Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Essential Rumi (translated by Barks, 1995) and Have a Little Faith (Albom, 2009)

Two books I read back-to-back – Have a Little Faith (Albom, 2009) and The Essential Rumi (Barks, 1995) – related in fascinating ways to each other. The combination of them offered insights on the three monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Suffism (a small subsect of Islam, recognized by some, but not all, Muslims). These books allowed me to continue to explore my own faith in the context of different faiths that I’ve encountered over the years.

Beginning with Suffism, it is a unique perspective that focuses on contemplation as a way of pursuing religious enlightenment. Rumi is the Suffi mystic whose writings are frequently quoted by philosophers across time and culture. A popularized aspect of one of Suffism’s practices is the dance of the “Dervish.” The “Swirling Dervish” is recognized as part of Turkish culture but frequently not seen as a religious observance. Dervish means “doorway” and takes this name because those who do the dance become so entranced that they become “an empty place where human and divine can meet.” (p. 277) In verse, Rumi describes the times when we should dance:
Dance when you’re broken open.
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.
Dance in the middle of the fighting.
Dance in your blood.
Dance, when you’re perfectly free. (p. 281)

Have a Little Faith weaves the lives of two individuals, one a Rabbi (nicknamed “the Reb”) at Albom’s community synagogue, and the other (Henry) a recovering drug addict and ex-convict who founded the “I am my brother’s keeper” shelter in downtown Detroit. The “Reb’s” request that Albom deliver his eulogy at his funeral kicks off the book. The succeeding chapters recount the years following as Albom became increasingly aware of the depth of the man he had taken for granted as a youth. Alternating interludes describe Henry’s struggles with his addictions, being unjustly convicted of murder, and eventually released from jail to start a new life. These two men, different in their religion, virtue, and life circumstances end up being not so different in the ultimate meaning of their lives through the grace of uncompromising service to their fellow human beings. And, by seeking to serve others, both find the peace that allows them to “sleep in a storm.” As the “Reb” so eloquently professed in a 1975 sermon:
My friends, if we tend to the things that are important in life, if we are right with those we love and behave in line with our faith, our lives will not be cursed with the aching throb of unfulfilled business. Our words will always be sincere, our embraces will be tight. We will never wallow in the agony of ‘I could have, I should have.’ We can sleep in a storm. And when it’s time, our good-byes will be complete.

The “Reb” and Henry had very different theologies and congregations yet Albom could see that they were driven by the same God, one who is merciful, loving, and sacrificing. Why is it, then, that Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions haggle and sometimes even wage war to establish supremacy over each other? The Reb’s response, based on recognizing and affirming the differences among religions:
Well, you can look at it this way. Would you want the world to all look alike? The genius of life is its variety. Even in our own faith, we have questions and answers, interpretations, debates. In Christianity, in Catholicism, in other faiths, the same thing – debates, interpretations. That is the beauty. It’s like being a musician. If you found the note, and you kept hitting that note all the time, you would go nuts. It’s the blending of the different notes that makes the music. (p. 160)

I couldn’t help but think back to one of my earlier posts on Karen Armstrong’s book, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (2011) as I reflected on what I learned from Rumi’s and Albom’s writings:
The seventh step, “how little we know,” encouraged curiosity in understanding others as a way to increase compassion. As she explained, so often we have our own pre-determined view of others and, instead of allowing ourselves to absorb new information and insight, we judge others in order to substantiate our own bias. She bemoaned that there is a certain mystery about others’ ways of thinking and living that is turned to sacrilege as we attempt to “pluck out” the point we wish to use to serve our own agenda. (p. 127)

Ultimately, one of Rumi’s poems, “The Howling Necessity: Cry Out in Your Weakness,” addresses the “how little we know” and offers hope in the story of a man who has lost his will to pray and dreams of an encounter with Khidr, the guide of souls :
“Why did you stop praising?”
“Because I’ve never heard anything back.”
“This longing you express is the return message.”
The grief you cry out from draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help is the secret cup.

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