Today, December 17th, is the anniversary of Rumi’s death. It is an anniversary that is celebrated rather than mourned by millions of lovers worldwide.
On a few occasions, I have had the blessings of being in the amazing city of Konya on this magical holy day. Lovers, seekers, dreamers, poets, and worshippers gather from around the world to this city. Konya, the ancient Greek city of Iconium and later the medieval Muslim capital, is now a mecca for lovers of God as it has been for the past seven centuries.
The anniversary of Rumi’s passing to the realm beyond the Beyond is a communal honeymoon. All around the city you see lovers holding hands, walking with a book of Rumi poetry. A random conversation might start like this: What was the poem that touched your heart? Which Rumi story brought you joy in a moment of crisis? What metaphor was where the light entered your wound?
The lobbies of almost every hotel near Rumi’s shrine turn into impromptu concerts of mystical poetry and dance. Here, there is the venerable Iranian singer Shahram Nazeri; there, the marvelous Turkish ethnomusicologist Oruc Guvenc. Great Muslim mystical teachers convene humbly to recharge, rejuvenate, and to drink deeply from this fountain of love.
Rumi’s shrine today serves as a museum, but it is a museum only in name. In truth, it is a place of worship where over a million seekers come from every corner of the planet. For centuries, this was the center of the “whirling dervishes” Sufi lodge. Spiritually oriented Muslims would enter to be “cooked” in the fire of love. The expectation was that we come not because we are already whole, but precisely because we are broken. Above the main entrance to the shrine is written this beautiful line in exquisite Persian poetry:
This place is like the Ka’ba for lovers.
Any who come here broken and incomplete
This is the promise of any real spiritual path. We do not begin as saints, not as already illuminated beings. We come, again and again, because we seek to become so.
It is easy to say that it is the journey that counts, not the destination. And that is certainly true. But how often we forget that other crucial element: the beginning place on the journey. The Prophet told us to speak to people at the level of their understanding. What is our level? For me, for most of us, it is at what Rumi calls being spiritually “raw.” The path for each of us is to move from being spiritually raw and immature to being “cooked” and, for a select few, being on fire. This is what Rumi is reported to have said:
The whole of my life
Summed up in these words
I used to be raw
Then I was cooked
Now… on fire.
The quotation above the entrance to Rumi’s shrine reminds us: We come not because we are already formed, cooked, or mature, but because we aspire to become so.
Another metaphor Rumi was so fond of is ripening. We are all like unripe fruit, green. In the light of the sun we ripen, sweeten. To eat an unripe fruit causes stomachache. How lovely to bite into a sun-ripened peach with the juices running down your cheeks, your fingers. This, for Rumi, is a metaphor for what it is like for each of us to have an interaction with “unripe” fellow human beings, those who bring us headache and heartache. But how lovely to have juicy, sweet, ripe human beings next to us.
How beautifully he reminds us that any tree laden with ripe fruit has its branches hanging closer to the ground. The most spiritually sweet and ripened souls are also the most humble, the closest to the ground, the earthiest. He often reminds us that the Prophet Muhammad was the most earthy, the sweetest, the juiciest, the ripest of teachers, one who never held himself in the fake aristocracy that we see among spiritual charlatans.
Upon entering the shrine, we see poems that are now associated with Rumi, though they came from a bit earlier (from an earlier sage, Abu Sa’di Abi ‘l-Khayr):
“Come, come again!
Whoever you are, come again!
Even if you are an unbeliever
a Magian… an idol worshipper,
Our court is no place
to be hopeless.
Even if you have broken your vows
a hundred times,
come, come again!”
Every year I take a group of people to Turkey on a program called Illuminated Tours. The highlight of every visit is the time we spend in Rumi’s shrine. The program is open to everyone. This past year we had friends from nine different countries, aged 17 to 80. Somehow, watching people — those whose lives have been shaped by Rumi’s poetry and those who are reading him for the first time — makes me feel like the siren call of this magnificent lover of God who beckons us, even after 700 years.
We come running.
The One who puts the birds to flight
And our own selves.
I am reminded that Rumi instructed his followers, past and present, not to look for him under the ground, but to look inside their own hearts. He says to us: Examine every joy that you experience reading my words, open them up, and look inside. “I am the joy inside of that joy,” he tells us.
Once the king of Konya lamented, “I love Rumi, but it is the riffraff around him that I cannot stand.”
Rumi marched into his court and demanded of the king, “Did you call my followers riffraff, ugly, unrefined, and ill-mannered?”
The king, not one to lie to the great saint, put his head down and softly said, “Yes.”
Rumi’s followers were ecstatic, hoping that Rumi would rip into the king. Instead, Rumi simply said, “Everything you say about them is true. Their behavior is ugly, rude, crude, and unrefined. I took them on precisely because they are so. If they were already beautiful, I myself would have become their disciple.”
And because he is Rumi, he launched into a magnificent poem that gives all of us who are unrefined hope, hope in God’s mercy:
I walk around the market
Buying fake coin.
Everyone thinks me mad.
They don’t know
That I have a secret:
I turn fake coins
This is the saintly being for whom death is nothing to fear, but merely a chance to be more fully where he is: at one with The One, lit up through the fire of love, united with all the illuminated beings. This is one who says not to come weeping to his grave, but to bring an instrument, be ready to sing, stomp feet, and dance ecstatically.
There’s a party here: one of union. In fact, the whole anniversary night for Rumi is called Shab-e Urs, the night of Union. He says:
You’ve seen my descent
Now watch me
Oh how he rises…
May we rise with him.
How he cooks,
This being of pure love flame
How sweet he is
No longer raw
But fully ripe
Let us end with a simple poem of his, one that could take a whole life to live:
Oh faithful friend,
Come, come closer
Let get of “you” and “I”
You and I
have to live
As if you and I
have never heard
of a you