A Way of Seeing
Photo: Shaikh Kabir and Shaikha Camille Helminski at the grave of Suleyman Dede; Konya, Turkey, 2010
Almost every morning, after praying Morning Prayer from The Book of Common Prayer (with its cycle of psalms and Scripture readings), I offer a series of bows, prostrations, and chanted prayers known as salaat (this particular cycle—one of five that falls throughout the day—is the fajr or dawn prayer, offered shortly before sunrise, or—if that’s too early!—upon waking). I follow this with my daily zikr, a contemplative practice of chanting Divine Names in set counts using a string of prayer beads (I follow the form used by Mevlevi dervishes; zikr is literally the Arabic word for remembrance, as in Quran 13:28: "In remembrance of God, hearts find rest.")
Praying the Daily Office connects me deeply to my Christian tradition and its Jewish roots, and has patterned the psalms into my heart like dear, old friends. Often when a beloved psalm comes up in the 7-week cycle on which they’re prayed, I feel the same delight met during a surprise encounter with a beloved companion—“Oh, it’s you! It’s so good to see you.” The appointed Scripture readings connect me with sacred stories and images that shape my imagination and become a kind of food for the heart (“Taste and see that the Lord is good!” [Psalm 34:8]).
Salaat, however, brings my prayer into my body. The tenderness felt in touching my forehead to the floor in sweet surrender to God, or in standing to chant a series of beloved ayat from the Qur’an, awareness anchored in the heart—these practices simply feed a different part of my body-soul. And no books or page-turning are required! The non-text-centeredness of this practice is one of its most brilliant moves, making it quite unlike most forms of Christian ritual prayer. Through this practice, I'm connected to Islam in the simplest and most universal of ways.
And then zikr—ah! A practice centered entirely in the heart and the sensation of vocal resonance. For the longest time, I only knew Christian and Buddhist forms of contemplative practice—forms of seated meditation or “centering prayer.” When I learned zikr, my voice was brought online and beads placed in my hand to be moved through my fingers. The head is moved gently with the rhythm of the chant, and in a group setting, circle-dancing may even be involved. Suddenly my body and sensation weren't ignored or left behind, but given a central place in the prayer.
I hadn't realized before this encounter that an explicitly contemplative practice could so fully involve movement and sound. I also discovered that with more of myself “online” during the practice (body, voice), I tended to go more quickly, more deeply into my center than I did in a seated, silent practice alone. More than that, I found that a period of stillness and silence following such a practice was profoundly resonant, spacious, and full.
Chanting the name of God—Allah—immediately evokes the sensation of resonance right smack in the heart-center. Take a moment to try it—remembering that Palestinian Christians and Arabic-speaking Jews also use this holy Name to call on the One Source of Being. Place a hand over your heart and begin slowly vocalizing Al-lah, slightly drawing out each syllable and attuning to the actual vibration felt in your chest. Allow awareness to drop from your mental head-center, down into simple, spacious heart-presence. Imagine the vibration of the Name loosening constriction and cleansing any negativity from the field of your heart. And simply be in that spaciousness. What do you discover?
Last month I offered this practice with a group of over 100 seekers at Cynthia Bourgeault’s “Wisdom Ingathering” in Stonington, Maine. The resonance and collective heart-field that we opened and generated together was astoundingly beautiful. Afterwards, a woman came up to me and shared that, even with decades of spiritual practice under her belt, she had never felt her heart so open as she did during the zikr. It's not surprising that Sufism is often called “the science of the purification of the heart” or simply "the way of the heart." As I mentioned in my last post, the heart is understood here as an organ of spiritual perception—that within us which has the ability to perceive the universe qualitatively and from relationship. Zikr is one practice among others intended to bring that knowing, that seeing, online.
Recently, Br. Aidan, OHC began gathering with Yanick and me on Wednesday nights at St. Mary's (our house on the grounds of Holy Cross Monastery) for an hour of contemplative practice and spiritual conversation. A few weeks back, at Yanick's prompting, we decided to offer a bit of communal zikr, a practice new to Br. Aidan, to close the evening. He was so taken with it, that we decided to commit our next evening entirely to zikr—and then did the same the following week. What I've found for myself and repeatedly heard from others, Br. Aidan also confirmed—that he's finding this resonant, heart-centered discipline is opening and deepening his spiritual heart in new and grounding ways. Perhaps, without intending it, we've stumbled our way into a Sufi practice circle, right here at Holy Cross Monastery!
Admittedly, a local practice circle is something I’ve longed for over the years. I’ve practiced in the Mevlevi tradition since 2009, and only had the opportunity to join a local, monthly circle for the first three of the nine years I’ve been on this path. If I'm honest, I know the main reason I’ve not attempted to start a circle like this grows out of personal fear in relation to my priesthood, and a desire to not create confusion among my fellow Christians whom I’m so honored to serve. “Why is the local priest participating in something Islamic?!” is the question I fear being thrown around. Not because I'm embarrassed of Islam, but because I'm not sure others will be able to hear or understand the way these two traditions might meet in one heart. But maybe it's time to get over that!
As I've noted elsewhere, this kind of religious bridge-work is done much more easily between Christianity and a tradition like Buddhist meditation or Hindu yoga. There’s simply more baggage when it comes to Islam—although the traditions are much closer in vision, language, and practice (I suppose that's just how it goes with family—a little too close for comfort...). I’m realizing more and more, however, that the problem isn't simply a question of Christianity and Islam… but one of which Islam (and which Christianity, for that matter). In a blog post last year, “The Most Important Thing I Learned from Our Murshid,” my own murshid, or Sufi guide, Kabir Helminski, reflected on the different kinds of Islam that exist:
…there’s more than one Islam. Islam, to some, is a collection of divine commands which must be obeyed, rituals that must be carefully observed in order to earn a high place in heaven. It has a certain look—one can dress more or less Islamically—and there are Muslim names. Some may even distinguish Sunni from Shia names. On the other hand there may be an Islam that is virtually invisible, free of identifying outer appearances.
It’s in large part this reality that makes it difficult to talk about my experience of, and participation in, “Islam.” When most Westerners hear “Islam” they think of a specific “religion” (in the conventional sense described above), of phrases like “Shariah law,” of men with beards and women in burqas. Or perhaps they think of a particular theological system—one which rejects Christian dogmas like the Trinity or the Incarnation.
But when I talk about Islam, I’m speaking from my experience of a living path of spiritual transformation—a lineage of knowledge, insight, practice, and community that is first and foremost about the awakening of love and the perception of unity. It’s in no way rigidly dogmatic or legalistic, and as Shaikh Kabir says above, it’s often “virtually invisible” to those on the outside—seen only in the quality of love and humility embodied in its practitioners.
In the West, we've been trained to think primarily in terms of opposition and difference, of right and wrong, of "us vs. them." This Islam, however, isn't playing by those rules, or even in the same ballpark; and it's so different from what we see in our news media that it's hard to imagine they could even be called the same thing (but then, I suppose that's also how I feel when I compare the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to, say, Franklin Graham).
Shaikh Kabir, reflecting on his relationship with his own murshid, Suleyman Dede (pronounced de-day; an honorific meaning “grandfather” or “elder”), explains that the Islam and Sufism he learned at Dede’s feet
is essentially a way of seeing reality. Everybody has a worldview. Most people merely inherit their worldview from the society in which they live, including their parents and educators, and nowadays from the media. I am forever grateful for how Dede effected a shift in my perception of reality. I am convinced now, and more and more every day, that all of existence derives from Love. The most important thing I learned from my Murshid is that everything is in the service of Love. This loving Mercy, Rahmah, imbues every particle of existence.
It’s this perception that is the heart and essence of the Islam I’ve learned, in turn, from Kabir Dede. The practices, traditions, and scripture, the teacher-student relationship… all of it… is simply and only in service of this seeing—and of its lived embodiment in daily life. This isn't something that's doctrinally quantifiable or that could ever be used to bludgeon or battle another "religion." To use St. Paul's language, it can only be measured by "the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23).
Yes, it flows from the life and teachings of Muhammad; yes, it's rooted in the vision of the Qur’an; yes, it has its normative practices. While it's not other than any of these things, it is nevertheless primarily a current of spiritual energy—held alive in the life of the planet by circles of lovers who strive to attune their being to the frequency of Love they’ve encountered in and through the tradition and its representatives. It's a current that flows through the Prophet Muhammad to Imam Ali to Shams of Tabriz to Jalaluddin Rumi to Suleyman Dede to right now. And it becomes evermore refined and fragrant as it flows.
I've found it entirely possible to participate fully in this Islam, this way of seeing, even as I participate fully in my Christianity. Every point of tension or conflict created between these two traditions—most often by their theologians, jurists, and scholars—is or can be dissolved by their mystics. It's all un-answered, dis-solved, in that open space of the heart, in the pure resonance of Allah, Allah, Allah... (Abba, Abba, Abba...) echoing in the heart's cave—and most clearly, in the silence that falls after... and in... the sound.
In my next post, God willing, I'll tackle head-on some of the major stumbling blocks to deep Christian-Muslim sharing—particularly in relation to the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Crucifixion of Jesus. Ultimately, these questions, these problems, arise from a different starting point than the one the Islam—and Christianity—I know and love begin from. But as Shaikha Camille Helminski once reminded me—the intellect has its rights, and sometimes it must be satisfied before it allows access to the heart. Sometimes you have to use a thorn to remove a thorn... and then throw both thorns away.
The last words I'll give to Shaikh Kabir and the Qur'an, two invitations to see:
...nothing that we truly experience is apart from the vast context of Love’s Universe in which an individual soul that begins to trust this Love will be enriched by every experience of Life. This was the education that began with our Murshid, Suleyman Dede in Konya, Turkey... This is the universe we have come to live in.
Turn your face with purity toward the primordial religion, according to the innate nature with which God has made humankind; do not allow what God has made to be corrupted. That is authentic religion, but most people do not understand.