An Abiding Sweetness
I’ve noticed a "settling in" in my spiritual life over the past year or so that I might describe as "coming to rest in an abiding sweetness." The outer trappings of my spiritual life—identities, formal practices, scripture—as beautiful and necessary as they are, I’m finding give way, or better, lead me into a belovedness, a gentleness, an infinite, objectless tenderness.
It’s a tenderness that's not separate from life, that doesn’t attempt to pull me out of life. Rather, it makes me more present to what's real, more sensitive to the entire web of life in which I'm interwoven. I’ve come to call this tenderness "the heart." It’s at one and the same time my heart—I literally feel it as open space radiating out from my chest—and the heart in which I’m held; my heart one of infinite possible centers of this one Heart. I experience it as an intimacy pervading every atom of existence. It awakens humility, gratitude, simplicity, and love.
Living from this center, being conscious from this center, is increasingly the only thing that matters to me. If I want to truly love—love you, or my wife, or my cat, or this dear planet—that love is only real, only free of my ego-motivation and manipulation, when it comes from this place.
Turning to the heart—first in formal practice, and gradually with every breath—is a training in sensitivity. It literally sensitizes our being to the pain of others, to our own pain, and to the plight of our planet. It also opens our eyes to beauty, wonder, and awe. If we want to end racism, senseless warfare, animal cruelty, and ecological devastation, sensitizing and educating our hearts must be one of our primary lines of action.
A heart that can read the wider pattern in which all is held, that knows itself as a strand vibrating in a single, interwoven web of life—hearts such as these can save the world. Hearts such as these can see past our imaginary lines and boundaries. They can forgive, reconcile, and heal. They are quite literally our only hope.
The two spiritual paths I’ve walked most closely—Anglicanism and Mevlevi Sufism—are expressions of Christianity and Islam that are at home in the ordinary, the everyday. Each, in its own way, says this is where God is found. Right here. In that ray of sunlight on that leaf, in this breath, in this heartbeat. In this moment of pain, confusion, and heartbreak. In these arms, this embrace, these feet set on the path.
In Christianity, we talk about this "holy ordinariness" in terms of "Incarnation"—the embodiment of God—which can set Jewish and Muslim teeth on edge. The Qur'an itself complains of those who say "God is the Messiah" (5:17), insisting that they "disbelieve," or literally "cover over," the truth. But some Islamic theologians have said this is only an issue when the Incarnation is limited in scope to Jesus; that is, when God is confined to a particular form. The 17th century Muslim scholar Kashani insisted that the problem wasn’t so much in saying "God is the Messiah" as it was in not saying "God is the Messiah and God is the entire universe." For in the words of the Qur'an, "Wheresoever you turn, there is the face of God" (2:115).
Can we speak then of a cosmic Incarnation, God poured out into the entire web of life, gradually becoming conscious of Godself through our own awakening hearts? Barbara Brown Taylor, a well-known Episcopal priest and preacher, writes about her own understanding of the Incarnation: "Relatively late in life, I have decided that incarnation is less a doctrine than a practice, which Jesus did not come to do once and for all but to show any who were willing how God’s word might become flesh in their lives too."
The voice of God once spoke through the Prophet Muhammad, "I was a hidden treasure, and I longed to be known, so I created the worlds." Perhaps we're each here to incarnate, to manifest, the hidden treasure that is the Heart of God. Perhaps our human hearts are capable of awakening to, and bearing forth, the tender, infinite longing of God, transforming it into that knowing that alone can save the world. Perhaps nothing is now more needed than this.
Recently I stumbled across the following passage in a book on “the Ninety-Nine Names of God” from the Islamic tradition:
Gradually a time comes in your spiritual process when you begin to feel a kind of citadel settling into your consciousness. You feel rooted in your process no matter what happens. You continue like a camel crossing the desert, even in the face of a sandstorm. The blessings of the divine are manifest in daily life. This is the realm where the daily bread of heaven comes into the daily bread of breakfast. It is the landing of the essential domain in daily life.
More and more, my spiritual life feels this way (and yes, the world has felt like a sandstorm lately). It's not about an escape, or a high, but simply finding the bread of heaven, right here, in the bread of breakfast. For me, this is what incarnation, embodying God, awakening heart, is all about. This is why I practice. And even though I still get distracted, lose my balance, become frustrated, my center is never that far off anymore or all that hard to find—I simply have to turn to it, and in a moment’s remembrance, “Oh yes, this is what really matters.”
Of course this tenderness, this simplicity, this sweetness is what matters. And so, can we each commit to getting more acquainted with our hearts? To resting in this abiding sweetness? There is hope in this. For me, Islam and Christianity have been ways into this knowing. They've given me much-needed language and practices. But language and practice are always in service of this. Of the heart. And the awakened heart knows no bounds.
 Reza Shah-Kazemi, The Other in Light of the One: The Universality of the Qur'an and Interfaith Dialogue, 2006, p. 221.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Practicing Incarnation, Christian Century, April 2005
 Physicians of the Heart: A Sufi View of the Ninety-Nine Names of Allah, Sufi Ruhaniat International, 2011, p. 358.