Monday, August 01, 2005

fires of love

Fear this murderous conflagration, this love that sets fires alight.

Fear this arrow of destruction, this blade that will pare you away.

And when he comes to you, a renunciate, repentant and contrite,

Fear that day that he repents, fear the very day.

#987: From Rumi's Kolliyaat-e Shams-e Tabrizi

Search words: fire

Yesterday I started a fire and we burned up the accumulated piles of dry palm tree branches. At the end, over the hot coals, I grilled some pieces of chicken meat and we ate that plain, unseasoned, ungarnished, using only our fingers. The smokey smell lingers in my hair and clothes. Watching the fire, I thought of our ancestors who were so much entertained by the camp fire or fireplace. Those red flames so alive, so enlivening to the imagination, licking up to the heavens. As I noted the odd snail still clinging to a branch, I also thought of the many poor martyrs and ordinary heretics who suffered the cruel execution of being burnt in such flames or roasted over such hot coals.

We then settled down to a normal civilised evening: several hours of Sunday night TV viewing. Just as I was trying to settle down to bed I heard distant screaming and wondered if my son had turned the TV back on again. No, it was coming from the street. A man screaming for his life. Afterwards, when the police and ambulance had come and neighbours had gathered in the cold night street to exhange tales, we learned that the man had been beaten up by two other men who had caught him in the act of burglary. He had been screaming for what seemed like an eternity but what was probably barely five minutes. Such screams are heart wrenching. In my longish life I've never heard that before. I was moved to care for the wretched victim but I was also afraid to become more involved, to enter that violent world myself.

And so, this morning, I have wondered what Rumi had to say using the idea of fire and I discover this connection between fire and murder and this repeated theme of fear. What dramatic times these are!

This quatrain feels quite different to any of the verses I've reflected on so far. The translator has used several multisyllabled words, presumably reflecting a similar use in Rumi. Words like conflagration, renunciate, repentant. The fires of hell are where we end up when we need to pay for our past sins. And sin we inevitably must.

Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.
-- Carl Jung

It is impossible to think or act with total loyalty to one value without at the same time dismissing and therefore denigrating the opposite value. Somewhere, inside ourselves, there is a watcher that keeps score and sooner or later that watcher will strike and demand penitence. Regret that I failed to love others, regret that I failed to love myself. It is so hard to meet all demands.

In urging me to fear, Rumi is demanding that I feel the awesome power of God as a burning love that burns away what is not needed. That refining fire that leaves only gold behind in the furnace. What is indeed awesome in this verse is the figure of the repentant god. The "he" who is variously Shams, or God, or the beloved, this "he" is begging for forgiveness. This is the most frightening image I've so far encountered in Rumi and my heart is, indeed, filled with alarm, with a shocked disbelief. He presents fare before me that I'm not sure I can swallow or digest. He seems himself to be asking my forgiveness.

If I let this sink in and stop trying to fight it, it makes perfect sense. If God (or Rumi or my beloved) is to be my friend then he would seek a reciprocal relationship, one where I forgive as often as he does. I think here of my beloved cat and I recall her slow dying over two long days. She often seemed to worship me, to crawl toward me in supplication. I was all she had to turn to. I had rescued her from kitten death, I had fed her and kept her warm and cared for her. And yet now, I had no answers. Why would she seek my forgiveness? (Why would she seem to do so?) Because I had power? Because even a cat associates pain with punishment for deviance, for error of any kind? It could be so.

I guess Rumi is saying that God, that love, that great longing and great dreams, that all these things that move the heart and motivate us to live on and live better, that this is after all a right bastard and often pretty hard to live with, just as a pet cat can sometimes be quite a nuisance. Life is hard, life is sometimes frustrating or painful or tedious, life does need to ask us often to forgive. Most of all I must forgive my cat, and Rumi, and no doubt this thing called God, I must forgive for the greatest sin of all, the sin of being so easy to love and long for in the first place.


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