Mar 13 2020
by Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi
English version by Jonathan Star
If someone asks,
“What does perfect beauty look like?”
Show him your own face and say,
If someone asks,
“What does an angel’s wing look like?” — smile.
If he asks about divine fragrance
Pull him close, his face in your hair,
If someone asks,
“How did Jesus bring the dead back to life?” —
Don’t say a word —
just kiss him softly on the cheek,
If someone asks,
“How does it feel to be slain by love?”
Close your eyes and tear open your shirt,
If someone asks about my stature,
Stare into space with your eyes wide open,
The soul enters one body, then another.
If someone argues about this
Enter my house and wave him good-bye,
I am the storehouse of all pleasure,
I am the pain of self-denial.
To see me, lower your eyes to the ground
Then raise them up to heaven,
Only the gentle breeze
Knows the secret of union.
Listen as it whispers a song to every heart,
If someone asks,
How does a servant attain the glory of God?
Become the shining candle
That every eye can see,
I asked about Joseph’s perfume
Which rode the wind from city to city —
It was your scent
Blowing in from God’s perfect world,
I asked how Joseph’s perfume
Gave sight to the blind —
It was your breeze
Clearing the darkness from my eyes,
Perhaps Shams will be generous
And fill our hearts with love.
Perhaps he will raise one eyebrow
And cast us a glance,
— from Rumi: In the Arms of the Beloved, by Jonathan Star
/ Image by Fadzly Mubin /
I was considering holding off on sending out a poem this week. I’ve been busy with my day job and rather tired, but mostly there are such important concerns demanding our attention — people are anxious about the coronavirus pandemic and, in the US, the elections. I don’t want to ignore these issues and share poems that can feel disconnected from people’s real worries.
Of course, poetry, especially sacred poetry, is not disconnected or merely ornamental. Poetry speaks to the heart of the matter much better than any headline. Poetry reminds us of our humanity… and our divinity. It is an exploration of feeling and perception and reality. It leads us into an open field with unanticipated possibilities. It is our companion in grief and fear, and it gives us words for our exultation and raptures. Poetry allows us to be more fully ourselves. It invites us to fill out our lives with a richer sense of who we are.
So more poetry not less.
Have a beautiful weekend. Be appropriately aware and cautious, but don’t give in to paranoia. The real sickness being spread by this disease is a breakdown of human connection within society. Find a healthy balance that keeps a warm, supportive sense of community alive.
|Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi|
Rumi was a war refugee and an asylum seeker. He was born in Balkh, in what is today Afghanistan. While he was still a child his family moved all the way to Konya in Asia Minor (Turkey). They moved to flee from Mongol invaders who were beginning to sweep into Central Asia. Konya, far to the west of the invaded territories, became one of the major destinations for expatriates to settle, turning the city into a cosmopolitan center of culture, education, and spirituality. (These lands were part of the Persian Empire, so, while he lived most of his life in what is today called Turkey, culturally he was Persian.)
In fact, Rumi wasn’t the only famous Sufi teacher living in Konya at the time. The best known spiritual figure in Konya at the time was not Rumi, but the son-in-law of the greatly respected Sufi philosopher ibn ‘Arabi. The wonderful Sufi poet Fakhruddin Iraqi also lived in Konya at the same time as Rumi.
“Rumi” was not his proper name; it was more of a nickname. Rumi means literally “The Roman.” Why the Roman? Asia Minor (Turkey) was referred to as the land of the Rum, the Romans. The Byzantine Empire, which had only recently been pushed back to a small area of control around Constantinople, was still thought of as the old Eastern Roman Empire. Rumi was nicknamed the Roman because he lived in what was once the Eastern Roman Empire. …But not everyone calls him Rumi. In Afghanistan, where he was born, they call him Balkhi, “the man from Balkh,” to emphasize his birth in Afghanistan.
Rumi’s father was himself a respected religious authority and spiritual teacher. Rumi was raised and educated to follow in his father’s footsteps. And, in fact, Rumi inherited his father’s religious school. But this was all along very traditional lines. Rumi was already a man with religious position when he first started to experience transcendent states of spiritual ecstasy. This created a radical upheaval, not only in himself, but also within his rather formal spiritual community as everyone tried to adjust to their leader’s transformation.
One more note about Rumi’s father: It was only after his death that some of the father’s private writings were discovered, revealing that he himself was also a profound mystic, though he had kept this part of himself private, apparently even from his son Rumi.
Many of Rumi’s poems make reference to the sun. This always has layered meaning for Rumi since he was deeply devoted to his spiritual teacher Shams of Tabriz… as the name Shams means “the sun.” The sun for Rumi becomes the radiance of God shining through his beloved teacher.
The spiritual bond between Rumi and Shams was profound, but the two individuals were very different. Rumi was a member of the educated elite within the urban expatriate community, while Shams was a poor wandering mystic who rarely stayed in one place long. Shams would often disappear unexpectedly, then return months later. Many of Rumi’s family and students were jealous of Shams, resenting the closeness he shared with their master. Finally, Shams disappeared, never to return. Some believe that he was actually kidnapped and murdered, possibly by Rumi’s own sons! Or he may have simply followed his dervish nature and journeyed on, never to return to Konya.
You’ve heard of “whirling dervishes,” right? Not all Sufis practice that spinning meditative dance. That is specific to the Mevlana Sufis, founded by — yes, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi. The story is told that Rumi would circle around a column, while ecstatically reciting his poetry. The spinning is a meditation on many levels. It teaches stillness and centeredness in the midst of movement. One hand is kept raised to receive from heaven, the other hand is kept lowered to the earth, thus the individual becomes a bridge joining heaven and earth.