A WHIRLING DERVISH

Lately I’ve been feeling like a whirling dervish…except that I’ve been getting dizzy.  If you’ve ever since those Persian/Turkish dancers with their high hats, loose slacks, and robes spinning in unison, you may think, well, of course they’re getting dizzy.  But the aim is ironically the opposite; they’re surpassing dizzy.

Dervishes are like Christian Orders.  Among the Catholics, there are Franciscan Friars (which I would have been if I had been male), Dominicans, Jesuits, Paulists, and Benedictines.  The Sufis (the mystics of Islam) have their fraternal orders as well and these are called Dervishes.  Among some of the more important dervishes are the Qadir, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, and the Mevlevi.  Like their Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist (known as sadhus) counterparts, individuals within the discipline of a dervish are practicing asceticism or a chosen simplicity and poverty, what the Sufis call tariqa (the path, the way to God).   

All dervishes do not whirl.  Each order follows the practices of its founder.  The Franciscans follow St. Francis of Assisi,  (the charismatic nobleman and soldier who gave up everything save God), wearing rough, plain garments, they live completely by alms, and serve the poorest of humanity and the needs of animals.   In Egypt, the Qadiryya dervish, also live humbly and give to the poor, but what sets them apart, is they are mostly comprised of one profession, they are fishermen.  Interesting to note, the more we are different, the more we are the same.  There was another famous fisher of men in Galilee, a Jesus of Nazareth, whose apostles were also fishermen. I guess you could say in some ways, that Jesus was the founder of his particular dervish.

But the dervish that whirls is the Mevlevi dervish. Founder Mevlana Jaladdin Rumi (1207-1273), the renowned mystic and prolific poet included the trance-like dancing as part of his practice of tariqa.  Rotating in a precise rhythm, the dance is part of a sacred ceremony.  The dancer represents the earth revolving on its axis while orbiting the sun.  The purpose of the ritual is to empty oneself of all distracting thoughts. Entering a meditative state, the body conquers dizziness.

There is intention.   When I am spinning my wheels, with a to-do list that is attacked like putting out a fire, tangled up in a lengthy fire hose, un-intentionally wrapped around myself like a boa constrictor; I have not entered the dance mindfully, but rather stumbled onto to the dance floor befuddled.  “Music is to develop the consciousness, poetry is wisdom”, said the prophet Muhammad.  Music, an essential accompaniment to whirling, is repetitive and rises to a crescendo of spiritual oneness, the blurring and blending of the material and cosmic worlds.

It is also about the breath.  It is bringing the body and mind just to the present.   

One of the many reasons that Rumi is known and loved across faiths and cultures is that his prolific writings speak to the timeless life of the Spirit. His message speaks of NOW:

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi or Zen.  Not any religion, or cultural system.  I am not from the East or the West, nor out of the ocean or up from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not composed of elements at all.  I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any origin story.  My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless,  neither body nor soul.  I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know. First, last, outer, inner, only that breath breathing human. (Rumi Poem, Only Breath).

Always, a returning, a turning back, no matter how many times one has strayed.

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I DON’T NEED A GURU, BUT A GUIDE CAN BE GOOD

Several tattered and dog-eared books rest on my shelves that have been pored over time and again for their guidance, inspiration, and comfort.  Two in particular have been indispensable on my spiritual journey, The Interior Castle by Teresa of Avila and Amazing Grace (A Vocabulary of Faith) by Kathleen Norris.  These authors, with their voices ancient and modern respectively, resonate with wisdom and perennially provide new insights into concepts which are meant to evolve as I am.

A sixteenth century Spanish mystic and prolific writer, St. Theresa of Avila continues to be one of my greatest spiritual mentors.  Hers is a soul I can relate to.  Teresa was not the archetype of the mild-mannered, retiring convent sister.  A complex personality, she was fiery, passionate, wild, and worldly.  She had dry times in prayers, doubts, and earthly irritations.  Divinity is brought to earth in Teresa; her honest words lend authenticity to the fact that this is truly a human endeavor we are about. 

She once wrote, “God deliver me from people so spiritual they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation no matter what.”  She did, out of necessity spend much time in contemplation herself, but toiled each day to know and live spiritually in the world.   

Courageous, she championed the reformation of the Carmelite monasteries with the Spanish Inquisitors growling at her door.  One biographer dubbed her the “warrior bride.”  For Teresa “was born with a warrior’s heart locked inside a woman’s body.”  In her burning desire to know her own soul and God’s relationship with it, she widened the notions of the sacred and added paths to holiness. 

Together with her curiosity of the natural world, Teresa provides concrete and practical advice for spiritual growth in any age.  Her poetic images of the soul, “the soul is a castle made entirely out of a diamond or a very clear crystal, in which there are many rooms,” continue to inspire my own writing.

Kathleen Norris, in the vernacular of the twentieth century, re-presents the Trinity, Christianity, and a myriad of ecclesiastical (church) practices in terms accessible to the laity.  For instance, she likens the Trinity to quarks.  These are subatomic particles that exist in threes.  There is no such thing as one quark, but only three interdependent beings, “part of the atomic glue that holds this world together.”  These kinds of analogies run through her writing, providing unusual and earthy examples to help us interpret difficult theological ideas.  For those that find much in religion too much myth, Norris reminds me to look beyond to the cycling power of metaphors.

Unique and unyielding, her questions act as steam for loosening “sacred” ambiguities, while allowing space to be enveloped in those same mysteries.  She prods the endless definitions and redefinitions of prayer as “stumbling over modern self-consciousness…with our addiction to ‘self-help’ and ‘how-to’ no wonder we have difficulty with prayer, for which the best how-to is Psalm 46: ‘be still and know that I am God.'” She states, “This can happen in an instant; it can also constitute a life’s work.”  Norris’ musings share the heart of true spiritual classics by revealing ways to unburden the intellect, disengage the ego, and surrender the whole self to the wonder of God.

The progressives among us, myself included, do well to reclaim and embrace these two women’s philosophies.