Rumi: Poet of Passionate Religion
Norman M. Brown

Community Unitarian Universalist Church
Daytona Beach, Florida
September 03, 2000

 

I'm here to tell you about an ecstatic Sufi mystical poet who lived in 13th century Turkey and wrote in Persion. In contemporary renditions, Jelalludin Rumi is now the most widely read poet in America. Many Americans looking for spiritual food find it in the popular translations of Rumi.

Modern scientific thinking does not leave much room open to religion. Unitarians tend to endorse rationality, which limits what we can embrace­unless we have direct experience of spiritual realities. Visionary and passionate experience can show us these spiritual realities. So vision and passion are two windows that lead beyond rational thought.

Translating Rumi's poetry and teachings for 20th century Americans means building a cultural bridge between 13th century Islam and its great mystical teachers on the one side and modern secular humanism on the other side­and this is not easy. Coleman Barks is a retired English professor from Georgia and the most read translator of Rumi. But Barks cannot read Persion. He shortened, paraphrased and reshaped the English translations of others to produce his own renditions, which convey messages that are inspiring to us, but not always true to Rumi's original words. It's a very long bridge from the 13th century to the 20th. Many of those who are comfortable on either end of this bridge may be very uncomfortable in the middle, where the poems I will read take place.

First, a little about Rumi himself. Rumi was the leader of the Dervish order in Konya, Turkey. The Dervishes were an Islamic monastic group­but not celibate like most Catholic Christian orders. Their goal was to experience God even before death, in this world, either by ecstatic mystical experience or by study and contemplation which would lead to intuitive knowing. As the Dervish order's leader and teacher, Rumi was a great scholar on the path of knowledge.

When he was 37, Rumi met Shams of Tabriz, a fierce wandering mystic who was searching for someone who could bear his intense company. These two men held months of long conversations and inspired each other so much, that Rumi let his other disciples and even his sons fend for themselves. So they became jealous, and had Shams sent away. Rumi found him again, and the longing they had felt for each other made their second communion even more passionate than the first. Again the jealousies grew. And just four years after they met, Shams was secretly murdered. Out of his great loss of his earthly inspiration and spiritual discourse, Rumi sought and found Shams within himself. And thus he began his mystical communion with a divine other which was shaped like the spirit of Shams. Rumi began whirling and declaiming poetry. He is credited with inventing the Dervish practice of whirling for hours on end. He wrote poetry for every day of the last 15 years of his life.

1. Let us turn now to Rumi's poetry. This untitled poem deals with what religion is.
[TODAY]
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don't open up the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
* * *
My favorite line is: Let the beauty we love be what we. It expresses my sense of devotion to something inspiring and awesome, and the sense of completeness I have when I am at work on something I love.

2. Rumi's passion, humor, and the value of doing God's work through your own passionate calling is never better expressed than in Each Note.
[EACH NOTE]
Advice doesn't help lovers!
They're not the kind of mountain stream
you can build a dam across.

An intellectual doesn't know
what the drunk is feeling!

Don't try to figure
what those lost inside love
will do next!

Someone in charge would give up all his power,
if he caught one whiff of that wine musk
from the room where the lovers
are doing who-knows-what!

One of them tries to dig a hole through a mountain.
One flees from academic honors.
One laughs at famous mustaches!

Life freezes if it doesn't get a taste
of this almond cake.
The stars come up spinning
every night, bewildered in love.
They'd grow tired
with that revolving, if they weren't.
They'd say
"How long do we have to do this!"

God picks up the reed-flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.
Remember the lips
where the wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don't try to end it.
Be your note.
I'll show you how it's enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.
Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes!

Sing loud!
* * *
Interpret: The roaring stream is love in perpetual motion. You can't stop it and you can't figure it out. Then the stars come up spinning every night-Whirling is the sensation of being love, and being eternally in that state. Then each note is a need coming through us: Our passionate need expresses the divine spirit and power. Finally, singing loud is expressing your passionate unique work with the breath that has been given to you.
Reread [EACH NOTE]

3. The next poem, The Guest House, is about witnessing your feelings to make sure you get the good value and avoid the bad reactions to each one.
[GUEST HOUSE]
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
* * *
Interpret: We are a house where emotions come and go. We should welcome them all and learn through them. Some of us might be grieving for others. Also in our congregational turmoil of the last year and a half we have experienced both the dark emotions, such as anger, malice and sorrow, and the light. Rumi tells us that all these powerful guests should have a seat at our table. We can see ourselves reflected in all of them, and we can refine ourselves in their fire. A more recent Islamic poet, Khalil Gibran. Said this too, when he wrote in the Prophet: "The more sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."

4. The next poem, Story Water, is an exquisitely deep and clear poem, with great inspiration for finding the numinous, the beautiful, and the spiritual essence in our daily life­ and also being reminded through poems and stories like this one.
[STORY WATER]
A story is like water
that you heat for your bath.

It takes messages between the fire
and your skin. It lets them meet,
and it cleans you!

Very few can sit down
in the middle of the fire itself
like a salamander or Abraham.
We need intermediaries.

A feeling of fullness comes,
but usually it takes some bread
to bring it.

Beauty surrounds us,
but usually we need to be walking
in a garden to know it.

The body itself is a screen
to shield and partially reveal
the light that's blazing
inside your presence.

Water, stories, the body,
all the things we do, are mediums
that hide and show what's hidden.

Study them,
and enjoy this being washed
with a secret we sometimes know,
and then not.
* * *
Interpret: We can't understand the presence from beyond us, but stories can give us glimpses. We only have legends about those who can experience the fire.
Fullness doesn't need bread, but we don't usually stop eating long enough to discover this. A conversation can make you full, without anything in your belly.
We can perceive beauty when we're ready. But we wait for outside sights to trigger our reaction.
The secret but brilliant numinous experience is always lurking in each of us. Sometimes we glimpse it, and then we forget. Our goal should not be to experience this presence all the time, since it is normal to forget. And this poem can remind us momentarily, even though we lose it again.
Reread [STORY WATER]

Central Points
We can listen to Rumi and enjoy the whirling confusion and the sudden beauty these translations throw into our world. And we can also deal with him seriously, we can seek out and consider his message for our own spiritual confrontation with ourselves. But how do you deal with a mystic poet when you haven't had mystical experience yourself? The issue is this: Is there really something OTHER than my human consciousness out there­or in here? I can easily notice that other people have consciousness like mine, so I'm not alone in being like I normally see myself to be. But is there ANOTHER presence in others and in me besides what I normally know? In Story Water Rumi says YES. But do I have any experience that is at all similar? Perhaps I do.

The encounter with the black panther that I told the children about­I was awed, excited and fearful, and I was grateful that that animal appeared and growled at me. That panther was OTHER than me, real, impossible to reach, beautiful, and capable of tearing me to shreds. And I've found that I can't transmit that awe, terror and beauty to another person unless they have felt it in their own close encounter with something OTHER than anything they knew.

I have not met my Shams to tear my heart open forever. But I have sat with other men in serious and sacred sharing well into the night and found myself lifted out of my skin and into timelessness.

And I have had an inkling of another consciousness beyond what I call my own. When I dwell on my dreams to interpret them, I discover there a broader consciousness that goes beyond my ego. Like the outside world this consciousness appears beyond my physical self. This broader consciousness is like a movie, with my ego and will just one of the actors in it. In the movie my self and my intentions are responded to in ways I could not imagine when awake. I'm taught about the limits of my knowledge and abilities. And I see there an inkling of an other consciousness far greater than my own. Thus there is some sense of an OTHER consciousness inside of me. Mystical experiences are frequently described as being surrounded by this universal OTHER presence­which is seen as pure light that shines right through your nonexistent body, and it is felt as love and joy and known as God. In my dreams sometimes that light is partly hidden and partly revealed, just like the light of presence in our bodies that Rumi saw.

The mystics and true believers in a religion are certain that there is an OTHER consciousness out there or in here. The humanists and atheists believe there isn't any other consciousness beyond or within human consciousness.. Those lit by spiritual hope sense there may be something OTHER than our ordinary selves, and the mystery of it is enlivening as well as unsolvable.

5. Rumi states in LOVE DOGS that praising by prayer is the means for connecting to the Other. And perhaps we can be sure of that presence by reaching for it persistently and then getting a response in our dreams.
[LOVE DOGS]
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.
He dreamed he saw Khidir, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"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.

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.
* * *
Interpret: The man had to try long and hard, and the calling made him sweet. His passionate reaching out, like the dog's moan, is the human level of the connection we seek­not some dramatic divine intervention or a miracle. And the response is not what we expect­but it may come in a dream.
Reread [LOVE DOGS]

6. The final poem shows the transition from admiring spiritual experience to dwelling within it, and from trying to achieve divine connection to giving up and receiving it anyway.
[BURNT KABOB]
Last year, I admired wines. This,
I'm wandering inside the red world.

Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I'm burnt kabob.

Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon's reflection.

Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.

Don't ask questions about longing.
Look in my face.

Soul drunk, body ruined, these two
sit helpless in a wrecked wagon.
Neither knows how to fix it.

And my heart, I'd say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mudhole,
struggling and miring deeper.

But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.
* * *
Interpret: The most classical religious words are these: "Thirst drove me down to the water where I drank the moon's reflection. Now I am a lion staring up totally lost in love with the thing itself." He can drink the water of the moon's reflection, but his numinous experience is not the moon itself. He has ravenous hunger for the moon and hopelessness of ever reaching it­but he doesn't have to reach it because he's already lost inside the love of it.
Finally Rumi says that trying hard doesn't get the results you want, and your passionate will cannot pull you out, but only pulls you in deeper. And you have to be trying to be ready for the blessed visitation.
Reread [BURNT KABOB]

In Closing: Please forgive me if my remarks have seemed like babbling to you. I don't know if I understand Rumi from the middle of the cultural bridge between his time and ours­or if I'm just looking across the bridge from our end and seeing a fog of confusion. I do know that I have been inspired and amazed by the beauty and mystery of these Rumi poems. And I hope you have felt some of that today.

Blessed Be.
[STORY WATER]

Central Points
We can listen to Rumi and enjoy the whirling confusion and the sudden beauty these translations throw into our world. And we can also deal with him seriously, we can seek out and consider his message for our own spiritual confrontation with ourselves. But how do you deal with a mystic poet when you haven't had mystical experience yourself? The issue is this: Is there really something OTHER than my human consciousness out there­or in here? I can easily notice that other people have consciousness like mine, so I'm not alone in being like I normally see myself to be. But is there ANOTHER presence in others and in me besides what I normally know? In Story Water Rumi says YES. But do I have any experience that is at all similar? Perhaps I do.

The encounter with the black panther that I told the children about­I was awed, excited and fearful, and I was grateful that that animal appeared and growled at me. That panther was OTHER than me, real, impossible to reach, beautiful, and capable of tearing me to shreds. And I've found that I can't transmit that awe, terror and beauty to another person unless they have felt it in their own close encounter with something OTHER than anything they knew.

I have not met my Shams to tear my heart open forever. But I have sat with other men in serious and sacred sharing well into the night and found myself lifted out of my skin and into timelessness.

And I have had an inkling of another consciousness beyond what I call my own. When I dwell on my dreams to interpret them, I discover there a broader consciousness that goes beyond my ego. Like the outside world this consciousness appears beyond my physical self. This broader consciousness is like a movie, with my ego and will just one of the actors in it. In the movie my self and my intentions are responded to in ways I could not imagine when awake. I'm taught about the limits of my knowledge and abilities. And I see there an inkling of an other consciousness far greater than my own. Thus there is some sense of an OTHER consciousness inside of me. Mystical experiences are frequently described as being surrounded by this universal OTHER presence­which is seen as pure light that shines right through your nonexistent body, and it is felt as love and joy and known as God. In my dreams sometimes that light is partly hidden and partly revealed, just like the light of presence in our bodies that Rumi saw.

The mystics and true believers in a religion are certain that there is an OTHER consciousness out there or in here. The humanists and atheists believe there isn't any other consciousness beyond or within human consciousness.. Those lit by spiritual hope sense there may be something OTHER than our ordinary selves, and the mystery of it is enlivening as well as unsolvable.

5. Rumi states in LOVE DOGS that praising by prayer is the means for connecting to the Other. And perhaps we can be sure of that presence by reaching for it persistently and then getting a response in our dreams.
[LOVE DOGS]
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.
He dreamed he saw Khidir, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage.
"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.

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.
* * *
Interpret: The man had to try long and hard, and the calling made him sweet. His passionate reaching out, like the dog's moan, is the human level of the connection we seek­not some dramatic divine intervention or a miracle. And the response is not what we expect­but it may come in a dream.
Reread [LOVE DOGS]

6. The final poem shows the transition from admiring spiritual experience to dwelling within it, and from trying to achieve divine connection to giving up and receiving it anyway.
[BURNT KABOB]
Last year, I admired wines. This,
I'm wandering inside the red world.

Last year, I gazed at the fire.
This year I'm burnt kabob.

Thirst drove me down to the water
where I drank the moon's reflection.

Now I am a lion staring up totally
lost in love with the thing itself.

Don't ask questions about longing.
Look in my face.

Soul drunk, body ruined, these two
sit helpless in a wrecked wagon.
Neither knows how to fix it.

And my heart, I'd say it was more
like a donkey sunk in a mudhole,
struggling and miring deeper.

But listen to me: for one moment,
quit being sad. Hear blessings
dropping their blossoms
around you. God.
* * *
Interpret: The most classical religious words are these: "Thirst drove me down to the water where I drank the moon's reflection. Now I am a lion staring up totally lost in love with the thing itself." He can drink the water of the moon's reflection, but his numinous experience is not the moon itself. He has ravenous hunger for the moon and hopelessness of ever reaching it­but he doesn't have to reach it because he's already lost inside the love of it.
Finally Rumi says that trying hard doesn't get the results you want, and your passionate will cannot pull you out, but only pulls you in deeper. And you have to be trying to be ready for the blessed visitation.
Reread [BURNT KABOB]

In Closing: Please forgive me if my remarks have seemed like babbling to you. I don't know if I understand Rumi from the middle of the cultural bridge between his time and ours­or if I'm just looking across the bridge from our end and seeing a fog of confusion. I do know that I have been inspired and amazed by the beauty and mystery of these Rumi poems. And I hope you have felt some of that today.

Blessed Be.