01.04.2013 Spirituality

The Return of Rumi

The mystical poet Rumi can guide us to a new world, says spiritual scholar Andrew Harvey

What humanity's greatest mystics offer us and what we desperately need to heal the long desolation of our separation from the Divine is the authentic, radical, passionate language of love.

The mystical renaissance of the last 30 years makes available to us in our era of irony, nihilism and despair, the language of our essential divine dignity, and possibility. To hear the words the mystics pour out to us with such high wild intensity, we need to attune our whole being to the silence of the Divine, which Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian sage, called "unceasing eloquence". Just as the moon radiates the reflected light of an invisible sun, the words of Rumi arrive to us bathed in the unceasing eloquence and endlessly vibrant, initiatory power of the silence from which they are born.

The love that the great mystics celebrate with such abandoned ecstasy is not the sentimental or possessive, self absorbed love of our contemporary novels, magazines, and TV shows. It has nothing to do with the saccharine fantasies of the New Age, narcissistically addicted to a vision of God as a benign parent who will make everything right whatever we do and however destructive and suicidal we are.

The love that Rumi knew is a vast, divine fire that burns away all the games and illusions of the false self. It is as terrifying as it is radiant, as radically demanding in its majestic truth as it is ecstatic. To become one with it, as all true mystics know, requires a death of everything we have believed, clung to, and enshrined as real. It demands not only a ceaseless discipline of inner sacred practice and a stringent self knowledge, but also a commitment to enact its laws of clarity and burning compassion in the core of life. We must be love, we must act in love, as love, for love, urgently and fearlessly to prevent the destruction of humanity and nature and cooperate with the Divine to birth a new world.

Jalal-ud-din Rumi, the greatest mystic of Islam and, many people believe, of the world, was born in Balkh, Afghanistan, on September 30, 1207. He left behind as the record of his extraordinarily intense life lived on the wildest and grandest heights of the spirit, the Mathnawi, a mystical epic, 3,500 odes, 2,000 quatrains, a book of table talk, and a large volume of letters. The Mevlevi Order that he founded and that was continued by his son, Sultan Valad, spread his vision all over Asia and Africa and now has centres all over the world.

For hundreds of thousands of people, Rumi's work, in its passion, honesty and gorgeous imagery, has become a way of connecting directly with the Divine beyond the constrictions of religion or dogma. Rumi now commands in the West what he has long commanded in the East - an unassailable position as the most poignant and vibrant of all celebrators of the Path of Love and as a supreme witness, in a way that transcends all national, cultural, and religious boundaries, to the mysteries of divine identity and presence. Rumi combined the intellect of a Plato, the vision and enlightened soul force of a Buddha or a Christ, and the extravagant literary gifts of a Shakespeare. This unique fusion of the highest philosophical lucidity with the greatest possible spiritual awareness and the most complete artistic gifts gave Rumi unique power as what might be called a "sacred initiator" or "initiator into the sacred".

Born out of the fire of a vast awakening, Rumi's work has an uncanny direct force of illumination; anyone approaching it with an open heart and mind, at whatever stage of his or her evolution, will derive from it inspiration, excitement and help of the highest kind. Everything Rumi wrote or transmitted has the unmistakable authority of total inner experience, the authority of a human being who has risked and given everything to the search for divine truth.

As fears of an environmental apocalypse grow, and the terrible dangers that afflict humanity on every level become more and more inescapably clear, Rumi's work will become increasingly important for its testimony to the divine origin and purpose of human life, its overwhelmingly beautiful celebration of the truths and mysteries of divine glory, and its wise embrace of all paths and approaches to the experience of God.

Increasingly, it will become clear that Rumi is not only humanity's supreme mystical poet but also one of its clearest guides to the mystical renaissance that is trying to be born in the rubble of our suicidal civilisation.

What might be called the "return of Rumi" to the consciousness of humanity occurs at a time when the truths of Rumi's celebration of the Beloved are needed, not only as revelations of the real purpose of human life but as essential inspirations and empowerments in the struggle to save the human race and preserve the planet. The vision of Rumi can initiate people into the sacredness of human life and the holiness of nature. If Rumi is to be given, as I believe, a central role in the awakening of humanity to its own divine truth and possibility, then it has never been more important to see his work and the teaching it enshrines in as lucid and fearless a way as possible.

The New Age has created a limited vision of Rumi to serve its own ends: it has created, what I like to call a "Rosebud Rumi", a Californian hippy-like figure of vague, ecstatic sweetness and diffused "warm-hearted" brotherhood, a kind of medieval Jerry Garcia of the sacred heart. This limp and vulgar vision entirely omits an essential side of Rumi's spiritual genius - its rigorous, even ferocious, austerity. Rumi is indeed an ecstatic, the greatest of all celebrators of that ecstasy that streams from the presence of Love. He is also the most shrewd, unsentimental and sober of teachers, very un-New Age in his refusal to deny the power of evil, his candor about the limits of all worldly and earthly enlightenment, his Jesus-like suspicion of all forms of wealth and power, and his embrace of the sometimes terrible and prolonged suffering that authentic transformation must and does demand. This rigorous, fierce, authoritative Rumi, the veteran of the wars of Love, is what our spiritual renaissance deeply needs to listen to and learn from, if the transformation that is trying to happen in our time is not to be diffused in a cloud of laziness, fantasy, denial and occult charlatanry.

Rumi can be a complete guide for seekers now precisely because he combined the most extreme imaginable vision and experience of divine beauty and mystery with a sober and humble teaching of how to sustain, continually deepen, and integrate them with daily life. Unlike many of our contemporary teachers, drunk on partial awakening, Rumi - whose knowledge of the Path of Love was perhaps the most thorough that any human has had - never claimed total enlightenment; in fact, one of his most original contributions to the history of mystical thought is his intuition that evolution is an infinite process that never ends on any of the planes of any world, and that the journey into embodying and living Love is as infinite and boundless as Love itself.

Unlike many contemporary seekers, Rumi's passion was not for sensational experiences, occult powers, or radically enhanced "self esteem"; he was dragged deep enough into Love to know that divine life could only be found on the other side of an annihiliation of self that demanded and cost everything and that authentic spiritual "lordship" was not the acquisition of any kind of power but a humble embrace of "servanthood" - of the life of the servant-slave of Love and so of every human and sentient being in the name, and for the glory, of God. Such a vision is simultaneously far more humble and more exalted than the pseudo-mysticisms being peddled everywhere in the New Age, and sometimes in Rumi's name.

The laws of such a final vision of human truth and divine possibility are not tailored as are so many of the contemporary mystical "systems", either to flatter human weakness or to inflate human claims to divinity; complete experience gave Rumi an unfailing sense of balance and a fundamental and astonished humility before the always changing and always deepening experience of the Divine.

This balance and humility inform Rumi's teaching at every level and are the source of its extreme clarity about the dangers, temptations, fantasies, and various forms of inflation, hysteria, and pride that threaten the authentic seeker. They are also the source of perhaps its most challenging, even frightening aspect - that of Rumi's fearless and scathingly truthful embrace of the ordeals that true transformation demands.

Rumi's own awakening was at the price of a vast suffering, or rather, a series of sufferings,that led to his death and rebirth in the dimension of resurrection. Rumi knew from bitter and glorious experience that the life of the real lover of God is often one of frightful ordeal and exposure to bewilderment and grief of every kind. Yet, because Rumi both lived and survived such appalling experience, he is able to speak with ennobling courage and hope about the gnosis that is born from it and the glory of sustained divine human being that annihilation opens onto, the inner "rose garden" that only a pure-souled dying-into-Love can uncover in all its amazing rapture and loveliness.

For the authentic seeker, Rumi's work will provide the most luminous guidance and a clear and holy encouragement to ever-deeper surrender. More than ever we need guides to ordeal and its hidden mystical meanings, and Rumi, of all the mystics and teachers, is the most experienced in what might be called the "alchemy of agony". The splendour of his fearlessness, humility and endless courage can help us all develop those powers of insight and trust that could enable us to transmute catastrophe into an opening for massive spiritual growth.

Andrew Harvey is the best selling author of Heart Yoga and The Hope and founder of the Institute for Sacred Activism. His latest release is Radical Passion: Sacred Love and Wisdom in Action

Andrew Harvey

Andrew Harvey is an author, religious scholar and teacher of mystic traditions