Ecstatic Journey: Exploring Sufism (Rev. Anthony David & Rev. Marti Keller)

You that give new life to this planet,
you that transcend logic, come. I am only
an arrow. Fill your bow with me and let fly.

These are words we heard just a moment ago, by the 13th century Sufi teacher and poet Rumi. When he died in 1273, representatives from religions around the world came to the funeral: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus. When questioned about this, people replied, "He deepens us wherever we are." And that is our privilege this morning. To be deepened where we are-as Unitarian Universalists-by a spiritual tradition that emerged out of Islam almost eleven hundred years ago, to become its mystical core. In this, I am joined by my colleague the Rev. Marti Keller, who will follow my homily with one of her own.

May particular focus will be on two outstanding themes in Sufism: passion and protest. Consider this to be a very brief introduction to some of the basics of Sufism….

Beginning with passion. Doesn't Rumi's poem just vibrate with this? "Fill your bow with me and let fly," says Rumi to the God of his heart; "You that give new life to this planet, you that transcend logic, come." Feeling here is heightened; feeling here is intense and rich; and this is Sufism's characteristic style of spirituality, very different from anything in religion that is exclusively rational, perpetually sober, suspicious towards flights of heart and imagination. This does not mean that reason is unwelcome, but that it must always be in service to the method that works to transform human alienation and isolation into a sense of genuine connection and union with Life.

What is this method? For Sufis, it is love. A willingness to be shattered so as to become more whole, through love. It is said that a seeker once went to ask a sage for guidance on the Sufi way. The sage counseled, "If you have never trodden the path of Sufism, go away and fall in love; then come back and see us" (Jami). Love is the method, because, above all, for a Sufi, God is love, love is all there is, so connection with God must operate according to the laws of the heart. "There is no way into presence," says Rumi, "except through a love exchange." If, then, if it is our hope to know the Sacred in life intimately and first hand, an approach that won't work is dissecting it with logic. Demanding up front guarantees won't work, either. Such approaches don't help in our human relationships, so why should they work in our relationship with the Divine? For friendship with all that is Holy to begin and to flourish into love, you take two steps forward. You trust. That's what you do. Take two steps forward, and that's when God the Friend runs to you. This is what Sufis say.

Love is the method. Passion. Not only because God is love, but also because God is our source, God is home. For this reason, love can take the form of intense longing; it can carry with it a restlessness and a poignancy that nothing in the world can still and can heal-except for the spiritual journey, the return home. Says Rumi, "Listen to the story told by the reed, of being separated. Since I was cut from the reed bed, I have made this crying sound. Anyone separated from someone he loves understands what I say, anyone pulled from a source longs to go back." If you have ever felt a crying sound rise out of your heart, if you have ever felt separated from Peace, then you know what Rumi is talking about. As lovers we pine for what is lost; and it is the restlessness of this love that moves us into the search for home.

Passion is one of the outstanding themes of Sufism. And this takes us to the second outstanding theme, which is protest. "But we have been more like the man," says Rumi, "Who sits on his donkey / And asks the donkey where to go." It's preposterous to a Sufi, who knows that if anything ought to set the direction of where to go spiritually, it is our heart's longing! Yet there are times when love is forgotten, in religion and in the larger culture, when externals take center stage. Religion devolves into a mere matter of legalities, or words, or mechanical actions; or it becomes exclusivistic, presuming there to be only one way to salvation and enlightenment. As for culture-it falls into recognizing and legitimating only narrow ways of knowing the universe, and in this way it cuts itself off from its deepest values, its highest hopes. And so people get stuck. They find themselves overwhelmed by the cruelties of life. They go in directions that don't take them home. At one point Rumi says,

Lovers find secret places
inside this violent world
where they make transactions
with beauty.

Reason says, Nonsense.
I have walked and measured the walls here.
There are no places like that.

Love says, There are.

This is what Rumi says. But, what happens when Love speaks, Love counters Reason, and we can't hear it, since the culture we live in and the religion we follow both dismiss the mystical voice of Love? How will we then find the secret places where we can make transactions with beauty-and in this way be refreshed, and revived?

This was the case in the 9th century, for Islam. Roughly two hundred years after the Koran had been written and the Islamic era had begun with the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to the city of Medina, the religion had become so successful in restoring order and focus to society that two movements emerged. One was within Islam itself: the religion's energy started to shift towards greater conservatism and a focus on enhancing organization and identity. The other movement was within Islamic philosophy, which emphasized the autonomy of reason, as well as the primacy of reason against all other methods of knowing.

For Muslims who in time would become known as Sufis, this was a disaster. On one hand was the rise of Islamic orthodox theology which rejected the value of spiritual freedom; and then, on the other hand, there was a growing cultural disregard for passion and love as the method of connecting with Truth. Both are tantamount to asking the donkey where to go. The emphasis is wrong. And thus some of Sufism's characteristic slogans: "love the pitcher less and the water more"; "We have taken the heart out of the Koran, and have left the skin to the dogs to fight over." The protest here is a protest against externals, and a protest for individual integrity and inner depth. "A donkey with a load of holy books is still a donkey." The very word, "Sufi," means "wool," which touches on the story of how early Sufis donned coarse woolen garments to protest the silks and satins of sultans and caliphs. Rich on the outside, but on the inside, so poor.

Sufism is passion and protest in religion, protest against any trend that elevates the letter above the spirit. Mysticism comes from a Greek word meaning "to close the eyes," and that's what Sufis do, so as to open the heart. It's also what Transcendentalism does, in our home tradition of Unitarian Universalism; and in fact there are all sorts of ways in which the two resonate and rhyme with each other. Fascinating ways. Sufism has Rumi, and Transcendentalism has Emerson. "Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight," says Emerson, "I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. […] Standing on the bare ground, – my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." This is Emerson, and the passion evident in this and everything else he wrote and said is rooted in a longing to return to this larger reality-being part and particle of God.

As for Rumi:

You that give new life to this planet,
you that transcend logic, come. I am only
an arrow. Fill your bow with me and let fly.

Because of this love for you
my bowl has fallen from the roof.
Put down a ladder and collect the pieces, please.

People ask, But which roof is your roof?
I answer, Wherever the soul came from and wherever it goes at night, my roof
is in that direction.

From wherever spring arrives to heal the ground,
from wherever searching rises in a human being.

The looking itself is a trace
of what we are looking for.