, while at the same time circling around the room as a group. Rumi is reported to have said that he composed all of his works while he spun around in this ecstatic state. It is important in the appreciation of Rumi to understand him in the context of both Sufi mysticism and of mainstream Islam.
The word “Islam” is the Arabic word for “surrender, “meaning surrender to God. For Muslims, surrender to God doesn’t imply only obedience and service to god. It also connotes a kind of yielding, a release that is like the way we sink into soft beds after a long and arduous journey. Another action that is of central importance to Muslims is to bear witness, or testify, to the singularity of God. This declaration is called the Shahadah and it proclaims, “There is no God but The God, and Muhammad is his Messenger.” The word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word meaning “The God” (Al-lah), and refers to the same God of Judaism and Christianity. These two tenets of faith—the necessity of surrender to God and the realization of God’s utter Oneness—inform Rumi’s poems and are keys to understanding his message.
A modern poet, George Santayana wrote, “Prayer is poetry believed in.” Rumi’s poetry is religious poetry, spiritual poetry, and the poetry of the true mystic. In his poems are all the varieties of prayer: prayers of praise, of thanksgiving, and of supplication. Maybe this is the time to pause to think about these terms I use so glibly: “Religion,” “Spirituality,” Mysticism.”
Someone told me that religion is for people who are afraid of Hell, and that spirituality is for people who have been there. (I can attest to that.)But Mysticism, although found in every religion and rooted in spirituality, is of a different order than either. Religious people, even spiritual people, are rarely mystics. The word “mystic” – a form of the word “mystery”—comes from the Greek word muo, to shut or close the lips or eyes. This originally meant that the mystic was one who had been initiated into a secret knowledge of the Divine. Over time, mysticism has come to mean not only a consciousness of the beyond, but also a different way of seeing reality. Mysticism entails a way of looking inward beyond closed eyes; an interiorization. For a true mystic such as Rumi, there is an extension of normal consciousness, a widening of vision that reveals a hidden truth:Being is not what it seems, nor non-being. The world’s existence is not in the world.
Finally, there is a direct experience, or encounter, with God. These are rare experiences given to a rare few, sometimes in a flash, but more often only after rigorous training and preparation. Try to imagine what it would be like to actually be in the presence of God. We would certainly be awestruck, even terrified, and probably mind-blown! Think of Arjuna when he sees Krishna. Could we handle it at all? Yet mystics devote their lives to seeking this experience, because it is this yearning the longing for God that is characteristic of all mystics. Rumi explains:One night a man was crying, Allah! Allah! his lips grew sweet with praising. Until a cynic said, “So! I have heard you Calling out, but have you ever gotten a response?” The man had no answer to that. He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep. He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls, in a thick green foliage. “Why did you stop praising?” “Because I never heard anything back.” “This longing you express is the return message.” The grief you cry from draws you toward union. The pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup. Listen to the moan of a dog for its master. That whining is the connection. There are love-dogs no one knows the name of. Give your life to be one of them.
We don’t need to be mystics to understand that feeling. We know about yearning too, even though it might not be for God. We have all, at some time, loved someone so desperately that we waited by the phone for days, afraid to leave the room and miss the call. Or maybe we’ve felt the unbearable ache of wanting someone who barely notices us, somebody unattainable, who loves someone else. We’ve spent long nights longing for someone, maybe, wanting to be near them, fervently trying to will them towards us.
To Rumi, the Beloved he is yearning for is God. He has an unquenchable urge to escape from the loneliness of separation towards a re-union with the Beloved and to make the only connection that will bring peace to his soul. As lovers ourselves, we can relate to this craving for our beloved. But how can we begin to grasp what Rumi feels towards his ineffable beloved? He replies:I wonder at these people who say, “How can the saints and lovers love the ineffable world, since it has no place or form and is beyond description? How can they derive replenishment and aid from it and be affected by it?” After all, they themselves are occupied with the same thing night and day. Take this person who loves another person and derives replenishment from her: After all, this replenishment, kindness, goodness, knowledge, recollection, thought, joy, heartache—He derives all these things, and all dwell in the world of No-place. Moment by moment he receives replenishment from these meanings and is affected by them, but this does not cause him any wonder. Yet he wonders how some people are in love with the world of No-place and draw replenishment from it.
A teacher I heard of was asked by his seven year-old daughter, “Where is God?” He responded by telling her to touch his arm. She did. He asked her to touch his nose, then his chest, which she did. The he said, “Now touch my love.” She smiled but could not. Some time later he asked his daughter, “Where is love?” She pointed to her chest, as if to say that love was in her. He asked her to hug herself and to kiss her own hand. She giggled at the silliness of that. She experienced the flatness of those gestures and she faintly understood that love requires an other. To me, this is a wonderful story about the mystery of transcendence, about something beyond our five senses. Love, like God, is not located just ‘in me” or “in you” but is “between us.” The experience of God as the Beloved points to that between-ness relationship with the Other.
I have been writing about lover and beloved, about union, and about ecstasy. It is no coincidence that Rumi uses these obviously erotic words, and there is just no way we can miss the sexual and sensual aspects of his poetry. It may even be that we are hard-wired for desire, and that our urge for sex is a God-given taste of an even better mystical union. However, like all spiritual truths, there is a paradox to be found in the relationship between the lover and Beloved:I have lived on the lip of insanity, wanting to know reasons, knocking at a door. It opens. I’ve been knocking from the inside!
I think Rumi is saying that once the ecstatic union of the lover and Beloved is achieved, we realize that in reality, there was never any separation at all! Oneness of God means that there is only God, and that everything is God. The Beloved so longed for and sought after was always, as Rumi says, “as close as your jugular vein.” According to him, as well as every mystical tradition, it is our ego that prevents us from knowing this. When we are full of ourselves we leave no room for the Divine. The only way it is possible to experience God is by contracting our egos. In order to be filled, we must first be empty.
A certain person came to the Friend’s door and knocked. “Who’s there?” “It’s me.” The Friend answered, “Go away. There is no place for raw meat at this table.” The individual went wandering for a year. Nothing but the fire of separation can change the hypocrisy of the ego. The person returned completely cooked, walked up and down in front of the Friend’s house and gently knocked. “Who is it?” “You.” “Please come in, my self, there’s no place in the house for two. The doubled end of a thread is not what goes through the eye of a needle. It’s a single-pointed, fined-down thread end, not a big ego-beast with baggage.”
To the Sufi, self –renunciation is essential, but unlike other ascetic traditions, this does not mean turning away from the world. The only way to see the world as it really is is by merging oneself in it. The world as we know it is only a veil; to understand what is beneath that veil, our senses must be refined and purified. Once the mystic has re-emerged with God, she can see the world as it is, as God sees it, beneath its apparent opposites of good and evil.
Poetry has a power that is not found in explanation. When some wild-eyed guy stands on a street corner, wearing a sandwich board that says, “Repent!” we hurry by. But when Isaiah warns us, we listen. I hope I have opened the gate into Rumi’s orchard by providing some background on him and Sufism, but there is no substitute for direct encounter with his writing. So…
Don’t wait any longer. Dive into the ocean, leave and let the sea be you. Silent, absent, walking an empty road, All praise.