Monday, March 2, 2009

Doing the beautiful

Mysticism and Esoteric Tradition in World Religions. That's the name of the continuing ed class I'm taking right now. (Another good title would be Comparative Religions 2: The Mystic Years. ) I'm really enjoying it. On the first night, the professor defined mysticism as union with the absolute reality -- in other words, pure being. She talked about how mysticism has similar features among the different religious traditions, and the idea that there's a 'collective unconscious' leading to those similarities.

"There are no final answers about mysticism or religion," the professor said, "but that doesn't mean the questioning is not worthwhile." She then read this quote from "Letters to a Young Poet," written by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke in 1903: "Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms, or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."

I love that.

This week I stumbled onto the most beautiful phrase while reading a selection for class on Sufis (the mystics of Islam) from William C. Chittick's book "Sufism: A Short Introduction." Chittick explains that Islam has three basic dimensions: "submission" (islam), "faith" (iman), and "doing the beautiful" (ihsan). "Doing the beautiful" -- isn't that a wonderful expression?

Chittick writes: "The Prophet Muhammed...said that doing the beautiful is to 'worship God as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you'...It is the Sufis who take doing the beautiful as their own special domain...Both mercy and love are said to be the cause of creation. According to the great Sufi theoretician Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), the divine mercy that gives rise to the universe is existence itself. The very act of bringing things into existence is an act of gentleness and love. The same point is made in terms of love in a saying constantly quoted in Sufi texts: 'I was a hidden treasure,' God says, 'so I loved to be known. Hence I created the creatures that I might be known.'"

Makes a strong case for a benevolent God, doesn't it? You don't usually create something just to hurt it or destroy it. Chittick goes on to say that "human love makes itself known in sincerity of devotion to the One God. The greater the love, the greater the degree of participation in the divine image, and the greater the degree of human perfection. Hence 'love' is often taken as a synonym for doing the beautiful."

Doing the beautiful. I can't wait to read more about it.

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