Sunday, December 23, 2007

a letter in reply

Today, with Christmas approaching, Salim Mansur has chosen to share some words of that great mystic poet of the English language, William Blake.

Mystery surrounds us from the moment we arrive on Earth until we depart. At its most elementary the mystery is about what sustains this "brief crack of light" -- as the great writer Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography, Speak, Memory, phrased his opening sentence -- "between two eternities of darkness."

Is life merely this fleeting moment compressed between eternal darkness on either side?

This remains the most compelling question that men and women of varying intellects through the ages have pondered over and most, I suspect, preferred believing that life is a passage, in the words of William Blake, "through Eternal Death! And of the awaking to Eternal Life."

Such belief rests on faith that there is an unseen power, eternally good, merciful, loving and beautiful beyond our earthly sight yet visible to our inner vision as Blake reminds us.

from Salim Mansur: Sharing Blake at Christmas

Whenever Mansur moves away from political commentary and into the more intimate world of faith, poetry and imagination, he seems less like a journalist and more like a friend writing to beloved friends, perhaps far away in time or space. Certainly, I get a feeling of receiving a letter from Salim, from half way across the world. I often have a similar feeling when reading Rumi at his intimate best but the distance then is not mere space but centuries of time as well.


Johannes Vermeer: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter @ wikimedia commons

Indeed, Salim refers to this closeness in Blake's own experience of God.

All his life Blake was moved by the vision of God whose love was incarnated in the human form of Jesus.

God in Blake's vision was a personal Deity.

He was not lodged within the formal ornate settings of religious institutions or encountered in the lifeless pages of sacred texts.

In the long poem Jerusalem, Blake writes:

"I am not a God afar off, I am a brother and a friend;

Within your bosoms I reside, and you reside in me."

Three years ago, in the pre-Xmas season of 2004, our publicly funded TV broadcaster, ABC TV, ran a popular program called My Favourite Book in which viewers nominated and thereby voted in books that had made a major impact on them. The top four books were:

1. The Lord Of The Rings - by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice - by Jane Austen
3. The Bible - by Various Contributors
4. To Kill a Mockingbird - by Harper Lee

The first and third books are epic tales on a grand scale, written by men; while the second and fourth are set in a more intimate or personal context and are written by women. There are intimate moments in the epic tales and there are grand themes woven into Austen's conventional love tale and the small town childhood experiences related by Lee. However, the grand predominates in the tales told by men while the small events of everyday life seem to be where women find their inspiration. The artist Vermeer, displayed above and painting a century before Blake, seems to have been atuned to a divine aesthetic present in the small and everyday feminine world. Below, that aesthetic finds voice in a female poet, a great but gentle mystic in her own right and following on soon after Blake.


Some things that fly there be, —
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:
Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be, —
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies!

from Emily Dickinson: Poems

Perhaps, the essence of divinity lies in the intersection of these two worlds: the grander masculine and the more humble feminine. Where Blake finds the first in the second - Infinity in a hand, Eternity in an hour - perhaps it is the juncture that matters, just as Jesus stood and Christ ever stands at that juncture between humanity and God.

Because Salim is a Muslim and it behooves me to include at least a small element from his own faith tradition inside this article that attempts to act as a letter in reply to his, I would like to quote from the Koran:

We verily created man and We know what his soul whispereth to him, and We are nearer to him than his jugular vein.
Koran 50:16, trans Pickthall

In this verse the God of Mohammad's vision locates Himself at that most vulnerable spot in the neck where the life-blood flows and can so easily be spilt. He does not - like all those other deities in Blake's vision - "reside in the human breast", in that bosom or place of the heart. Allah is not a God of love but a God that threatens death, a God that reminds us of the thin line that separates a living soul from a corpse. It takes but a simple neat stroke to sever the jugular vein, to slit a throat. As that handful of Muslims demonstrated on that September 11, a lot can be achieved with a small box cutter held against a jugular vein.

At Christmas, English speakers love to listen to Handel's Messiah which tells the full tale of Jesus the Christ, from prophecies of His coming, to His humble birth, His suffering and death, and finally His resurrection. The last part affirms the life everlasting that will follow from this story.

I joined those many others in listening to this great masterpiece but the last part left me cold for I cannot believe that the life everlasting supercedes the life of today, the life of now, the life so simply depicted in so many of Vermeer's paintings.

There have also been celebrations lately around the date of Rumi's death which he himself described as his wedding day: the Urs or wedding with the Beloved. A poem from his own son portrays it thus:

From this foul, fulsome world, Rumi moved on

from Sultan Valad: Valad nameh, trans Franklin D. Lewis
via sunlight

I simply do not accept that this world is foul or fulsome. It's true that some eyes can see it so but others, with a different sensitivity, see it otherwise.

I simply do not accept that a man's world or a man's view is better than a woman's. Each has its own truth, its own validity, and its own necessity in the larger scheme of things.

Likewise, I simply do not accept that God (Heaven, Infinity, Eternity) is better than humanity (earth in time and space). Each needs the other and it is about time that God acknowledged that man created Him just as truly as He created man.

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