by Eric Elnes
Note: Due to a computer hard drive issue, I had to re-write several portions of this post, hence its tardiness. I appreciate your patience!
What does a 13th C Sufi mystic, a quirky dream I had last week, and a Jewish mezuzah have to do with living the faith of Jesus in a pluralistic world? Shortly, you will not only know mezuzah means if you don’t already, but you may just discover a surprising layer of meaning behind Jesus’ statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes unto the father except through me.” It may clarify how a follower of Jesus can claim fully the path of Jesus without denying the legitimacy of other paths God may create.
I. The Sufi Mystic
First, the 13th Century Sufi mystic: His name is Jalal ad-Din Mu?ammad Rumi, popularly known as Rumi in the West, and Mevlana in Turkey. To say that Rumi was “Sufi mystic” is a bit redundant because Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam whose primary aim is to shed the ego and connect with the divine Presence. While in Turkey last month, where Rumi spent most of his life, our tour group visited the site of the school established by Rumi in Konya and also got to witness the dance of the whirling dervishes, which is associated with Rumi.
Rumi’s poetry is widely read and loved in the Middle East. I spoke to Iranian Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz at Darkwood Brew on 5/20. She said her family has a practice of reading a bit of poetry at the dinner table. Years ago, they started reading Rumi’s longest set of poems. When they finished ten years later, they had loved that body of work so well that they decided to read the whole thing over again!
Rumi is known to many of us in the West primarily through the work of Coleman Barks, former English professor at the University of Georgia, who has spent his career setting Rumi’s poetry into American free-verse and performing it around the world.
Here are a couple of examples of Rumi’s poems. I’ve recited the first one before, but it’s one of my very favorites. I’m hoping it will become one of yours:
This Great Love Inside Me
I am so small I can barely be seen.
How can this great love be inside me?
Look at your eyes. They are small,
but they see enormous things.
Here’s another beautiful poem:
What Was Said to the Rose
What was said to the rose that made it open was said to me here in my chest.
What was told the cypress that made it strong and straight,
what was whispered the jasmine so it is what it is,
whatever made sugarcane sweet;
whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan
that makes them so handsome,
whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush like a human face,
that is being said to me now. I blush.
Whatever put eloquence in language, that’s happening here.
The great warehouse doors open;
I fill with gratitude, chewing a piece of sugarcane,
in love with the one to whom every that belongs!
I had a dream one night last week as I was planning this reflection that I suspect may have been inspired by Rumi’s poetry. In my dream I saw a woman strolling through the woods on her way to her wedding ceremony. She was tall and slender, with short black hair. She wore no fancy wedding dress, but instead wore simple blue sundress with small white flowers.
While I would have considered her attire a bit casual for such a grand occasion, the woman exuded such a sense of grace, confidence, and assurance as she walked that it seemed like the most natural and appropriate thing she could possibly wear.
Watching the bride approach, I asked myself, “Why does her attire seem to so perfectly fit the occasion of her wedding?”
An inner voice spoke up, pointing my gaze toward her heart. It was like I was looking right through her into what was within. What I saw was a tiny but brilliant light, which I recognized as God’s Light. It was so radiant and beautiful that no wedding dress would have been a match for it – even remotely – had it been visible on the outside. A dazzling dress might even have seemed inappropriate. A bit like holding a picture postcard of the Grand Canyon in front of the Grand Canyon itself, expecting the onlooker to be impressed.
As the woman continued up the path toward the wedding party, I realized that the Light shining within her was there not because she was any more pious or godly than the rest of us. The Light had been there from the beginning. I wondered, “Is this is what sainthood is like? It’s not about what a person does to produce holiness. It’s about recognizing the holiness that is already within you (because it has been given to you by God), and responding to it.” Whatever holy whisper made the rose open; whatever was told the cypress that made it stand strong and straight; whatever was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan to make them such works of beauty, this was clearly what the bride was responding to.
Just watching the bride respond in that way produced a yearning deep within me to live with the same awe and wonder as she had. I hungered for the same sense of grace and confidence that the woman exuded – being totally caught up in herself but not in her own ego. What captivated her was that part of herself that had been gifted by God. She loved the Light. She loved the way God loved the Light. And she loved the way God loved the way she loved the Light. My yearning for this kind of experience welled up within me until suddenly I gasped. Something felt like great warehouse doors had opened a crack. Something like a rose began was beginning to open in my chest.
Rumi’s poem, Love Dogs, seems to have been written just for dreams like these.
One night a man was crying Allah! Allah!
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said, “So!
I have heard you calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?”
The man had no answer to that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep
where he dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
“Why did you stop praising?” “Because
I 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.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs
no one knows the names of.
Give your life
to be one of them.
[One night a man was crying … One night a woman was crying Allah! Allah!]
Rumi heard his Love Dog moaning for Allah, the God of the Muslims. Though his loyal devotion to Allah, practices within the particular expression of Islam, Rumi discovered a Great Love that transcends all names and particularities. Can you hear a Love Dog moaning within you? Who, or what, does it moan for?
II. Yahweh Alone
On the upper third of the right doorpost of every observant Jewish home you will find a small, narrow box affixed with its top angled toward the inside. The box is called a mezuzah. Inside the mezuzah is a piece of parchment that contains the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, known as the Shema` (Shema` means “hear” in Hebrew – the opening command in Deut 6:4).
4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Last week, many were surprised to find that throughout much of Israelite history, the Jews believed in the existence of many gods besides Yahweh. While Israel believed there were other gods besides Yahweh, for Israel itself, there was no other god beside Yahweh. Israel’s Love Dogs yearned for Yahweh alone. The mezuzah was placed on the doorposts of every home to keep Israel in touch with its yearning. By yearning for this particular God, they touched the Great Love that transcends all names and particularities. In so doing, their strict rules and regulations operated not like a prison, but a prism.
Of course, there were times when Israelite devotion became more like a ball and chain than something freeing. That’s what happens whenever you begin to prefer the comfort of absolute certainty to the discomfort of mystery. It’s what happens when you put the Love Dogs to bed no longer seek to connect with a Love that is so much greater than you are that you will do nothing but hunger to have more of it.
Hence, the mezuzah. The mezuzah kept this kind of yearning alive. By reminding Israel to love Yahweh with all its heart, soul, and strength in even the most mundane of situations – like when they taught their children, when at home and away, when lying down and rising – they kept the ordinary from extinguishing the extraordinary. They kept the Love Dogs moaning when most people would have fed them a bone and sent them to their kennels. When they did so, their love remained hot and fresh. That which was whispered to the rose to make it open, opened their hearts. That which was told the cypress to make it grow tall and straight, that which made the jasmine fragrant and the sugar cane sweet, is what fueled their daily lives.
III. Christ Alone
I hear reverberations of all this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Just as Israel alone was called to worship Yahweh alone, Jesus is saying something similar to his disciples. Here, Jesus is not talking to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, or Taoists. He’s not even speaking to the Jewish crowds. In John 14, Jesus speaks only to his closest companions.
While there may be many paths to God besides the path of Jesus, as Jesus himself affirms elsewhere (e.g., John 10:11-18) – for his own followers there is no path beside that of Jesus. This relationship between the Universal and the Particular is similar to what we have found in Israel’s historic faith. Israel’s path – its deep yearning – was to be for Yahweh alone, even as it acknowledged the legitimacy of other paths (all ultimately connected to Yahweh, in their belief).
No Love Dog can serve two masters. It yearns for only One Love. If you chase after many loves, you become exhausted. The yearning dissipates. Burning faith is gradually replaced by comfortable certainties. Religion becomes a prison. Don’t we find evidence of prison-like faith all around us, even among those who say they have no faith? It’s what always happens when you chase too many loves.
It’s the great paradox of faith. If you seek to experience Universal Love by loving everything universally, you will not find it. The route to Universal Love starts with the search for one particular Love. A Love that is bigger than you are; a Love whose love for you is far greater than what you can ever hope to return. For Rumi, that particular Love was Allah. For Moses, that particular Love was Yahweh. As Christians, our particular Love is to be for Jesus. Pentecost Sunday reminds us that we are not talking simply of loving Jesus the man who lived and died 2,000 years ago. Our task is to fall in love (heart, soul, strength) with Jesus in his highest identity as Holy Spirit of the Living Christ – the Spirit to whom Christ’s church is betrothed as a bride (John 3:28-30; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev 19:6-8). It is a Spirit who is ever present with us; whose love will utterly transform us if we keep our yearning for it burning throughout our days – when we lie down, and when we rise; when we are at home and away. Deuteronomy 6 reminds us we are to set this same yearning within our children. Rumi reminds us why: That they may become as handsome as “the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in Turkestan” … and on Pentecost Sunday we would rightfully add, “that they may become as beautiful as Christ’s bride.”
In the burning, yearning words of another poet, Mary Oliver:
When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was a bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
For Further Exploration:
If you would like to explore this theme further, you may watch the 5/20/12 episode of Darkwood Brew, which featured Rumi scholar Fatemeh Keshavarz, Chair of the Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at Washington University in St. Louis (www.darkwoodbrew.org/episodes). Small groups may wish to use the small group video resource from this episode. You may also wish to consider the following questions:
I. Does one of Rumi’s poems speak to you in particular? Which/how?
II. When is it easiest to find the Light inside you? When is it easiest to find that Light in others? Which is easier?
III. for what or whom does your Love Dog moan?
IV. Does Dr. Elnes’ definition of sainthood resonate with you – that it’s about responding to holiness that is already within you, as a Creation of God, than doing something that produces holiness? What are the implications of such an understanding for your life? for your church?
V. Is there something in your daily practice that acts like a Jewish mezuzah, keeping your yearning alive and thus reminding you of who – and whose – you are?
VI. If Jesus in John 14:6 is not speaking of the world in general, but to you as a Christian in particular, what implications does this have for you? for your church? (John 14:6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one [i.e., no disciple of mine] comes to the Father except through me.”)
 Trans./Compiled by Coleman Barks. The Essential Rumi. Harper San Francisco, 1997.
 A mezuzah also contains the words of Deut 11:13-21.