I first came to Rumi in the fall of 2000 at the suggestion of my teacher Carolyn Flynn. In response to a now forgotten comment or question, she recommended that I read his poem “Love Dogs.” A few months in her writing group had already dispelled my notion formed in college that poetry was an esoteric genre best left to more literary readers, and I trusted her judgement completely.
“Where can I find it?”
She pulled a worn copy of The Essential Rumi translated by Coleman Barks from the bookshelf behind her and held it up; the next day I held my own copy in my hands.
“Love Dogs” tells the story of a man who gave up praising Allah after a cynic pointed out that he’d never gotten a response. In a dream, Khidr, the guide of souls, explains to him:
You express is the return message.
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness
that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
It was as if the guide of souls had appeared in my own dream, offering me solace and a way out of my confusion. As soon as I finished, my eyes pulled my heart into the next poem, “Cry Out in Your Weakness,” and before I came to the end, I was weeping.
Crying out loud and weeping are great resources.
A nursing mother, all she does
is wait to hear her child.
Just a little beginning-whimper,
and she’s there.
At the time, I was going through a divorce, which had been preceded by discovering I was infertile. The loss of my marriage was piled on the grief of my empty womb, so many dreams for my life gone, and here was God like a mother wanting nothing more than to let the milk of loving flow into me. Suddenly I began to encounter Rumi everywhere. My friend Eric was quoting him in Caffe Bene, Sufi translator Kabir Helminski read at the Vets Hall, Coleman Barks at the Rio theater. One might never guess this celebrated poet had been born eight hundred years before in Afghanistan!
Rumi was a Sufi scholar guiding a community in Turkey in 1244 when a wandering dervish named Shams showed up and changed his life. The friendship between the two men transformed Rumi into a mystic and a poet spouting inspired verse as he whirled in the Sufi tradition. Fortunately for us, Rumi was profligate with the wisdom he received in his ecstatic dance. Like the right key fitting into a well-oiled lock, his poems opened my heart to the sensuality of the Divine. Rumi didn’t simply rave about bliss, nor did he discuss it in intellectual terms; he actually gave me a taste. And always Rumi had the right words.
When, in the thrill of new love, I half-complained to my therapist about not getting enough sleep, he laughed and shared a few lines from Rumi:
When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for these two insomnias!
And the difference between them.
After the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, the director of the International Students Program at Foothill College was planning a memorial service for our students who had lost loved ones. He called me in the library, asking for the poem “No Man Is an Island” or any poem I thought would be appropriate. Instead of John Donne I gave him Rumi: This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression … (p. 109) “That was perfect,” he told me later. And so a teacher from the 13th century found grieving students in the 21st, a mystic born in Afghanistan becomes a bestselling poet in the United States.
With eyes opened by Rumi I became alert to hints of sensual spirituality in the Bible. Taste and see how good the Lord is, David sang three thousand years ago, inviting us in Psalm 34 to use our senses to experience the Divine, while the Song of Songs offers a gorgeous allegory for our connection with God in its celebration of the erotic longing between a man and a woman: Arise, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come away … As a woman privately grappling with the patriarchy of my church, I felt the delight of noticing spring’s first roses whenever I discovered feminine imagery. More than once in the Psalms David compares God to a mother bird protecting her young, and Isaiah likewise promises that as a mother comforts her child, so will I [God] comfort you. Jesus takes up the metaphor when He laments over Jerusalem: how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings ….
As a Muslim and a scholar, it seems likely that Rumi was familiar with Hebrew and Christian scripture. Maybe some of those verses lived in his subsconscious and ignited in a moment of ecstatic twirling. Or could it be that the resonance of Rumi with other worshipers under the Tent of Abraham speaks to the universality of our experience?
It turns out that the Christian tradition also has a rich legacy of mystics. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Hildegard of Bingen, and St. Teresa of Avila have joined The Essential Rumi on my bookshelves, but Rumi has a special place in my heart. He is there whenever I need to cry out in my weakness or simply long to taste and see the goodness of the Divine.