Monday, December 14, 2009

Sitting with Sufis: A Christian Experience of Learning Sufism | Review

1.
Sitting with sufis Mary Blye Howe, Book"At a time when Sufism is coming to the West, Mary Blye Howe's book fills a need for first hand accounts from Westerners who have experienced its fragrance, its taste, and its beauty. In the Sufi way of life, in its knowledge and love, are many gifts for our culture." - Kabir Helminski, Sufi teacher and author

"This brief but poignant account of Howe's spiritual journey with Sufis is an interfaith gem that ought to embolden others to act upon their deepest yearnings to draw closer to God." - Spirituality & Health, March/​April 2005

".. those seeking to affirm the universalism of core teachings of different religions, and those drawn to the mystical religious path, will welcome this...memoir." - Publishers Weekly, Jan 17, 2005

Sitting with the Sufis: A Christian Experience of Learning Sufism (Paraclete Press, 2005) by Mary Blye Howe is a spiritual memoir, and indeed a beautiful one. In it Mary takes the reader along on her spiritual journey as she discovers the depths of the Sufi tradition. The Reader experiences with Mary the joyous spirituality of the Turkish Sufis as she travels to this country with 50 dervishes, staying in homes of locals dervishes. She explores the mysteries of the sema - the dance made famous by Rumi - as she whirls at midnight under a starlit sky on a ranch in the Texas Hill country. But most importantly, she welcomes those who pick up the book to accept the invitation to enter the world of the mystics - a realm that is open to all sincere spiritual seekers - who make it their goal to live a life full of the Divine Beloved.

2.
In the opening chapter this is how Mary Blye begins:
My mom delights in telling the story of the morning she stood on the porch of our white-shingled house in a coal-mining town in southern Illinois watching me ride my tricycle. As a three-year-old, I was vigorously pedaling from one end of our front sidewalk to the other. When I’d come to the street at one end, I’d pause, gaze into the sky, and wave. Then reversing my direction, my tiny legs turning the pedals as rapidly as possible, I’d reach the street at the other end of the sidewalk. Once again, I’d pause, look upward, and wave.

Mom watched me for a long time. Back and forth I went, pedaling with all my might, then stopping and waving towards the sky.

Finally Mom called to me, “Mary Blye. What are you doing honey?”

“Waving to God” I called back.

This story symbolizes my spiritual and religious journey. For as long as I can remember, a deep awareness of and a longing for God has existed within my heart.

When I first came across this book in a bookstore on the Mall at Boulder, Colorado I was so delighted to find it there and her book that particular day, the page I opened - had a very clear message of a question I was looking for at the moment. My heart knew then, this book comes for a special person and this account is a telling of truth. So I noted down her name, came back home and found her website online, wrote her back. Out of generosity she promised me to send the book and indeed she went the trouble of shipping it to the other end of the world in my home in Bangladesh. It was and still is a delight to open and read. God bless her for her generosity and shower her path with baraqa.

3.
The introduction to the book writes, “Through informative detail and enlightening descriptions of spiritual practices, Howe introduces us to some of the West’s most important Sufi teachers as they tell stories, share laughter, and travel across the world to Sufi holy sites. In her personal style, Howe also explores the mysteries of the sema – the meditation movement that made Rumi famous – and invites us to experience what it is like to whirl at midnight under a starlit sky on a ranch in the Texas Hill country. With warmth and grace, Mary Blye Howe reveals how was can experience the beauty of another religious tradition, even if from the outside.”

Reading her book it occurs to me that Mary Blye wasn’t experiencing from the outside. She experienced the mystery of the Sufism from an intimate inside which even many so called “muslim’ fail to experience. And for that reason Mary qualifies more as a muslim (one who have surrendered to the divine) than those who claim it to be.

Mary is mindful and humble to say, “This book is intended to be a spiritual memoir, not a treatise on Sufism. My spiritual practices are my own and don’t necessarily reflect Sufism as a whole, or even the practices of the order with which I am affiliated.”

"Howe’s personal account offers an inspiring and practical antidote to religious divisiveness and exclusivity." - Murray Bodo, Franciscan priest

4.
Importantly as Mary tells her own experiences, personal stories, she weaves it by introducing some fundamental priciples of the Sufi path in a very simple way, easy to understand for someone who might have read about Sufi path for the first time through her writing. She explains the basic concept such as the guidance of a personal teacher, intimacy of the path, sohbet etc.

In the Book the author shares some of her significant dreams upon which Sufis place great importance.

In the chapter, “Finding the Teacher” she shares a dream:

In one of the most significant dreams I’ve ever had, I dreams I was looking for a jewelery strore and asked several people for directions. One tried to give me directions but because they did’nt know where I was coming from, they failed to get me even to the first street.

Another began to give me directions in a confident manner, then began faltering and ended up telling me they didn’t know how to get me to the jewelery store. A third person shrugged.

Then I found myself next to a Sufi friend who led to a vantage point in which I could look out on an endless expanse of mountains. Everywhere I looked I saw the most magnificent beauty. Then my friend simply pointed in a general direction towards one of the peaks.

In my dream, I felt confused. What kind of directions are these, I wondered? How am I to find the jewelery store – this place of tremendous value and beauty – by having someone point a finger in a vague direction?

When I woke the message was immediate and clear. The way to the Kingdom of God – a state of intimacy and the closest communion – isn’t set out step by step. I’ll have valleys to walk through, which St. John of the Cross called the “dark nigh of the soul”. I’ll have some steep climbs ahead of me and will sometimes feel lost and tired and hopeless as I walk towards paradise.

Yet I’ll always be surrounded by unimaginable beauty.

5.
I loved the style of sharing of her personal stories. Here is a lovely example:

I have several meditations that I focus on throughout the day. One of my favorites is what a Turkish translator calls in a quaint English rendition, which I love: “Seven Advice of Mevlana [Rumi]”. I have several reminders hanging in different rooms of my home, all of which I bought at Rumi’s tomb in Konya, Turkey. In my office hangs a fringed prayer mat that I’ve framed; the so-named “Advice” sits below a famous depiction of the saint, seated and bowed in prayer. .. Another framed version hangs in another room so that each morning before I begin my day, I’m reminded to choose one of Rumi’s seven pieces of advice – one for each day of the week – to meditate upon throughout that day.

Rumi’s Advice reflect the high level of inner purity that Sufis strive for. Here is the translation that hangs ..

In generosity and healing others, be like a river
In compassion and grace, be like sun.
In concealing others’ fault be like night
In anger and fury be like dead.
In modesty and humility be like earth.
In tolerance be like a sea.
Either exist as you are or be as you look.

Some days, I’ll couple my particular “Rumi” meditation for that day with a zikr connected to the corresponding divine Name of God (this is a personal practice and not characteristic of Sufi practice in general). On the day I meditate on Rumi’s advice “to be like night in concealing others’ faults,” for instance, I might chant the Name al-Ghafur (Concealer of Faults), along with the closely related Name al-Ghaffar (The Forgiver).

.. My meditation, of course, also show me just how far I have to go – a realization that, in Sufism, is the first step towards purity. The Sufis teach that we have to be couragenous enough to face our shortcomings – to see ourselves as we really are – before we can become the person God wants us to be. If we’re serious about pursuing purity, this task is agonizing and ego-shattering.

6.
Open Secret and Hints for Seekers

Mary is a delightful writer (and an award-winning author as well) and she knows how to give interesting hints along her writing which a careful reader can pickup along the way. Describing her experience of sitting with two sufi master at a spiritual retreat she cleverly leave for reader an important hint. She says, while I leave the name of the sufi master here, “… An expression of holy delight fills his face – an expression that I have found only on the faces of authentic spiritual leaders.”

Indeed a seeker must look out for that holy delight upon the face of a true master (one who has attained mastery on his or her self first), an authentic spiritual teacher. This delight doesnt mean physical beauty, but it is a charm far beyond that.

7.
In the book, significantly Mary describe what attracts her in the Sufi path:

As a child, I remember most vividly my fascination with the Hebrew Prophets. The described a God who would stop at nothing to win the heart of the beloved. Nothing could deter this God, nothing hamper such passionate, Divine love. The prophets often spoke of the relationship of God with humankind as a kind as that of Lover and beloved. Such romance drew me, even at a young age.

When I encountered Sufisn, I knew I’d found the path that would lead me, step by step, with the practice of Sufi rituals, disciplines, and meditations, into this Divine Romance. Rumi beckoned me to “Come, come!” Come and drink the wine of the Beloved, become inebriated with God.

“I follow the religion of Love” wrote Rumi, “and go whichever way this camel leads me.” Because love is the heart of all the great religions, I knew this was the path that could lead me to the essence of faith, and allow me to discover the bonds that unite us as human beings.

While the practices of Sufism have provided me with a unique spiritual path, these practices have also offered me a deeper mystical entryway, as well as a more vibrant sense of divine love, within the religions I most love. Sufism hasn’t replaced religion, it deepened it. Sufism is helping me learn again to wave at God.

When I was struggling with the decision of whether to receive initiation onto the path of Sufism, a friend told me to stop worrying about it. I could, so to speak, drink and eat at their table, nourishing myself as a guest for as long as I wanted.

This is what I offer to you. Sup at the table of the dervishes. Be a guest, have a few hors d’oeuvers, and nibble from the feast that has been prepared. Your life will be changed, your experience of God expanded, and your heart opened. And one day you may find yourselves so full that you can no longer leave the table.


In the chapter, Choosing my Mystical Path, Mary describe what draws her to Sufism. She writes,

Undoubtedly for me, the most powerful draw of Sufism is its emphasis on love as the path to God. Like most people in the West, the little I knew about Sufism some years ago was through reading Rumi, but his poetry so attracted me that I had to know more.

For Rumi, God was the Beloved, and a passionate longing and love for God filled every fiber and cell of his being. Once you sip the wine of God, say the Sufis, you’ll drink until nothing else matters.

This is the ecstasy that Rumi continuously lived in. In his consuming love for God, Rumi wrote of: Riding the Moon and becoming the “endless Sea”.

In the lover’s heart is a lute
Which plays the melody of longing.
You say he looks crazy –
That’s only because your ears are not tuned
To the music by which he dances.

He also wrote:

For me, the anguish inspired by your charms is
Inexhaustibly charming.
As the sun you blind me with the radiance of your beauty;
If I lower my gaze, who shall I look at?

Rumi epitomizes what it means to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind.

For the Sufis, love is not only the divine force that draws the worshiper towards God, it is the full realization, goal, and culmination of the spiritual path. In other words, love begets more love until, as the apostle John says, “love is perfected in us.”

“Sufism”, writes Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, “is suited to those who need to realize their relationship with God as a love affair, who need to be drawn by the thread of love and longing back to their Beloved.” This particularly appeals to me because of the legalism that had marked most of my life.

This morning, I sat at the altar in my home and realized how full of worship I felt. Al-Azim, I said, fingering my first prayer bead, al-Jalil. The Magnificent, The Majestic, The Magnificent, The Majestic. Filled with love, I was reminded, once again, why I’m drawn to the mystical path of Sufism.

Another reason Sufism attracts me is, of course, its absorption in mystery. I’m deeply drawn to the mysterious, to aspects of God that rise above my intellectual grasp, and to realms of experience that bring God into my life in an out-of-the-ordinary way.

8.
What is the value of such spiritual memoir?

One particular reader's comment in Amazon caught my eyes which reads:

"I am by no means an expert on Sufism, but I found this "journal" of one woman's quest to know and love God on another level well written, easy to read and enchanting. This encouraged me on my own journey to know and understand other faiths and paths to our amazing God."

I believe the ability of such sharing to inspire other speaks for the inherent value of such sharing with the world, even when it come from an utterly personal space of encountering divine presence, The Mystery and That Presence.

There is no difference in the destination,
the only difference is in the journey.
- Inayat Khan

Sufi, rest not at the Names;
Come learn Whose Names they are.
To know the Named One, that's the aim,
The only aim in studying the Names.
- Abdu'l-Ahad al-Nuri

# Website of Mary Blye Howe
. Sitting with the Sufis @ Amazon
. Rumi, Shams and Whirling
. Spiral Dance and Hymn of Christ
. Sema, Human being in Universal Movement Pin It Now!

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