Secret places inside this violent world

Time for some more of Rumi’s poetry, again in the translation of Coleman Barks, from Bridge to the Soul: Journeys into the Music and Silence of the Heart.

I am sure I have said this before, but Rumi has been an amazing discovery for me. There is profound spiritual insight in the words of this Sufi master, and there is so much here that speaks to me at such a deep level. Some of it puts into words my own recent journey in ways that I could never have managed myself. Other parts express some of my deepest hopes and longings. And then there are many wonderful insights about God, love, friendship etc.

If only more people would read Rumi’s poetry. It would open their eyes to quite a different side of Islam. But then, he apparently is the most widely read poet in America today. There is still hope then …

We must die to become true human beings.

From gardens to the gardener,
from grieving to a wedding feast.

We tremble like leaves about to let go.
There is no avoiding pain,
or feeling exiled, or the taste of dust.

I can truly relate to those reflections on dying, grieving, letting go, experiencing pain and the taste of dust.

When someone feels jealous,
I am inside the hurt and the need to possess.

When anyone is sick,
I feel feverish and dizzy.

This I find comforting: that God is inside the hurt of those who need to possess others. And that he is inside our sickness.

For the grace of the presence, be grateful.

Imagination cannot contain the absolute.
These poems are elusive
because the presence is.

‘Imagination cannot contain the absolute’. Quite. No point to even try!

No more holding back. Be reckless.
Tell your love to everybody.


Stand up. The prostrating
part of prayer is over.

the beloved is absence
as well as this fullness.

I love that attitude to praying and loving God.

Be a helpful friend,
and you will become a green tree
with always new fruit,
always deeper journeys into love.

Worth aspiring to …

Learned theologians do not teach love.
Love is nothing but gladness and kindness.

When you see a scowling face,
it is not a lover’s.

Rumi really does understand true love.

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.

Lovers feel a truth inside themselves
that rational people keep denying.

This is just brilliant stuff, so true and so well expressed. Secret places in a violent world where you make transactions with beauty – that’s truly wonderful and how I wish to live.

Rumi and Coleman Barks: ambassadors of peace

Apparently, Rumi is the most widely read poet in America today. Why then does WordPress’s spell checker not recognise him?

Anyway, Rumi’s success is no mean feat for a writer who, after all, represents quite a different time, culture and religion. To be sure, his popularity has been made possible to a very large extent by the work of Coleman Barks, whose translation and adaption of Rumi’s poetry has given it a wide appeal that more literal renderings would never have achieved. True, something important may well have been lost in the process, as has been pointed out by those who charge Barks with Americanising this thirteenth-century Sufi poet. Yet something very important has also been gained, for amidst all the Islamophobia that sadly has gained such a strong foothold in parts of the Western world, there is now an increasing number of people who, thanks to Barks’s work, have encountered and learned to appreciate Rumi’s Sufist wisdom.

Does this not make both Rumi, the old master himself, and Coleman Barks, his modern disciple, ambassadors of peace?

Best Reads 2013. VI: Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and Longing

Rumi, The Book of Love: Poems of Ecstasy and LongingThis book, indeed Rumi generally, has been a revelation to me. As I have said elsewhere, I had come across him several times in the writings of Richard Rohr and others, but it was only when a woman I met at a conference recommended him with the greatest enthusiasm that I ordered my first book of Rumi poems. It happened to be this one.

This collection has been put together and translated by Coleman Barks, who has given us highly readable texts rendered in beautiful English (on Barks as a translator of Rumi’s poetry, see my earlier post And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)’). The book is divided into twenty-two chapters, each of which features an introduction by Barks. There is also an opening introduction and a brief account of the life of Jelaluddin Rumi (1207–73).

Rumi’s poems are an expression of medieval Sufist spirituality, albeit as mediated and adapted by Barks, and so it should come as no surprise that some of it feels foreign to novices like myself. It is foreign, after all! That said though, some passages have touched me in ways I have perhaps never been touched before.

How can I possibly describe its impact on me? I would have to talk about its sheer, breathtaking beauty; its role in expanding my thought, stirring my passion, offering consolation; above all perhaps, its deep and utterly compelling wisdom. But let me give you some further examples, in addition to the ones I have already provided in earlier posts.

Having gone through a prolonged period of intensely-felt grief, I have found Rumi’s thoughts on grief and pain, longing and healing illuminating, consoling and quite simply to be full of wisdom:

The cure for pain is in the pain.

Hold on to your particular pain.
That too can take you to God.

The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.

I’ve broken through to longing now,
filled with a grief a have felt before,
but never like this.

There’s a shredding that’s really a healing,
that makes you more alive!

Holding on to my pain, not running away from it, not denying it, resisting the urge to move on has been a source of profound blessing. The cure for pain is indeed in the pain in that it generates that longing that draws us toward union, as Rumi says, that longing that can take us to God. A shredding is not what I had been expecting, but strangely enough it has made me more alive.

Rumi on thinking:

… Leave thinking to the one
who gave intelligence. Stop weaving,

and watch how the pattern improves.

How I wish I had come across that advice some time ago, but even if I had, would I have been able to leave well alone? It is so true though. Our weaving does not do any favours to the pattern.

And on jealousy:

If you could untie your wings
and free your soul of jealousy,

you and everyone around you
would fly up like doves.

How true!

This is a beautiful collection of poems, full of deep wisdom and insight. It is a book that I will be returning to time and again. Who knows, perhaps some of the more mysterious sections will over time divulge their deep secrets to me as well.

A pointer to pure being

Having enjoyed poetry when I went to school, I somehow never followed this up, until fairly recently, inspired by a friend, I took to reading it on a regular basis. Now there is always some poetry on my book pile, and I would not want to be without it anymore. So what difference has it made?

It does, of course, depend on the poet I’m reading, but poetry lifts my spirit, it frees me and opens me up, it provides me with consolation and keeps my desire aflame. And it gives me a voice where, in the past, my pain and grief had been mute.

Most importantly perhaps, poetry, as Coleman Barks notes (in Rumi, Bridge to the Soul: Journeys Into the Music and Silence of the Heart), points me to pure being and persuades me there. What better place to be?

Architectures speak of the joy the soul is here for

Great architectural forms like cathedrals and mosques, precarious Himalayan monasteries, standing stonehenges, inviting amphitheaters, and pyramids all reveal longings in the human soul, the ways it loves to express itself and simply be, under open sky, near a river, against a cliff. … architectures speak of the joy the soul is here for.

Coleman Barks, in Rumi, Bridge to the Soul: Journeys Into the Music and Silence of the Heart

And so I’m hooked. Rumi (as mediated by Coleman Barks)

Having come across Rumi a few times in references by several writers, I was finally persuaded to give him a go when a woman I met on a recent trip to Chicago recommended him most enthusiastically. And so I began reading him. And so I’m hooked.

But am I really reading Rumi, or am I reading Coleman Barks, in whose translation I am currently encountering him? For Barks does not read Persian and thus can only work from literal, scholarly transcriptions. And he has apparently taken not a few liberties in creating poems that feature, in the words of Franklin Lewis (in Rumi: Past, Present, East and West. The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rumi), ‘a modern American idiom’ and present Rumi’s originally ‘rhythmic and perhaps even trance-like’ poetry as free verse.

Does this really matter though? Well, yes and no, I suppose. Yes in that, as again Lewis points out, Barks, due to his lack of Persian, sometimes misunderstands the original while also teleporting the poems out of their cultural and Islamic context into a modern ecumenical American one. Yet I do believe Barks is right to claim that Rumi would have wanted his poems to resonate with audiences from a different culture. And in Barks’s translation they do, which is why I’m hooked. Would I have been as interested if I had encountered Rumi in wooden, literal transcriptions? Probably not.

There is one thing that worries me a little though. According to Lewis, Barks has turned this ‘poet of overpowering longing, [who is] trying to grope through his acute and shattering sense of loss’, into a serene dispenser of wisdom. That frenetically searching poet I would have liked to meet, but I’m hooked regardless. And Barks does give us beautiful poetry.