March 4, 2007

Lately, I’ve taken to listening to podcasts just like the kids. One I listen to is a show from American Pubic Media called “Speaking of Faith.” (Check out the show’s terrific website.) The most recent installment featured a conversation about Rumi, the 13th-century Muslim poet and mystic. Generally when I hear the name “Rumi” I react as did my wife when I told her about the show: “Isn’t he the one they always read at hippie weddings?” Exactly. I’ve heard Rumi in so many New Age-y, “spiritual” contexts that I’d pretty much written him off as not my thing.

But this interview between the show’s host, Krista Tippett, and an Iranian Persian literature expert, Fatemeh Keshavarz, was so chock-full of chewy and spell-binding bits that I feel compelled to change my tune. I like to say I’m religious but not spiritual, in a subversion of the phrase so many toot like a creed.  After hearing the show, I think I could read Rumi with this mindset intact. Here are some excerpts from the show:

Ms. Tippett: Because somehow the feeling of longing and separation from whatever it is, especially if we don’t know what it is we want, that that is unsatisfying and there’s something wrong with that. And yet what Rumi is saying is that, you know, the longing itself is redemptive and is progress, kind of.

Ms. Keshavarz: Yes. And the longing itself — and also not to understand exactly what that longing is, in itself, is very productive. I think one idea or major concept that the Sufi tradition and Rumi in particular have to contribute to our current culture is value in perplexity, the fact that not knowing is a source of learning, something that propels us forward into finding out. Longing, perplexity, these are all very valuable things. We want to unravel things and get answers and be done, but as far as he’s concerned, it’s a continual process. We can’t be done. And that’s good.

Ms. Tippett: I also have a feeling that Rumi is saying we also, though, at the same time need to be intentional about what we choose to be perplexed by. Does that make sense? I mean there’s this poem: “Stay bewildered in God and only that. Those of you who are scattered, simplify your worrying lives. There is one righteousness. Water the fruit trees and don’t water the thorns. Be generous to what nurtures the spirit and God’s luminous reason-light. Don’t honor what causes dysentery and knotted-up tumors. Don’t feed both sides of yourself equally. The spirit and the body carry different loads and require different attentions.”

Ms. Keshavarz: Yes. Yes. I think the energy can’t go in all directions completely in control and you have to choose because you have one life. You have to spend it wisely. So absolutely, he would say choose, be selective, recognize your own value. At another point he says, ‘You are an astrolabe to God, you know, don’t use yourself for things that are not worthwhile.’

Isn’t that terrific about the value of longing? It remindsme  of some of the Henri Nouwen I’ve read (not to mention Paul) about the redemptive nature of suffering.  And, “You are an astrolabe to God” says so much about human calling amidst human nature.  This is, indeed, our vocation:  point the way to God.

Tippett, the interviewer, notes that Rumi’s work seems inherently generous and open to people of many faiths. I agree; right here I’ve found some resonance with Paul, and other stuff I don’t quote here also suggested Christian themes. But, Keshavarz, the expert, doesn’t let us forget about the importance of context (a very good message for would-be hippie brides and grooms to remember):

Keshavarz: I think sometimes people feel that if they take away or overlook the Islamic flavor of it, maybe that makes him more accessible, more theirs. I think generosity and openness is a very good way of putting it. If you’re not rooted in the specific and in the small, in the local, you can never see the broader vision. You have to love a tradition and to be completely immersed in it before you can subvert it and transcend it.

There you have it. Get into a church, even if it freaks you out, alienates you, doesn’t always make sense. Unless you are an insider of the religious community, you can’t engage completely in the conversation.

5 Responses to “Rumi”

  1. Alex Says:

    You weird hippie. Wanna get married?

  2. Brett

    Rumi has a lot to say. I wrote this post last year about one of my favorite poems of his. Thanks for your reflection.


  3. sheepdays Says:

    Yeah, Alex, I’d marry you! 8)

    Thanks for the link to your post, Milton. I love the idea that my love prayers to God are like the whining of a love dog. Your golf dream reminds me of another reference. “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” though not a marvel of the modern cinema, is a terrific allegory of the Bhagavad Gita. If you haven’t seen it, you might check it out.

  4. Songbird Says:

    My favorite Rumi poem, which also speaks to longing, is “Love Dogs.” So beautiful.

  5. sheepdays Says:

    Hi Songbird, if you like “Love Dogs,” you should definitely check out Milton’s post.

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