Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A Great Awakening

Rumi, the Sufi poet who died in 1273, lived at an amazing time in history, when the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe were built, when universities were begun, when Angkor was flourishing in Cambodia, when the Rhineland mystics, including Meister Eckhart were alive--all this spiritual energy happening in various parts of the world.

There's more: Zen masters in Japan, such as Dogen Kigen; in China: Wun-men and Sung Tung P'o; in the Arab world, Averroes, who influenced Thomas Aquinas, who influenced Dante; the Jewish sage Maimonides was alive and St. Francis of Assisi and Roger Bacon (doing scientific experiments) and St. Bernard and Hildegard of Bingen. All were around from roughly 1100-1300.

How to account for such an awakening? Is it coincidental? The 12th century in Europe has always amazed me by its progress and daring, and it is all the more remarkable in the context of other great things happening in unrelated places.
Not a bad topic for a spring-like day of new beginnings.

Rumi, whose works have been made widely available by Coleman Barks, is the author of the following short poem, one of my great favorites. Christian readers can easily see a parallel with the kingdom of God within:

You go from room to room
Searching for the diamond necklace
That is already around your neck.

Non-religious readers will no doubt see here the dazzling insight that what we need is what we already have before us in the here and now.

As to what it feels like to encounter the supernatural or to sense the presence of God in and around us, I turn to a recent New York Times review of a book by biblical scholar James Kugel, whose brush with death led him to speculate on the origins of religious belief. A sense of God's presence feels like "being awakened to a reality underneath the ordinary reality" (in the words of the reviewer, Judith Shulevitz, who likens this experience to that of the medieval cathedral, which was designed to express the overwhelming presence of God).

Along with the Gothic cathedral, poetry like Rumi's may be the best door into such mysterious awakening.

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