15 August 2009

The Wool

Lately I've taken to Islamic philosophy. Most of the few I've studied were Aristotelian in bent, applying as they could Greek thought to Allah's movements. One Al-Suhrawardi took it a bit too far for surrounding convention and found himself on the chopping block. This has happened in the Christian world, too: thinkers who think too much - and talk too much - and wind up on a stack of wood or a block of wood or a deck of wood, neck wrapped tight.

But of all things, it's Sufism that made me throw the book. It's Islamic mysticism more than philosophy, and it's heavy, heavy stuff. The ultimate goal for any wool-wearer (for this is what Sufi means), is to be utterly and irrevocably captured by God. It is no secret that Muslims are prone to using strong language about what they do and believe. This conviction makes the West blush and stammer and make excuses for why it doesn't believe. I digress.

This ultimate goal for the Sufi is fana, "annihilation." David Griesedieck writes about one who might undergo this conflagration, "The true experience of God will overwhelm the mind. If the experience is brief enough, the mind may recover and return to normal functioning; but a mystical experience of any significant duration will truly be fana: the permanent destruction of the mind and, with it, one's personal existence."

It's telling that anyone joins this movement at all.

Elswhere, Annie Dillard wrote about a certain style of Jew who wept and embraced his family every morning before leaving for the synagogue. He was convinced - every morning - that he would never return. What if, if you please, the Mighty One smites him for uttering "Lord" before the trembling Jew gets to say "have mercy on me"?

In yet another place - in Mark's gospel - Jesus famously questions, "For what doth it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?"

Do the math.

Things on this side are messy, muddy and full of feeling. I get in rifts with people. I demand too much, give too little, flee too quickly. I sit in an abandoned church, go on a solitary drive, swim in silence. My head is in the clouds, you see, and my feet firmly planted on a stack of sticks.

"You have seduced me, O Lord," the ranting Jeremiah wrote, "and I let myself be seduced." A priest once told me that the word for "seduced" could also be translated as "raped."

It's that I never asked for this that irks me; that I never went a-looking for the deep end. It's a lonely road when words fail, when I fail. It's a letdown to look into another's eyes and find that what I believed would last was but a flashing, brief, escaping light. And so I pick up the staff, shake the dust, and move on.

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