I find myself drawn to two poets from two very different eras and religious contexts, because both reach deeply into the heart of mysticism: Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known as Rumi, and Rainer Maria Rilke. I am a beginner with both of them but do recommend: The Essential Rumi (paraphrased by Coleman Barks with John Moyne, Harper One, 2004) and Rilke’s Book of Hours (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, Riverhead Books, 1997).
Rumi was a religious scholar and sheikh in a dervish learning community in Konya, Turkey during the mid-thirteenth century. His life was transformed in 1244 by a spiritual friendship with a wandering dervish, Shams of Tabriz. They were inseparable until the disappearance (probably the murder) of Shams in 1248, and many poems are dedicated to Shams. Later companions included Saladin Zarkub, a goldsmith, and a student, Husam Chelebi. His poetry is a vast and varied collection of meditations on the experience of union with the Beloved Divine in human life. Coleman Barks’ paraphrase has a vitality which I appreciate and enjoy, and he certainly has done more than anyone to popularize Rumi’s poetry in Western culture. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite if you are not already a fan of Rumi:
Be empty of worrying.
Think of who created thought!
Why do you stay in prison
when the door is so wide open? (A Community of the Spirit, p.3)
Let yourself be silently drawn
by the stronger pull of what you really love. (An Empty Garlic, p.51)
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that
is a ring on the door.
Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there. (The Sunrise Ruby, p.101)
A hide is soaked in tanning liquor and becomes leather.
If the tanner did not rub in the acid,
the hide would get foul-smelling and rotten.
The soul is a newly skinned hide, bloody and gross.
Work on it with manual discipline,
and the bitter tanning acid of grief,
and you’ll become lovely and very strong. (Checkmate, p.176)
A few years ago I attended a celebration of Rumi at Andover-Newton Theological School, with readings and whirling dances by a Boston-area Sufi group (Rumi encouraged the whirling dances to accompany his poetry). It was a true delight and an awe-inspiring evening. If you get a chance to see the whirling dervishes don’t miss out!
Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 in Prague, Hungary and rejected both the conventional, sentimental religion of his mother and his father’s plans for him to enroll in the military. His passion was writing and he found a myriad ways to support himself in this vocation. In 1897 he spent two months in Tuscany, absorbing the art of the Italian Renaissance. Masters like Fra Angelico and Botticelli taught him that the holy could be located in the human body and relationships. A passionate relationship with a Russian woman, Lou Andreas-Salome, and a journey to Russia influenced him greatly and produced the first group of poems in the Book of Hours. A passionate longing for God suffuses the poetry in a refreshing way:
When gold is in the mountain
and we’ve ravaged the depths
till we’ve given up digging,
it will be brought forth into day
by the river that mines
the silences of stone. (I, 16)
The way Rilke addresses God and speaks with God sounds daring and even presumptuous to many readers but it is similar to the way Jesus calls his disciples friends not servants. There is a directness of speech which awakens us to the divinity within the human:
I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am that wanting:
I grow strong in the beauty you behold. (I, 19)
What will you do, God, when I die? (I, 36)
The final poem reveals the consciousness of every mystic:
I thank you, deep power
that works me ever more lightly
in ways I can’t make out.
The day’s labor grows more simple now,
and like a holy face
held in my dark hands. (I, 62)
Rilke wrote the three groups of poems that form the Book of Hours between 1899 and 1902 (Monastic Life, Pilgrimage, Poverty and Death). Barrows’ and Macy’s edition is a very helpful introduction to his work.