The Most Alive Moment by Rumi
The most living moment comes when
those who love each other meet each
other’s eyes and in what flows
between them then. To see your face
in a crowd of others, or alone on a
frightening street, I weep for that.
Our tears improve the earth. The
time you scolded me, your gratitude
your laughing, always your qualities
increase the soul. Seeing you is a
wine that does not muddle or numb.
We sit inside the cypress shadow
where amazement and clear thought
twine their slow growth into us.
In a bizarre way, it seems hardly surprising that in these days when our national conversation is being conducted via Twitter blasts and playground name-calling, where hate is elevated to “just another perspective” and our leaders carelessly bandy about the prospects of nuclear war, where we find ourselves worrying whether, in the words of William Butler Yeats, “the best all lack conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity” we have hurricanes queued up across the Atlantic like kids waiting for a Ferris wheel ride, each one competing with the last for superlatives that we hardly have words for – most rain ever, greatest intensity ever measured.
What next? We want to ask.
Residents of Florida, Texas, or the Carolinas have places to evacuate to, knowing that, however bad the damage, they can return to rebuild. The rest of us, though, face an even more daunting rebuilding campaign suffused with deep uncertainty about whether it can even be done.
I heard a radio interview last week with Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose upcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power, examines the impact of Barak Obama’s presidency in light of the 19th century Reconstruction Era. The picture that Coates painted of the world today in that interview was pretty bleak, especially in its impact on African-Americans and other marginalized people. Finally, the interviewer broke in and asked what he saw as signs of hope. Surely there must be something he can point to. Coates stammered a bit and replied, “No. . . . Not really”
But then he clarified what he meant. Clearly, people need to get on with their lives, he said. People will find a way in the world. Parents will raise children. But that great liberal optimism that has hung around since the 60s, the notion that peace and brotherhood are just a good social program or two away, has no currency with him.
The African-American experience, he said, tells a different story. It says that white supremacy is so deeply marbled in American society that it may never be exterminated. It is something that he figures that his children and his children’s children, and so on will have to struggle with. As Coates wrote in an earlier book, Between the World and Me, lamenting to his son, “I’m sorry that I cannot make it OK. I’m sorry that I cannot save you.”
But then he was quick to add – “but not that sorry.” Perhaps, he said, that very vulnerability that so worries him brings his son closer to the meaning of life, the true vulnerability that encumbers us all but that those of us sheltered by privilege are less able to discern.
Sadly, what may be most distinctive about this era is that those of us with white skin and Eurocentric names are finally coming to understand at a gut level the distress that people of color have known for generations.
In part, what has sheltered us is the illusion of agency, the old notion that we are masters of our fate, captains of our voyages, who can grab what we want, and to heck with the rest. It is a notion that is in high ascendance as I speak.
What it is in essence is the first of many walls we build between ourselves and others, not just between us and the marginalized but between us and every other person we encounter. It a diminished way to live, and even worse it tolls great danger ahead the possibility of communal being.
We experience it in the despair we see emerging in everything from opioid addiction to soaring suicide rates, across all races and cultures, though centered right now in the majority whites. We could post Narcan on every street corner, but the fixes we need go deeper than that. We need a reaffirmation of the very basis of what joins us all, deeper than race or culture, than nation or economic status, than religion or ethnicity, than gender identity, age, body type, health capacity, physical ability, than every way we humans have found to wall ourselves off from one another.
For a Sufi like Rumi, the point of religious practice was to experience the divine, to know that mysterious essence that he believed resides within and enlivens all things, including ourselves. Rumi’s poetry often refers to this essence as love, and not some tame or chaste love, but a love that sounds intoxicating, even erotic. Yet, the language he uses here is metaphor, intended to refer not so much to actual lovers but to invite listeners to awaken to a rhythm that is moving in their lives. As he says in one poem, “We rarely hear the music, but we are dancing to it nonetheless.
Embracing that rhythm gives us a new vantage on the world. In the poem that Louise read earlier, Rumi imagines two who have caught that rhythm meeting on a city street. The image is almost like something from a Hollywood movie where eyes meet and the music swells and the two lovers run to each other’s arms.
In Rumi’s imagining, though, the scene is different. The point is not a physical embrace but a spiritual one. The experience of one seeing the other, he says, “is a wine that does not muddle or numb.” Instead, it awakens. It is what he calls “the most living moment” because in that moment the two are utterly vulnerable to each other, experiencing each other’s qualities in a way that Rumi says, “increase the soul.”
The title of this service comes from another of Rumi’s poems called “The Music Master.” “You that love lovers, this is your home,” he declares. It sounds almost nonsensical at first blush, though perhaps you have a little better sense of it now, especially in light of its closing couplet: “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They are in each other all along.”
The separation we experience from one another is an illusion, a lie. Yes, we are distinguishable beings, but the deeper truth, as the choir’s anthem declared, is that “We are one.”
“When we walk, when we sleep, when we rise, when we laugh, when we sing, when we cry, when we run. We are one.”
And what does that verse that composer Brian Tate found in the Book of Deuteronomy say will come of that discovery? We shall love one another with all our hearts and our souls and our might.
We may pull back from Deuteronomy’s or Rumi’s words: Excessive, just too much. But are they really any stranger, any more excessive than the Christian scripture in the Book of Matthew? “You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your energy, But I say to you, Love your neighbor and pray for those who persecute you.” A peculiar thing, this love stuff!
Thomas Merton told the story in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander about an experience he had one day in 1958 while running errands for his monastery in Louisville, Kentucky. Merton turned the corner at Fourth and Walnut streets, when, as he put it, “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I was theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.”
It was, he said, “like waking from a dream of separateness, and of spurious self-isolation. . . .”
So, back on the street again. What’s that about? I can tell you I’ve been to that street corner in Louisville, and there is nothing particularly distinctive about it, other than the plaque describing Merton’s epiphany. But, of course, there didn’t need to be. The place was not the point. The interaction was.
For a moment, Merton dropped out of the bubble of his own self-consciousness and woke to a deeper consciousness of those before him. “It was,” he said, “as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality.” If only, he said, “we could see each other that way all the time.”
If only. So, what does testimony like Merton’s do to you? Do you roll your eyes, say, “Wow, that’s freaky”? I could hardly blame you. It is, once again, kind of over the top, and Merton himself frames it within his own Catholic theology.
All that notwithstanding, I have to admit that it has stuck with me. And I think that’s likely because in some inexpressible way it speaks to experiences of my own – perhaps you, too – when I have felt in some way lifted and connected with others, even strangers who at least for that moment became precious to me, when I was lifted out of the bubble of my own self-consciousness and experienced the beauty and wonder of others in all their fullness.
It sounds grander than it was. There was no angel breaking in. It came instead with a settling of my mind and heart, a letting go and taking up. And, yes, it does not go too far to call it love, though I know that that’s a word I have to be careful of.
I like the way that Carter Hayward frames it. Love, she says, “is a choice – not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile.” It is, she says, “a conversion to humanity – a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives.”
Love as a choice. It’s so contrary to how we imagine this sort of thing. We think that love comes welling up out of nowhere, comes over us, changes everything. But, just as with Rumi, we’re talking about something different here. We’re talking about what Rumi described as “wine that does not muddle or numb,” love that serves the purpose not of intoxication or sensual thrill but of “increasing the soul.”
Increasing the soul and releasing the self, releasing fear and shame that grow like a carapace that covers the vulnerability that makes it possible for us to connect in the first place, and then taking the risk to magnify ourselves in wider and wider encounter.
You that love lovers, who embrace the vulnerability of this moment and the strength of human integrity to meet it, who assume risk as real and see no certain result, yet who choose all the same to be converted to humanity, to be present to others whatever their story, whatever their struggle without pretense or guile, this is your home.
May it be our part to succeed so well at this work that we, too, may look at strangers on the street with conviction that they are ours and we theirs. And may it be that a spirit of respect and care, of healing and wholeness will so suffuse this place that it radiates out to help heal this wounded world.