A bird took flight.
A flower in a field whistled at me as I passed.
I drank from a stream of clear water.
And at night, the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a tress of God’s.
When I returned from Rome, all said,
“Tell us the great news,”
and with great excitement I did:
“A flower in a field whistled and at night,
the sky untied her hair and
I fell asleep clutching a sacred tress…”
Musing on this piece by St. Francis is a good follow up to my last post, in which I mused on Mirabai’s poem, “A Hundred Objects Close By.” That’s because this poem invokes the “book of nature,” the centuries old notion (esp. the Middle Ages, to wit, Megenberg’s 14th century "Buch der Natur") that nature, as much as books of revelation, reveals to us the sacred depth and meaning of God’s creation.
“The heavens bespeak of the glory of God while
their expanse declares the work of His hands.”
– Psalm 19
On the one hand, the book of nature complements books of revelation (or vice versa). Indeed, as mentioned in my last post, sages from the world’s various religious traditions, some of whom are central figures in these very books of revelation, themselves invoke nature in their teachings: the lilies of the field, the lotus flower, mountains, wind... rainfall. It only makes sense that revelation, which is said to reveal God’s will, be consistent with God’s own creation: a harmony between nature and revelation just intuitively makes sense.
This raises an interesting question though, intimated by this poem. If it makes sense that the book of nature and books of revelation be harmonious, which has more authority, especially in those instances wherein the two seem to contradict one another?
One obvious example, given the theme of this post, is the theological doctrine that creation is “fallen,” which points to the further, logically implicit theological doctrine that human beings are inherently sinful; “born into sin.” Given that there is so much beauty and goodness in the creation, do these theological notions not run against the intuitive grain? Do not the book of nature and books of revelation (in this particular case, the New Testament) seem to contradict one another?
Those who would be prone to defend these theological doctrines can easily point to the “problem of evil.” They may ask: “Doesn’t the fact of evil in the world, from tsunamis to humankind’s aggressive tendencies, demonstrate the truth of these doctrines?” It certainly must be admitted that natural disasters and humankind’s destructive tendencies are undeniable realities in this world.
However, it may be countered, what about the “problem of the good?” The evidence of beauty and tenderness in the creation far outweighs the “problem of evil.” For every tsunami that occurs there are countless fiery sunsets, golden meadows, surging mountains, and flowing rivers. For every act of human aggression committed there are myriad examples of acts of compassion, often unnoticed but present nonetheless - present and deeply indicative of our essential human nature: spontaneous acts of compassion between children and moments of deep tenderness demonstrated to those in need.
Yes, there is misery in the world and people can behave “sinfully.” At the same time, beauty permeates the creation and human beings are capable of profound goodness as well. If we admit beauty and goodness as an equal part of the creation, if not even a predominant part of the creation, then the theological narrative of the “fall” is out of step with the book of nature. Pray tell, what then? Should theological doctrine determine our thinking (and behavior) or the book of nature? I think St. Francis is informative here...
Would St. Francis have sacrificed his fellowship with nature and the “great news” he learned from it in favor of theological doctrine? Or, would he have turned his mind away from such theological meanderings and gone back to sleep in a truss of God’s hair, leaving it to Rome to pontificate on such matters? Regarding this question of authority, St. Francis seems to be indicating that nature trumps revelation, or at least the Church Fathers’ interpretation of revelation, if not revelation itself (though I suspect he would hold to that as well). After all, when St. Francis returned from Rome, the seat of Church authority, with everybody chomping at the bit to hear the “great news” from Rome, he opted to read them the book of nature.
There is a profound anti-authoritarian impulse in St Francis, which could be interpreted as heretical. At the same time, one could also interpret St. Francis’ answer as a simple reminder not to lose faith with the creation itself and that the creation itself, if we bother to read the book nature, is already informing us about life’s sacred depth and meaning. “We do not,” he could be understood to be saying, “need theological mediators.”
Tennyson was correct when he said “nature is red in tooth and claw.” At the same time, he was remiss not to point out that nature is far more often cooperative and caring than it is aggressive (Darwin did attempt to convey this message in “The Origin of Species” but the message was missed.).
Now, I’m off to smell the roses and take in those other “hundred objects close by.”
Beauty is a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed. Think about it. We spend our days in a trance like state. The mind habitually runs like a hamster on its wheel, trotting over the same thought pattern day after day after day. Over and over again we become embroiled in the intensity of our fluctuating emotional states, sun up to sun down. While our bodies crave, from one minute to the next - almost without respite - food, sex, or comfort. With all of this intense politicking taking place within us, it is little wonder that our attention rarely escapes it and that the beauty in which we are enmeshed largely goes unnoticed. Really, who can sit quietly by the crackling fire when the kids are clamoring for attention til our bones ache?
Mirabai frequently poeticizes about beauty. She is reminding us that the simple observation of beauty, if we can let it sink in beneath the internal politics always taking place within us, is a spiritual practice that can free us of our mental, emotional, and bodily habits. She is exhorting us simply to observe the beauty of life - to be penetrated by it - and to let it affect us deep down inside. Beauty, she tells us, can enliven the soul.
I recall one particular moment when I was battling cancer. I had received my diagnosis a couple of weeks earlier. I had gone through surgery and was awaiting the lab results - day after surreal day. It was winter. It was 2am. My wife was asleep at my side and my five year old son was asleep down the hall. As for me, my existential angst was running amuck. Suddenly my attention was drawn to the frost on the window pane above my head, which skewed the winter moonlight into a pattern that magnificently radiated throughout the icy pattern that met my eyes. Immediately the thought came to me: “Fixate on wonder.” So I let that moonlit frostscape became my meditative object. Within moments my angst was alleviated as I felt a conviction deep within me that regardless of my fate, we are held in Spirit's loving embrace. Death, I understand, has a place in the scheme of things - despite my inability to understand this. That night beauty became a testimony to the sacred that largely goes unnoticed...
From the Taoist sages to aboriginal people to Jesus, the mystics have always called our attention to beauty as a testimony to the sacred. "Be as the lilies of the field." How poignant and incredibly deep these teachings go if we do more than mentalize them. Fixate on beauty, my friends. Watch the moon tonight. Feel the air of these cool, late summer nights enter your body. Listen to the sound of the wind rustling through the tree leafs. Let yourself enter beauty. Let beauty enter you. Let your soul be enlivened.
We sit together,
the mountain and me,
until only the mountain remains.
- Li Po
In my last post ("Where There Is No Love There Is No Enlightenment") I wrote about the importance of discerning between realized and unrealized teachers. In sum, it is less important what a teacher professes than the quality of that teacher’s Presence; the extent to which the fruits of the Spirit shine through him/her. Of course, the greatest fruit of the Spirit is agape, unconditional love.
I went on to end that post by reminding us that we, too, are called to embody agape. After all, each of us is on the path to our own realization, are we not? (For more on this, see my next post…) Given this, this seems like a good time to emphasize the point, with a little help from Rumi.
In his poem, “Those Who Don’t Feel This Love,” Rumi says, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.” He goes on to say that the study of theology is “trickery” and “hypocrisy.” The significance of this juxtaposition of heart and mind is indispensable to the spiritual journey and has even greater meaning when one understands that it is also deeply biographical for Rumi.
Those who don't feel this Love pulling them like a river,
those who don't drink dawn like a cup of spring water
or take in sunset like supper,
those who don't want to change...
let them sleep.
This Love is beyond the study of theology,
that old trickery and hypocrisy.
If you want to improve your mind that way...
I've given up on my brain.
I've torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.
If you're not completely naked,
wrap your beautiful robe of words around you…
Rumi’s father was a great scholar and Rumi followed suit. He was trained in Islamic law and served as an Islamic Jurist. In other words, he was an expert in the social and personal application of Islamic theology. In short, his was a religious life of the mind alone. Enter Shams…
Shams-e Tabriz was a dervish (a Sufi ascetic) and Rumi’s encounter with him radically changed Rumi’s life. Rumi and Shams developed a profound spiritual friendship and a deep love for one another. Indeed, after shams was killed (some believed he was killed because of a suspected homosexual relationship between the two) Rumi wrote the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, a lengthy lyrical poem in which he expressed his love (and bereavement) of Shams. Thereafter, Rumi spent the remainder of his life as a love mystic and mystic poet, having come to understand that the path to Spirit was through the heart, not the mind: “I’ve given up on my brain. I’ve torn the cloth to shreds and thrown it away.”
Shams had lit the spark of Divine Love within Rumi and Rumi’s life was forever changed. He saw the limitations of a religious life centered in the mind and thereafter became a lover of God. He wrote of this love in a myriad of ways in his plethora of poems. Elsewhere he says: “There is no salvation for the soul but to fall in Love,” and, “The Rose of Glory can only be raised in the Heart.”
There is a strong affinity between Jesus and Rumi that lies in their eschewing of rational theology in favor of Love in matters of the Spirit. “One cannot serve both Mammon and Spirit,” said Jesus. Likewise, said Rumi, “Those who don’t feel this Love pulling them like a river… let them sleep.”
Jesus and Rumi are thus exemplars of the Spirit and to fail to understand their emphasis on Love is to fail to understand the Presence they bequeathed to the world. They realized within themselves the possibility that remains dormant within each of us - agape as modus operandi. This of course begs a question, namely, how do we awaken to that Love that we might also embody the same quality of Presence as the likes of Jesus and Rumi (They are not exceptions to the rule but prototypes of human possibility.)?
Awakening to Love implies a willingness to enter into a loving relationship with Spirit that is commonly omitted from people’s spiritual lives these days (I mean as a subjective experience rather than as an abstract idea.). Yet consider this. If “God is love,” as stated in First John, does it not follow that God would desire a loving relationship with us? Of course it does, and that relationship is twofold.
In the first place, we are to minimize our egoic attachments to the world and set our minds on the Love of God. Hence, a life of meditation and prayer. In the second place, our actions in the world are to be consistent with that Love. Hence, an ethical life that reflects the fruits of the spirit (see previous post). These two things combined, meditation and prayer, and an ethical life, are the foundations of a life of devotion that will awaken one to Love.
Ease yourself into the current, dear friend… let Love pull you like a river…
There is a popular poem by Rumi that begins:
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
There is much that can be said about this part of the poem, especially about the relationship between love and devastation but I will save that for another post at another time. What I want to discuss today is the second half of this poem:
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
they are given wings.
I have a thing for raptors. I have always been mesmerized by their ability to stay aloft on invisible air currents. Sure, I understand the physics of all this. Nevertheless, I find the sight mesmerizing. Visually, it strikes me as an incredible act of freedom. Indeed, I spent many an hour one particular summer taking in such sight while seated on a butte in the Badlands of South Dakota. This is probably why the second half of Rumi’s poem interests me so much. Those “great sky-circles of freedom” reflect my own deep desire. Like Rumi, I, too, wonder, “How do they learn it?” Rumi gives the answer. “They fall, and falling, they are given wings.”
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird leaving the nest for the first time, hundreds or thousands of feet above the ground, never before having taken flight - falling… falling… falling… before ever having used your wings? What a tremendous act of faith that must be! What a risk taking! What a thrill! What fear! What hope! Yet without leaving the nest that first time, without tumbling into the unknown one cannot fall and if one cannot fall, one cannot be given wings.
Of course Rumi is using this as a metaphor, by means of which he wishes to convey a spiritual lesson. In simple terms that lesson is this: one must let go of what one knows before one can become what one will become. Risk, Rumi is telling us, is the prerequisite for spiritual growth.
What is it that Rumi wants us to risk? Everything! Spiritual growth requires that we free ourselves from the narrative we hold in our heads about who and what we are. We must relinquish our identification with everything from the historical facts of our being to the subjective experience of our being. That is, we must let go of things like birthdates, achievements, family dynamics, financial successes (or lack thereof), and romantic successes (or failures). We must let go of things like addictions, aversions, anxieties, pleasures, and neuroses. These historical facts and subjective experiences comprise the narrative that we hold in our heads about who and what we are. This narrative is our psychological nest. Rumi is telling us to let it go - to tumble into the unknown.
Leaving this nest would seem an easy thing to do but it is not. The truth is that we are adamantly attached to that narrative. It is our identity, for better or worse. Relinquishing it is a daunting prospect. But until we do, until we leave this nest through an act of faith, until we take that risk, until we experience the thrill, the fear, and the hope such leave taking entails, we will not fall and if we cannot fall, we cannot be given wings.
Come! Soar with me!
Such love does the sky now pour
That whenever I stand in a field
I have to wring out the light when I get home.
- St. Francis of Assisi
What a tremendous image and beautiful sentiment Saint Francis gives us! Indeed, the mystics often regale us with such imagery and sentiment, too beautiful even to be believed at times. Yet they intend us to believe them, for theirs is not an imaginative hope with which they console themselves a la Freudian wish fulfillment. Rather, their imagery and sentiment arise out of a direct experience of the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. No, theirs is no wishful thinking but an honest report - sometimes invitation - of and into the reality of Being.
But we doubt our beloved mystics, or explain them away (Modern psychology is a great tool for this: "To those that hold hammers everything looks like a nail," and all that...), or simply ignore them because theirs is not our experience and for what one has no reference point, one will have no ear (or vision, as the case may be.) Jesus said this very thing, as reported in saying 113 of The Gospel of Thomas:
His disciples said to him: "When will the kingdom come?" [And Jesus said,] "It will not come by watching for it. People will not say: 'Look, here it is,' or 'Look, there it is.' Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out over the earth and people do not see it."
The great Hindu mystic Shankara said something very similar when he spoke of a rope mistaken for a snake, regarding his teaching of adhyasa (fundamentally meaning misperception due to past conditioning). In short, taught Shankara, ignorance gives rise to skewed perception which in turn causes one to misperceive reality. That is, we live in a world of illusion and, returning to the application of this fact to Saint Francis, fail to see the love that the sky pours down.
What if one wanted to know for oneself the truth of Saint Francis (or Jesus', or Shankara's) words? What if one wanted this experience as one's very own? Then what?
All that is needed is a shift of attention and enough trust to surrender. That is, one simply needs to direct one's attention away from one's thoughts, one's feelings, and one's sensations; become internally silent - then surrender to the moment. When one does this, perception corrects itself and one sees the reality of Being; the sacred nature of existence and The Holy One that is its source. Is this a struggle? If so, consider taking on the practice of silence...
"Be still and know..."