The Path of Love

· Articles & Essays · ,

By Belden C. Lane

Discernment is the spiritual task of sifting through what is illusory in our lives to discover what is authentic. It’s the process of making decisions that are compatible with who we are.  One of the gifts I bring back from wilderness trips is the clarity of purpose that’s apparent in everything I meet there. Things in the natural world know inherently how to be what they are. Discernment is naturally embedded in them as instinct. Only we humans struggle to figure out who we are and what we should be doing. As poet David Whyte observes, we are the one species able to resist our own flowering.

Perhaps a place like Taum Sauk Mountain can point me again to my own most natural way of being and doing, as I choose what path to take at this juncture in my life. Some people talk of discerning God’s “leading” in their lives. Quakers, for instance, speak of attending to “nudges” that arise in the interiority of the soul, coming from the inner light of the Spirit. I’m curious as to whether this ancient Ozark landscape might bring out insights that are already percolating inside me.

In the Evangelical setting where I grew up, determining God’s will for your life was a major concern. Discernment meant listening for God’s voice coming from outside yourself, telling you precisely what to do—usually through the reading of Scripture. People closed their eyes with their thumbs pressed to the pages of their Scofield Bibles, opening to a random page for explicit guidance. When I did that, I usually turned to a passage about so-and-so begetting so-and-so, which wasn’t terribly helpful. We were taught to think of the Bible as a rulebook offering specific instructions for any given situation. We weren’t allowed to consult a Ouija board, but the King James text could function in a similar way.

I’ve learned through the years that discernment usually comes from within rather than from without. It isn’t a magical divining process by which a skillful biblical dowser can pinpoint God’s will with precision. The point isn’t to be told exactly what to do anyway. It’s more being open to the quiet, inner perception that emerges as a result of extended time on the trail or a sustained exposure to the biblical text. It’s a matter of settling into what we know ourselves most deeply to be. Traditionally, the “discernment of spirits” is a process for sorting out the deepest desires of the heart from the superficial yearnings that distract us. It requires our getting in touch with our truest self, being free to listen and act from our heart’s desire.  Wilderness hiking helps with that.

I’ve brought along an intriguing companion on this trip, the thirteenth-century Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi. One couldn’t ask for a more down-to-earth, exuberant, God-intoxicated hiking partner.  Conversations with him under the stars at night can be a drunken revel, peppered with earthy imagery and raucous laughter.  He talks of God in relation to chickpeas cooking on an open fire, the moon reflected on a pond’s surface, the scent of willow trees, or the longing of Potiphar’s wife for Joseph’s striking beauty. For Rumi, the encounter with the holy is always anchored in earthy human experience. Knowing the Great mystery—discerning the will of Allah—is, for him, more like falling in love than receiving instructions from a written text.

While Rumi began his life as a meticulous scholar, he suddenly morphed into a playful theologian, multiplying images and transcending the literal meaning of texts. The change occurred one autumn day in 1244, when he met a traveling teacher and gadfly by the name of Shams-i-Tabriz. This charismatic sheikh or spiritual master became a lightning-rod for the young scholar, awakening in him a sense of his deepest purpose in life. Meeting Shams, Rumi fell head over heels in love with God.

Photo by Neil Moralee

Photo by Neil Moralee

There are rare occasions, it seems, when you may meet an extraordinary human being who mirrors a capacity for something you’ve never recognized in yourself. This carrier of divine energy can be flawed personally in all sorts of ways, but he or she sparks a fire in the dry tinder of a hungry heart. The fire may not burst into full flame, however, until the teacher departs. Rumi wrote his finest poetry only after Shams’s death, as longing was stirred by the remembrance of his teacher. Often the master has to leave for the apprentice to incorporate his truth.

The heart of Rumi’s teaching lies in the Sufi concept of tawhid (or “oneness”). This is a longing for mystical union with the Beloved, with the divine lover from whom one has been separated. In the opening lines of his most famous work, the Masnavi (his “flute songs”), Rumi portrays the soul as a reed cut from the damp reed-bed of God’s own heart. It yearns to return to its source, finding a transient joy in becoming a reed flute through which the divine breath of love’s fire passes. Like a drunken fool, Rumi is smitten by love. He can think of nothing else.

The core of discernment for him, therefore, isn’t a question of “What should I do?” or “What is expected of me?” It is rather “What do I love? What arises now most naturally from my heart?” For this thirteenth-century Persian poet, religion isn’t primarily what you think, or even the actions you perform. It is what you desire. “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and righdoing there is a field,” he promises. “I’ll meet you there.” In a sunlit field strewn with love, like wildflowers, the heart wanders, intoxicated. The Sufi master warns that the mind alone won’t get you there, any more than concentrated effort. Yearning is what connects you with the divine. Love is a camel that can’t be squeezed into the chicken coop of the intellect.” Nor will keeping the rules guarantee a relationship with God.

The poet of Konya tells a story of Moses passing an uneducated shepherd along a dusty road. Moses, the stern lawgiver, overhears the man speaking to God as if to a child, saying, “I want to fix your shoes, comb your hair, and wash your clothes. I want to kiss your little hands and feet when it’s time for you to go to bed.” Moses shouts out indignantly, “What is this blasphemous familiarity? You don’t talk about shoes and socks with God!” His harsh words send the repentant shepherd off into the desert, sighing as he goes.

But then God himself rebukes Moses, saying, “Don’t scold a Lover like that. I don’t want your proper words. I want burning. Burn up your thinking and all your forms of expression.” Chagrined, Moses runs after the shepherd and catching up with him, exclaims, “I was wrong. God has revealed to me that there are no rules for worship. Say whatever your loving tells you to.” But the shepherd replies, “Ah, Moses. I’ve gone now even beyond that. The Divine Nature and my human nature have become one. I haven’t words at all anymore.” The shepherd, in his simplicity, has pierced through the veil of speaking and doing, joined with the holy through the immediacy of the heart.

To borrow another of Rumi’s metaphors, the shepherd has been “cooked” and softened—roasted over a fire so as to be transformed at last into the shape of love. This radical change can be excruciating. The chickpea screams when the cook throws it into the boiling water: “Why are you doing this to me?” But when he understands that the cooking is meant to give him flavor, vitality, and an altogether new life, the bean stops resisting and welcomes the process of conversion. “Boil me some more,” he cries. “Hit me with the skimming spoon. I can’t do this by myself.”

Photo by Matt Crawford

Photo by Matt Crawford

Discipline is necessary to transition from the raw to the cooked. Only over time is the lover transformed into the image of the beloved. At first, he stands knocking on the door of the one he desires. “Who is it?” the voice inside replies. “It is I,” he responds. “Go away,” she retorts. “This is no place for people who are raw and crude.” Scorned and rejected, he wanders away in despair, spending a year in the fire of separation, being cooked and burnt. Slowly he matures in the sustained absence of what his heart desires. At last he returns to knock at the door once again. “Who is there?” asks the beloved, as before. This time the lover answers, “It is you.” “Ah, come in then,” she replies, “now that you and I are one. There is no room in this house for two I’s.”

Love is a school of fire, Rumi teaches. You embrace its mystery only in losing yourself, in finally becoming what you love. In the process, you discover that what you had thought to be entirely outside had been within you all along. In a similar analogy, Rumi affirms that every lover is pregnant—like Mary—with Jesus. Only in celebrating this mystery, carrying the pregnancy to term, and accepting the transformative pain that gives birth to Christ can her joy be made complete. The poet keeps falling back on multiple figures of speech, struggling to convey what he isn’t able to put into words. He knows, like Carl Jung, that people are transformed by images far more than by concepts. He reaches for poetry, storytelling, even song and dance in a crazed attempt to express the inexpressible.

To this day, his disciples commemorate his “wedding night,” the night of his death on December 17, 1273, as the occasion of his final ecstatic encounter with the hope of his longing. On that night every year, in music and dance, they reclaim the power of a medieval poet who has never stopped singing.

Belden C. Lane is Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies, American Religion, and History of Spirituality at Saint Louis University.

From Backpacking with the Saints. Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.


Belden C. Lane is Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies, American Religion, and History of Spirituality at Saint Louis University.

From Backpacking with the Saints. Copyright © 2015 Oxford University Press. Reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press.

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