Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Conference of the Birds

I'm still in a "dry patch" when it comes to church. I've gone to a different Catholic church in the neighborhood a couple of times -- good for a change of pace -- but I still feel like I'm watching everything from the bottom of a well. I know I should go back to St. Bart's in Manhattan, but it takes me over an hour each way and I already feel like I live on the subway during the week ,what with all the traveling to my teaching and tutoring jobs. So on Sundays it's really nice to be able to walk to church. Since I fidget through most of it, though, I suppose it kind of defeats the purpose. I'll get there.

Spiritually speaking, I'm actually getting more out of my Mysticism class. I loved reading about the Sufis, the mystic branch of Islam. I can totally see the appeal, not just of Sufism but of Islam in general. During our last class, we read this beautiful parable, told in the book "Ways of Being Religious" by Gary E. Kessler. Kessler explains it's from the climax of "The Conference of the Birds," a mystical epic written by Farid al-Din Attar, a Persian Sufi poet who lived from 1120 - 1230. In the story, a large group of birds listens as a man is told that to achieve union with God, he would have to go on an incredibly long and arduous journey, crossing "seven oceans of light and seven of fire." Hearing this, the birds despair at how difficult such a journey would be for them. Many of the birds feel such sorrow that they die right then and there. But the rest decide to try. Their hard journey takes years and years, and thousands of them die along the way. By the end, only thirty birds make it to "the sublime place."

When these 30 birds arrive, they explain, "We have come to acknowledge the Simurgh (God) as our king. Through love and desire for him, we have lost our reason and our peace of mind...We cannot believe the king will scorn us after all the sufferings we have gone through. He cannot but look on us with the eye of benevolence!"

But the Chamberlain (the gatekeeper) tells them that "thousands of worlds of creatures are no more than an ant at the King's gate. Return then to whence you came, O vile handful of earth!"

The birds are shattered, but they are still "on fire with love," so they argue: "The friend we seek will content us by allowing us to be united to him. If now we are refused, what is there left for us to do? We are like the moth who wished for union with the flame of the candle. They begged him not to sacrifice himself so foolishly and for such an impossible aim, but he thanked them for their advice and told them that since his heart was given to the flame forever, nothing else mattered."

Finally, the Chamberlain,who had been testing the birds, opens the door, drawing aside one curtain after another, revealing a new world. The birds feel such peace and detachment from everything, they begin to realize that God is present! Their past is swept away. And then:

"The sun of majesty sent forth his rays, and in the reflection of each other's faces, these thirty birds of the outer world contemplated the face of the Simurgh (God) of the inner world...They did not know if they were still themselves or had become the Simurgh...In a state of contemplation, they realized that they were the Simurgh and the Simurgh was the thirty birds...And perceiving both at once, themselves and Him, they realized that they and the Simurgh were one and the same being. No one in the world has heard of anything to equal it." (Attar, "The Conference of the Birds")

The professor pointed out that this is a story of imminence rather than transcendence. The birds always had God within them; they just hadn't known it. And God is not only inside each of us. God is also in the faces of the birds, the seekers, looking at each other. We find God together. In each other. In community.

That's why I keep going to church. I can't be "spiritual but not religious." Sometimes I can feel it by myself, but for me, the most spiritual I've ever felt has always been in communion with other people.

1 comment:

  1. I'm riding out a dry patch too. Or maybe it's more a funk. I'll be back to it. Soon.