Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Spiritual Discipline

I’m taking a course on Islamic Spirituality, and the professor--my good friend Dr. Seyed Amir Akrami--once remarked that Sufism takes theology not as an end, the truth, but as a means to that end. He implied spirituality is a way, a journey that we neglect at our peril, and Sufi disciplines are to help us stay on that way.

For me truth is a state of blessed conflict, not something that can be written down in a set of propositions. That is, the limitations of my point of view, understanding, tradition and language are transcended by my community where people have different understandings and traditions. The continuous conflict of those perceptions is a great blessing. 

My goal is not to synthesize a grand truth that unifies those perceptions, though sometimes that is possible, and if so is wonderful and revealing. But synthesis is not my goal, any more than the goal of learning foreign languages is to make a blend of all the languages learned. My end goal is to live in the blessing of this sometimes chaotic conflict of perceptions in my community. It is the good place, my true home, my salvation, the kingdom of God, enough.

Amir spoke of the virtue of polishing our souls as one would a metal mirror, a trope of Rumi’s, who wrote


A mirror in external form is made up of iron,
the mirror revealing the image of the soul is very valuable


mirror, is the soul of the face of a friend
the face of that friend from that land (Rumi, Masnavi, Book 2 part 1)


(quoted from Fariborz Arbasi, Rumi on Change by Love and Reason, translated by Sherry Nabijou, in process of publication.)

Here the goal of spiritual discipline--the continuous polishing of the quickly tarnished metal mirror--is not the power of perfect vision. Rather, it is to simultaneously have one’s identity and become a mirror reflecting anothers’ identity, and in that mirroring, to see yourself and the other more clearly, though less distinctly, in losing track of the difference between the soul seen and the soul seeing. For me, as here for Rumi, it takes two to tango. I can’t become one without being two.


A favorite spiritual discipline of mine is something I try to do every time I meet another human. As, or before, I encounter them—my spouse, my child, a friend, a stranger, an enemy—I try to remind myself of what they are, and of what I am. We are capable of hosting God’s spirit. I set myself to search for the face of God in them, even and especially in the face of an enemy. To seek the face of my trustworthy opponent, someone with a message for me, a perception for me. I set myself to be quick to report to them if I see anything amiss—if I have a message for them. I pay attention to any loss of dignity of mine or theirs. Such transparency takes paying attention. It is our mutual care, to see what the other does not, and tell each other about it.

photo credit: Dean Ayres via photopin cc

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