Judith is a compassionate person and I suspect she thought the poems would uplift me at a time when the discussion around Islam tends to be depressing.
Muslims are commonly equated in the media with "terrorists" and the Immigration and Naturalization Service's campaign to fingerprint Muslims in the United States has caused anger, dismay and paranoia in the community. The talk about war in Iraq and its possible consequences has been a further cause of concern. The ordinary Iraqi people are suffering terribly for no fault of theirs: first, the brutality of the dictator who rules over them; then the war over a decade ago, which isolated them from the world and created a wall of sanctions around them.
She was right. I was not only uplifted but even diverted from the headlines and television news. The drumbeat of war faded in my ears.
What struck me in the selection was the similarity in the theme and content of the poems: love, spiritual unity, and the oneness of creation. Western, Middle Eastern, and Indian sages; male and female; Muslim, Christian and Hindu -- if the name of the author was concealed it would be impossible to place his or her religion, sex, or region. Take the following six poems:
1. Close to God: "One may never have heard the sacred word `Christ," but be closer to God than a priest or nun.
2. The Christ's Breath: "I am a hole in a flute that the Christ's breath moves through, listen to this music."
4. He Asked for Charity: "God came to my house and asked for charity. And I fell on my knees and cried, `Beloved, what may I give?' `Just love,' He said. `Just love."'
5. And Help Him Comfort: "God has a special interest in women for they can lift this world to their breast and help Him comfort."
6. With Passion: "With passion pray. With passion make love. With passion eat and drink and dance and play. Why look like a dead fish in this ocean of God?"
The first poem was written by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), widely regarded as the greatest Catholic theologian. His experience led him to believe that all in creation were revelations of God's infinite, eternal, expanding being.
It would be logical to assume the second poem is written by a Christian. After all, it is suffused with love for Christ. But a Muslim, Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz (c.1320-1389), wrote it. Hafiz is the most beloved poet of Persia and considered to be one of history's greatest lyrical geniuses. Goethe wrote that "Hafiz has no peer."
The third poem is by Rabia of Basra (c.717-801) who is considered the most popular and influential female Muslim saint in the Sufi tradition. Born nearly 500 years before Maulana Jalaludin Rumi, she perhaps more than any other poet is said to have influenced his writing.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), perhaps the most beloved saint of the Western world wrote the fourth poem. The son of a wealthy merchant family, he gave up the good life to pursue his spiritual quest. Once in an old country chapel the painted figure of Jesus on the crucifix said to him, "Francis, go and repair my house, which, as you see, is falling completely to ruin." While in the Middle East there are accounts that St. Francis was in contact with Rumi's master, Shams. Rumi and St. Francis, the two great names in Abrahamic mysticism, thus have a point of contact which reflects their spiritual sense of unity.
The final poem is by Rumi (1207-1273), one of the greatest poets in history. What is remarkable about Rumi is his rebirth in our time. He is one of the most popular poets in America. Considering that he was born eight centuries ago in Balkh, Afghanistan, a land that in American minds was until recently associated with the Taliban, this is remarkable indeed. Rumi has transcended time and space to touch our hearts in the 21st century.
Reading the poems, I was once again struck by what was common within the great faiths. The voices in this tradition reflect universal compassion and eternal wisdom in their love of the divine. The glowing beauty of their message spreads far from their place of birth and remains to uplift us today. It is a message more relevant than ever in our time of rampant materialism, seductive consumerism and widespread violence.
But as I meditated on the love poems from God, I was also confronted with a disturbing question: where are the voices meditating on love in the 21st century?