It was in late fall of 1244 that Jelaluddin Rumi met met the wandering dervish Shams of Tabriz, under whose mentorship Rumi would become one of the great spiritual masters and poets. Rumi is one of those individuals whose work transcends culture and time. Although it is Coleman Barks' translations of Rumi that have rendered the philosopher the most read poet in the U.S., Rumi's writings influenced Persian, Turkish and Urdu literature long before he was discovered by the West and he is still widely read today in what was once Persia. When you say "Rumi" everyone knows who you mean. No one asks "Do you mean Rumi the poet/philosopher or Shahpur Rumi, the orthodontist?" People just know you meant the guy who observed that language is a proof that we're separated and have a nostalgia for union, the guy who wrote:
Listen to the story told by the reed,
of being separated.
"Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back.
At any gathering I am there,
mingling in the laughing and grieving,
a friend to each, but few
will hear the secrets hidden
within the notes. No ears for that.
Body flowing out of spirit,
spirit up from body: no concealing
that mixing. But it's not given us
to see the soul. The reed flute
is fire, not wind. Be that empty."
Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
A tongue has one customer, the ear.
A sugarcane flute has such effect
because it was able to make sugar
in the reedbed. The sound it makes
is for everyone. Days full of wanting,
let them go by without worrying that they do.
Stay where you are
inside such a pure, hollow note.
Every thirst gets satisfied except
that of these fish, the mystics,
who swim a vast ocean of grace
still somehow longing for it!
No one lives in that without
being nourished every day.
But if someone doesn't want to hear
the song of the reed flute,
it's best to cut conversation short,
say good-bye, and leave.
(Translation by Coleman Barks)
As the story goes, when Shams disappeared under mysterious circumstances, Rumi's grief was so great that it overflowed into a poetic outpouring. Shams was not only Rumi's mentor, but also his friend, even beloved. Tradition also has it that the Sufic whirling dervishes were born of Rumi's own habit of circling a column, touching it with one hand, as his students recorded the inspirations that poured forth from his lips.
Wednesday night, I had the opportunity to attend a program on Rumi that was offered by the Institute for Christian-Muslim Understanding (ICMU). Dr. Harry Moody was to have presented a multi-media workshop entitled "Rumi ~ Journey through the Life Course". I say was to, because fate intervened to call Dr. Moody away to attend to an illness in the family before he could ever even board his plane for Oregon. Instead, workshop attendees were left with a potluck, a portion of a DVD and some ad hoc presentation and discussion.
Work regrettably prevented me from arriving early enough for the potluck. The organizers had set ground rules for the shared meal to ensure that there was a mix of people at each table. It would have been interesting to have the chance to speak with some of the Muslims there, one of whom had a couple of impassioned outbursts about the war after everything had ended. It saddened me to see this man, who was so hurt and angry and to know that my country's foreign policy is largely responsible for his unrest.
This man was not a terrorist or fundamentalist nutjob, he just wanted for people to understand how culturally and ethnically diverse his region is and for us not to lump all Afghanis, Iraqis, Iranians, etc. together as though they were not people, human beings with individual differences. In such moments, I am ashamed for us. But that was, in part, the purpose of the event - not shame and anger, but the opening of a dialogue that allows us to see each other for the "astounding lucid confusions" we all are as human beings. Rumi was the vehicle, but the point was greater understanding.
That is not to say that Rumi was not discussed. One of the treats of the evening was the opportunity to hear Rumi's poetry read in Persian, which is a lovely sounding language. Even not understanding the words, it was easy to hear the repetition of sound and internal rhyme in each line. As an added bonus, it was evident that the gentleman who read the poetry (I've sadly forgotten his name, but I do know that he was a professor from somewhere in the area) was enthusiastic about Rumi and loved his poetry. His childhood stories of sitting in his father's lap in the evenings, listening to him read poetry reminded me very much of my own experiences growing up with Goethe, Eichendorff and other German poets.
I haved to admit that although I had already purchased the requisite copy of Coleman Barks' The Essential Rumi at New Renaissance (back before my now going on 5 year boycott of them) years before attending this workshop, I never really read it that closely. Every few years I would thumb through it and read a few of the shorter poems, but I never really looked at them. Although the workshop did not turn out quite as the organizers had planned, it has given me a whole new appreciation for Rumi that has me looking forward to discovering more.