Rabi’a’s poetry tackles the reality of death. She doesn’t find it frightening, but nor does she long for it as an escape route from her difficult circumstances. Death will simply and beautifully bring her to her Beloved. It may feel like an interruption of the Easter joy, but it is simply another side of it.

A prayer

Kill my ego, God,

the empty, troublemaking

version of myself.

Burn away the darkness

of my false self

and then my true Self

will shine like sunlight.

Dissolve my ego

into the Being

who is everything.

 

“Cherish Myself”

I know how it will be when I die,

my beauty will be so extraordinary that God will worship me.

He will not worship me from a distance, for our minds will have wed,

our souls will have flowed into each other.

How to say this: God and I

will forever cherish

Myself.

“Die before you die,” the Prophet Mohammed said and Rabi’a took to heart. The prayer I shared is a reflection of her desire to live by that teaching, which echoes that of Jesus: “Unless a grain of what shall die, it remains but a single grain.” It is a question humans have wrestled with for thousands of years: How do we do that?

Rabi’a’s two reflections here – the prayer and the poem – offer a contrast of methods. The first method, of “killing the ego” isn’t a truly holy one, but for thousands of years, it was thought to be the only one. Self-abuse and self-sacrifice dominated the spiritual path to holiness. What else were the fires of hell and flames of purgatory for, but to “burn away the darkness” that kept us from the everlasting Light?

But there has always been another way, revealed by the mystics and sages throughout the ages and the second poem reveals the secret. Dissolving into Love, we become one with God, so we do not need to deny, or destroy any part of ourselves. We simply have to let Love do the work of loving us – all of us – bringing the darkness into the light. The Love of the Divine does not reject any of it, not the wounds, the scars, the pain. If God really is all powerful, then we have nothing to fear.

A final reminder from Rabi’a: “So beautiful my death appeared – knowing who then I would kiss, I died a thousand times before I died… I was born [again] when all I once feared – I could love.”

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Though Rumi may be the most popular Sufi poet, he was preceded by hundreds of years by Rabi’a, a revered Islamic saint and Sufi. I didn’t want to let this final week go by without including some of her beautiful work.

 

“It Acts Like Love”

It acts like love – music,

it reaches toward the face, touches it, and tries to let you know

His promise: that all will be okay.

 

It acts like love – music, and

tells the feet, “You do not have to be so burdened.”

 

My body is covered with wounds

this world made,

but I still longed to kiss Him, even when God said,

“Could you also kiss the hand that caused

each scar,

for you will not find me until

you do.”

 

It does that – music – helps us

to forgive.

 

As a young woman, Rabi’a was forced into slavery. You can imagine what that meant for her as a woman, but her state in life never determined the state of her soul. All her poems, especially the erotic ones, proclaim her truth: “Never once did God look at me as if I were impure.” Rather, she encouraged other women on their path: “Dear sisters, all we do in this world, whatever happens, is bringing us closer to God.”

What I most appreciate about Rabi’a is that she found her voice and used it. Against overwhelming odds, this woman found her way to Love, even though her life belonged to the men who purchased her. That Love gave her a new Life, which could never be determined by her circumstances. To find such purpose and healing in music is surely a sign of spiritual freedom and depth most of us can only long for.

What is the music that moves you like Rabi’a?

What song insists that you dance? What melody calms your soul? What moves you to forgive not just humanity, but even God?

 

 

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A final poem by Rumi.

 

“Surrender”

Joseph is back.

And if you don’t feel yourself

in the freshness of Joseph,

be Jacob.

 

 

Weep, and then smile.

Do not pretend to know something

you have not experienced.

 

 

There is a necessary dying,

and the Jesus is breathing again.

 

 

Very little grows on jagged rock.

Be ground. Be crumbled,

so wildflowers will come up

where you are.

 

 

You have been stony for too many years.

Try something different. Surrender.

 

Again we hear about Joesph, a beloved figure in Rumi’s iconography and this time we are be able to place him in the Judeo-Christian tradition, along with Jacob and Jesus. It’s easy to forget that Sufism, and its parent religion, Islam, also honor the Hebrew scriptures, since they are one of the world’s three monotheistic religions. In this Easter season, Rumi’s references to Jesus are as welcome as they are surprising and with his outsider’s lens, we are able to see Jesus’ actions anew.

I read and reread the last two stanzas over and over again. We are invited to imitate, not just celebrate the universal pattern of death and resurrection.

It is so easy to remain stony, jagged ground. That is precisely what we have been taught: to defend what is ours, to protect what we have earned, to get what we “deserve,” to eliminate discomfort, to cultivate only the seeds we have planted.

But that was not Jesus’ message – not the one he taught, nor the one he exemplified with his life. He surrendered and became fertile ground. Wildflowers were his harvest, along with mustard trees, vineyards, wheat and weeds.

I want to have the courage to “be crumbled” as he was and poetry like this helps me remember that wanting. Without it, I become stony and jagged again.

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In some Christian nations, Easter Monday is a national holiday, a day to recover and recollect on the significance of the holy day that preceded it. No such day exists in the States, but that’s no reason for us not to continue our Easter reflections! Here are a few more poems by Rumi, celebrating new life and the splendor of our lived existence.

 

“This Day”

This is not a day for asking questions,

not a day on any calendar.

This day is conscious of itself.

This day is a lover, bread and gentleness.

 

“Rumi, Pay Homage”

If God said,

“Rumi, pay homage to everything

that has helped you

enter my

arms,”

there would not be one experience of my life,

not one thought, not one feeling,

not any act, I

would not

bow

to.

 

“Filled”

I am filled with You.

Mere existence is a dance of joy.

Skin, blood, and bone,

brain and soul,

You fill me completely.

There’s no room in me now

for either doubt or belief.

None of that matters anymore.

My life is only

Your life.

 

I hope you don’t mind three poems. They were so brief, though each could be meditated on over the course of a lifetime. With each return, a new insight, a deeper understanding.

None of us has reached the level of Rumi’s enlightenment, but hopefully, we have had glimpses, tastes of the sublime oneness he experienced with God. If you’re anything like me, you’d like to have more, but we cannot force it. To paraphrase one of my teachers: we cannot make moments of Divine Oneness happen, but we can adopt a stance that offers the least resistance to being overtaken by them. How? Through contemplation, poetry, prayer, surrender, kindness, compassion for self and others, authenticity, patience, curiosity, openness, etc.  The list could include anything that de-centers our mind and pride, certainty and ego from running the show.

When I look at the life of Jesus, not just in this last week, but over the course of his ministry, I see all those things in spades, and I read all of these poems as illustrations of how he might experienced his new life as the resurrected Christ on Easter Sunday, Easter Monday and beyond.

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Today, on Easter Sunday, I will begin sharing the poetry of Sufi mystics. For me, their poetry captures the essence of joy and what is means to celebrate a Risen Life, whether that of Jesus two thousand years ago, new grass in the field each spring, or the sun each morning. Life, light and Love are everywhere. Just look! Just listen! Just Love the possibilities within you!

“Joseph”

Joesph has come, the handsome one of this age,

a victory banner floating over spring flowers.

Those of you whose work it is to wake the dead, get up. This is a work day.

The lion that hunts lions charges into the meadow.

Yesterday and the day before are gone.

The beautiful coin of now slaps down in your hand.

Start the drumbeat. Everything we have said about the Friend is true. The beauty of that peacefulness makes the whole world restless.

Spread your love-robe out to catch

what shifts down from the ninth level.

Your heart closed up in a chest, open,

for the Friend is entering you.

You feet, it is time to dance.

Don’t talk about the old man.

He is young again. And don’t mention

The past. Do you understand?

The beloved is here.

I knew from the very start of the month I wanted to use this poem, but here’s a funny story about it. After Christmas this year, Finn had asked me about a book for daily meditation, or reading. I showed him several on my bookshelf, but only begrudgingly my A Year with Rumi, not because I didn’t think he’d like it, but because I was feeling territorial. I had read the book on a daily basis for years, and though I was on a “break,” I wasn’t sure I wanted to let it go. But of course, that was the text Finn chose and I gave it willingly, but when It was time to copy this poem the book was gone.

Yesterday, when we arrived at my parents’ house, where Finn lives, I snuck up to his room to look for it. I found it on his desk, with a book mark placed at today’s date, but a dozen pages or more were marked with sticky notes, some written on, some not, some corresponding to my own dog-eared and underlined pages, some completely his own. Unsurprising to me, this page had both.

I don’t know who “Joseph” was to Rumi, though he shows up often in his poems. I don’t know what to make of the “lion that hunts lions.” I do know what it means to “have the beautiful coin of now” stepped down in your hand. Be present! Right here! Right now! You will never have another moment like this one. Don’t squander it away on screens, or chores, or anxiety and critique. Drum, dance, wake the dead with the exuberance of your life!

My favorite line?

“Your heart closed up in your chest , open, for the Friend is entering you.”

Truly, this is the only path to new life – letting the Friend, the Source of Love and Light, enter and open the darkness that binds us and keeps us entombed (en-wombed?) until we are ready to be born again and help make the world new.

Peace and love today friends.

Would it bother you if there was no relief for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane? I love how Rilke gives himself permission to imagine the utter despair of that last night on earth.

“Der Olivenhain”

He went out under the grey leaves,
all grey and indistinct, this olive grove,
and buried his dusty face
in the dust of his hot hands.

It has come to this. Is this how it ends?
Must I continue when I’m going blind?
Why do you want me to say you exist
when I no longer find you myself?

I cannot find you any more. Not within me.
Not in others. Not in these stones.
I find you no longer. I am alone.

I am alone with everyone’s sorrow,
the sorrow I tried to relieve through you,
you who do not exist. O unspeakable shame.
Later they would say an angel came.

They would say an angel came.

Why an angel? What came was night,
moving indifferently amidst the trees.
The disciples stirred in in their dreams.
Why an angel? What came was night.

The night that came was like any other,
dogs sleeping, stones lying there—
like any night of grief,
to be survived till morning comes.

Angels do not answer prayers like that,
nor do they let eternity break through.
Nothing protects those who lose themselves.

 

I am strangely comforted by this poem of Jesus despair. I have felt it myself, not in degree, but in kind. That moment when you realize the faith you had placed in the Good, the God that had called you, was merely the stuff of your imagination. Or if the call was real, the One who called was not as trustworthy as you had believed. If Jesus came to that conclusion, then it is no sin for the rest of us to do so as well. Dark nights abound, in the gospels and beyond.

But the storytellers who first told the story could not let that be and it bothers Rilke to no end. He mentions the angel who did not come five times. The early historians did not want a God who abandoned his beloved child in his hour of need. Instead, “an angel came from heaven to strengthen him,” (Luke 22) and with that single line we project a measure of grace and ease onto the moment, divine intervention breaking through.

But perhaps Rilke is right and an “angel” is nothing more than a cool breeze on a hot, dusty face and the night’s eventual passing. Could that be enough? Apparently, for Jesus walked out to meet his accusers of his own volition, ready to finish the life’s task given to him by a God he no longer believed in. And isn’t that the ultimate act of faith?

Olive_Grove
An olive grove

This evening marks the beginning of the Triduum, the three days that honor Jesus’ passage from life unto death. From the last supper he ate with his disciples to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, Christians try to honor the suffering, not just of Jesus during this time, but of his disciples, family and friends. They lost their beloved, their rabbi, the center of their lives, and in some essential way, the Ground of their Being, with no thoughts of getting him back. He was gone and with him, all their hopes and dreams for a different world, based on the love and compassion he embodied. The old orders of church and state had prevailed after all.  Even for those of us who know how the story ends, it can be difficult to believe in a different outcome.

So in honor of Maundy, or Holy Thursday, I offer you Rilke’s poem about the Last Supper.  

“Das Abendmahl”

They are assembled around him, troubled and confused.
He seems withdrawn,
as if, strangely, he were flowing past
those to whom he had belonged.
The old aloneness comes over him.
It had prepared him for his deep work.
Now once again he will go out to the olive groves.
Now those who love him will flee from him.

He had bid them come to this last meal.
Their hands on the bread
tremble now at the words he speaks,
tremble in sudden silence
as a forest does when a gun is fired.
They long to leave, and they will.
But they will find him everywhere.

 

Rilke wrote this poem after seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the event, but this translation moves me beyond the painting; it captures the energy of the event. When faced with a momentous change, we often withdraw from our loved ones and our lives as we have lived them. Painful, isolating, and disorienting as it must be, it is the only way we find the inner resources to master ourselves and move forward alone. Jesus can be our model for these times, speaking truth and blessing, before departing.

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This is one of my favorite Rilke poems, in part because he writes of a woman.

“Wer sens Lebens viele Widersinne”

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads

of her life, and weaves them gratefully

into a single cloth –

it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall

and clears it for a different celebration

 

where the one guest is you.

In the softness of the evening

it’s you she receives.

 

You are the partner of her loneliness,

the unspeaking center of her monologues.

With each disclosure you encompass more

and she stretches beyond what limits her,

to hold you.

 

When I first read this poem, it felt autobiographical, as if Rilke had been privy to my life.

When my kids were small, my life resembled nothing so much as a hall full of “loudmouths,” all of which I had given birth to, married, or simply allowed to take up space in my mind. I had little time to start mindfulness practices, but I began anyway. Rising in the dark to journal, walk, meditate, or pray were my attempts to create a silent space, a private place, for God to enter my world and partner with me. To this day, we are still weaving the “single cloth” of my life together, because the “ill-matched threads” never stop coming. Change is constant, inevitable and rarely what we have planned, yet what can we do? We can hold on tight, drop the threads, tie ourselves  up in knots, or at best, if we follow the warp and weft of Love, we can make something beautiful.

At the mid-point of Holy Week, this poem also reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the often demonized, sometimes revered, “Apostle to the Apostles.” Though rarely mentioned in church services this week, her face was one of the last Jesus gazed on before his death and the first he saw on the morning of his Resurrection. Surely she was with him today and each step of the way this week.

I only need to read the last stanza of this poem again. When you are gifted a transformative Love like that, where else would you be?

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This is my copy of The Book of Hours, where this page is dog-eared, and yellowed. An early #signoflove rests in its pages.

Many of Rilke’s poems carry a passionate, active tone – as if the poet is ready to go striding out, full of energy and assurance that there is work to be done, but there are also poems of great tenderness that reflect the gelassenheit of the Divine presence. In the words of one of my favorite teachers, we need to be centered in “action and contemplation.”

“ich liebe dich, du sanftestes Gesetz”

I love you, gentlest of Ways,

Who ripened in us as we wrestled with you.

 

You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,

you, the forest that always surrounds us.

 

you, the song we sang in every silence,

you the dark net threading through us,

 

on the day you made us you created yourself,

and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…

 

Let your hand rest on the rim of heaven now

and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

 

For me, this poem is a reminder of the gentle presence of God in every thing and in every one of us – not in the showy conversions, or the dramatic actions – but in our humble existence. God is in the death and Resurrection, but  also in our silent longings, whispered murmurings, and quiet aging. God is in the light we shine and the darkness we bring. Maybe we don’t need a burning bush, or an empty tomb to be converted. Maybe it is enough for us to breath in a forest, to sing in silence, to sit in the sunshine and let things be as God does. Maybe that is doing the work of God too.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Ich glaube an Alles noch nie Gesagte”

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for may for

 

once spring clear

without my contriving.

 

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,

but this is what I need to say.

May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.

 

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,

these deepening tides moving out, returning,

I will sing to you as no one ever has,

 

Streaming through widening channels

into the open sea.

 

It will be difficult for me to chose only a handful of Rilke’s poems to share this week. He was a prolific writer, poet and journal-keeper, so as I pore over the hundreds of page of his work, I find hours passing and my wish-list increasing. I’m not sure where I will land each day, but today I wanted to build on the claim I made yesterday – that Jesus walked the same human journey we do. He was not born omniscient; he did not exist in unitive consciousness from the moment of his birth; he was not lying in the manger, mulling over the inevitability of his life, death and resurrection.

I have often thought that the forty days in the desert that Jesus endured at the beginning of his ministry is bookended by this week in Jerusalem. They were both fraught with mortal danger, but also with the temptation to want things to be different than they were. Which one of us has not wanted to run out on life tasks that ask so much more of us than we think we can give? Which one of us has not done it – closed our hearts, hands, or eyes to a person, a community, a world in need, simply so we could go on living the only way we know how?

How could we help it?

I don’t know, but I imagine a prayer like this flowing from Jesus’ lips during his early days in the desert, when he was full of the baptismal blessing of God, confident that he could conquer the world for Love. He knew he was different; he knew he was chosen; he knew he was called and all he had to do was get out of the way, so that God could flow from him into the world.

But this wasn’t actually Jesus’ prayer; this was Rilke’s. This is the prayer of every mystic and saint, known and unknown, from the beginning of time.

May it be ours as well.

Golden afternoon light reflected on the surface of a stream