In Praise of Softness

Thursday, June 11, 2015 - 5:28 am

In Praise of Softness

Ours seems to be a world that values “strength.” We want “hard” bodies, “strong” minds, “tough” wills, “hard as nail” determination, “rugged” personalities, “sturdy” character, and so on.
I wonder if we have confused hardness with the strength it takes to truly give and receive love. Let us praise softness.
I’m speaking here of hearts, of soft hearts, of gentle spirits. I’m speaking of the gentleness to give and receive love.
Every heart has a wall around it, a wall that protects, yet also keeps out. Every heart is a walled garden, the original meaning of Paradise (from the Persian Firdaws), the inner garden that’s protected by the wall. Yet I wonder how often the wall becomes a fortress, keeping out the very ones who are meant to reach us, nurture us, love us?
Let us praise softness. Let us seek a heart that is not hard, but soft.
Let us seek a heart that is not hardened like dry land, but a soft soil tilled over again and again. To break open a soil, parched dry and cracked, takes effort. How much more effort it takes to till a heart open after it has been dried up, walled up, stored away. How patient must this love be, to till, water, break open.
Ya Fattah, O Opener of Hearts, soften our stony hearts. Ya Sabur, O Divine Source of Patience, have us tend to this task of love with wisdom, in the fullness of time, with steadfast perseverance.
In many languages, the words for “love” have a connection to words for “seed.” In Arabic and Persian, a word for love (hubb) comes from the seed that is planted in the ground. Sometimes a seed of love is planted in the heart’s ground through a glance, a touch, a word. The seed of love falls on the heart’s soil. Is it a hardened earth, a rock-covered surface, one that will have the seed washed away with the first water? Or is it a soil that has been prepared, tilled, softened up, opened up again and again and again, ready to embrace the seed of love that would surely come?
Does our heart’s soil embrace the seed? Do we welcome the love?
Will the seed take root? Will it be nurtured? Will it be fed?
Are we strong enough not to keep out, but to welcome in?
Do we lower our shields enough to tell someone: “I love you enough to care for you, to welcome you, to make myself vulnerable for you, to hurt for you, to have your love fill me everywhere that I am broken and hard-hearted?”
What a mystery there is: love is patient, love is kind, love becomes capable of all forms, love clings not nor possesses — and yet until we are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, we cannot receive love.
It is through risking being hurt that we gain the greatest love. There is this trust involved in giving and receiving love. May it come to the softened hearts, in the fullness of time, in the most beautiful of forms. May the form be one that our heart recognizes and needs.
The incomparable Rumi in The Masnavi touched on this very point:

Don’t claim in spring on stone some verdure grows
Be soft like soil to raise a lovely rose—
For years you’ve been a stony-hearted man
Try being like the soil now if you can!

How each of us can see times that we have been stony-hearted. Seeds of love have come, and been washed away. How often we have been with others who were stony-hearted.
Let us be like soil. To be this dust, this earth, this soil, this softened soil, moistened with the tears of love, the remembrance of Him, the love of a friend, the warm breath of a lover. To be this soil. This was the soil that was worthy of receiving God’s spirit in pre-eternity. God breathed Divine Spirit not into a sturdy stone, but into a softened soil.
The stone cannot receive the divine Spirit. Only soft soil can. God offered the Trust to Heavens and even the mountains, but they weren’t strong enough to let love in. They were frightened by the power of this love. Only the soil of humanity could take it on.
This is the moist, tilled soil that will have heavens crying out: “Would that I were dust!”
The same Rumi once says of the Prophet Muhammad: he was the most soil-like of all the prophets. Humble, moist, open to giving love, receiving love. What beauty there is in seeing someone whose heart has become soft, open, receptive to all that is sacred.
It is this soily soft heart that comes through the glance of a loving friend, the one that has Hafez crying out:

She who knows
alchemy
for this heart soil
Would that she cast
a single love glance
my way…

There is a beauty to seeing stone turned into moist soil, broken open, receptive to the seeds of love. May it take root. Ashk olsun, as our Turkish friends say: Let it be love.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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