Since the dawn of history, religious traditions have been giving birth to poets and mystics. Quakerism also has had its men and women of mystical tendency. Therefore, the writings of such varied persons as the poet John Keats, the mystic St. John of the Cross, and the Sufi (Muslim mystic) poets Jalal al-Din Rumi and Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz, have struck me with what each of them offers as models for our Quaker action and thought. We Quakers speak of continuing revelation. I would suggest that each of these persons from their artistic and religiously varied traditions can expand our Quaker idea of divine truth, since they can give us a more universal idea of truth.
Let’s look first at John Keats who, in his short life from 1795 to 1821, gave us some of the most profound poetry in the English language. In his letters, also, he left us remarkable insights, including his concept of negative capability, that is, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." Most of us cling to certain and provable concepts. We have more difficulty basing our thinking and actions on imprecise ideas and mysteries that cannot be seen and felt as certain. Most mystics, on the other hand, seem to me to be not nearly so bothered by the contradictions and paradoxes that confront them in their lives and thinking.
They seem to have acquired a maturity in which they simply know what is fundamental. Their experience enables them to make statements like, "I don’t believe in God. I know God." They have no need to insist on factual proof of their concepts and base of operations. It is this kind of negatively capable thinking I would suggest we need when examining and learning from the following experiences of mystics.
John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish mystic and saint, comes from the Catholic Christian tradition. His Dark Night of the Soul is one of the classics of mystical literature. In reading the E. Allison Peers translation of this work, which a Buddhist friend recommended to me, I was struck by several of its emphases, and although St. John’s language seems archaic, his ideas have enriched my own mystical, poetic, and activist tendencies.
The importance of self-awareness and a certain knowing acceptance of ourselves—imperfections, foibles and all— is apparent in St. John’s writing. The confessional tradition of Catholicism seems to heighten his own self-awareness. When one must reflect on and confess the aspects of oneself that in hindsight seem to have missed the mark, self-awareness and a psychologically healthy self-acceptance contribute still further to one’s religious growth. We Quakers ask a certain activism of ourselves. Self-awareness can help us rid our efforts at good work of self-righteousness.
St. John of the Cross uses words like "wrath," "sloth," and "envy," which in today’s world might translate into "anger," "passivity," and "competitiveness" respectively. He also speaks a great deal of pride, which many of us recognize ourselves as having in abundance, and which can contribute substantially to the self-righteousness we sometimes acquire in the midst of our activism. These are hardly comfortable attitudes to carry in our human interactions, and to be aware that they may play a role in the causes to which we feel led can be nothing but useful.
St. John’s writings speak constantly of "the attainment of the perfect union of love with God." If we as Friends thought of our activist tendencies as arising from a union of love with God, how much more powerful might that activism be? Instead, we are sometimes swept out of our sense of the love of God by the very momentum of our activism. A sense of God’s presence and a recognition of our need for reflection and self-awareness could help us better ground our actions.
Humility is another attitude we can adopt from St. John. It appears to me that he was a person who was so aware of the majesty, a certain "otherness," of God that he was steadily reminded of how far he himself fell short of this same majesty. We Friends often speak of the Light Within and equate it with our idea of God. This is valid, but is it not at the same time richer to also reflect on the otherness of God? St. John writes of a state of mysterious union with this majesty, this greatness that is more than we ourselves. Being aware of this paradox, these contradictions in our human experience, can help keep us humble.
Thirdly, St. John was struck by, and wrote eloquently about, a state that can hit all of us: the dark night of the soul, the experience of failure and a sense of spiritual loss in our lives. His writing expresses his sense that these dark nights are given to us by God and that we must seek to find the blessing contained in them for us. What can we learn from our dark nights? What has our loss given us that has left our lives richer? Because Friends seek to be so active in our efforts to live out our Testimonies for Peace, Equality, Community, and Simplicity, we may tend to see our failures, our dark nights, as stumbling blocks in our path toward growth. Could it be that we should look at these same dark nights as prods to growth?
There are seemingly countless mystics and poets in other religious traditions. I should like to mention here only two others. Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), sometimes called Mevlana, was a father of the Sufi Muslim order of the Mevlevi centered in Konya, Turkey. I shall only thinly represent his thinking by quoting just one of his brief poems (Number 158):
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.
(Open Secret versions of Rumi, translated by John Moyne and Coleman Barks. ©1984 Threshold Publicatons. Reprinted with permission.)
Would that all our Quaker activism fostered human relations so free of judgments as this poem suggests we could be. It is not that we should not confront the wrong we see in the world, and resist it with passion. But somehow in the midst of our passion we must remember it is the wrong, not the perpetrator of that wrong, that we condemn.
Finally, there is a poet, another Sufi Muslim master, who is less well known than Rumi: Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz (c. 1320-1329). Hafiz is beginning to be better known today as the numbers who love his poetry grow. In the following poem he speaks to Friends concept of sinking to the Seed:
The Seed Cracked Open
It used to be
That when I would wake in the morning,
I could with confidence say,
"What am ‘I’ going to
That was before the seed
Now Hafiz is certain: There are two of us housed
In this body,
Doing the shopping together in the market and
Tickling each other
While fixing the evening’s food.
Now when I awake
All the internal instruments play the same music:
"God, what love-mischief can ‘We’ do
For the world
(The Gift Poems by Hafiz, The Great Sufi Master, translated by Daniel Ladinsky. ©1999 Daniel Ladinsky. Reprinted with permission.)
Would that our Quaker worship, our activism, could be shot through with such love-mischief.
Self-awareness, a sense of God’s majesty, humility, and a certain joyful playfulness are not automatically nurtured in our Quaker stance, in our efforts to live our testimonies. By looking more carefully at the writings of these and other poets and mystics, can we make our witness more powerful? Will incorporating these thinkers into our Quaker ways not enrich us? Is this expansion toward a more universal thinking not part of our idea of continuing revelation?