Surprised by Joy

Thursday, August 27, 2015 - 6:33 am

Surprised by Joy

Rumi teaches us to welcome our emotions as guests in our heart:

This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.

Our heart is a guest house.
Guests arrive, 
We make them at home.
They linger for a while
   before parting
       soon to return.
No fighting guests, 
   no resisting.
      We are…. gracious hosts.

I am not my emotions.   
 They are not me, yet 
       they are none other than me.  
   But I don’t identify the core of my heart with them.  
They are my guests.


The last few years, I have done a lot of welcoming one particular guest: suffering.

Suffering on the path of love.
     Suffering in our human community. 
        Suffering on the planet.

 

(Florian Rohart / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

This suffering has become intimate, familiar, a friend. A frequent guest to my heart.

I learned to stop resisting suffering, and to welcome her into my heart.   
I grew accustomed to her, to the way that she sits inside me.   
   She made herself at home in my heart.
My heart’s contours changed 
      to fit her more perfectly, more comfortably, more graciously.    

What was hard in my heart grew softer, 
    The stone parts became more like dirt
   And the seed of something beautiful grew in that heart dirt. 

She became a faithful friend.    
Other friends, some longtime friends, human friends, emotion friends, left.   
           Not so suffering.  
She faithfully visited me every morning, every noon, every evening.  
She stayed, and whenever she would leave,
 I knew
    she would return.  

I opened my heart to her.   

I learned to recognize the fragrance of suffering in others.   
I came to see the light of suffering in the eyes of others, 
     Who had welcomed the same guest so often.   
A mother with an ailing child.  
A child apart from her mother.  
A lover whose beloved was unfaithful.   
A friend too far from a friend.   
A soul cut off from her own ambition.    
A refugee
   A people under occupation
   An anguished father
      A community whose sons and daughters were taken away.

In the suffering of others, I came to see my own suffering.  
In my own suffering, 
    suffering of others.   

Humanity, 
     I came to see, 
was not something that we each possess individually.  
It’s actually our very connection with one another.  
    Ubuntu.   Ubuntu.

 

(Florian Rohart / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) )

I came to see goodness as not something opposed to evil, but simply the refusal to remain indifferent. We would commit ourselves compassionately to one another.

This guest, suffering, even changed how I see God.
I came to see a God who is not the Unmoved Mover,
       but a sympathetic, passionate, caring, Urgently Moved God.
God is even — to quote Rabbi Heschel — the Most Moved Mover.

As the Prophet says, we find God among the brokenhearted.


I came to see that this identification with the suffering of others is an act of love, and like love itself it is not a feeling, not a sentiment, but a direct call to action.

      It is an action to alleviate suffering.  

Came to terms with the suffering of my own heart
and the suffering of humanity.

Yes, Suffering has been a friend.   
It’s opened up my own heart, 
       and made my God bigger, grander, more tender. 

All that sitting with suffering prepared me, 
        and could have never prepared me for a new guest… 
                for joy.


I had learned to stop looking for joy… and yet to find joy in the most unexpected of places.

In the way that the sun shines on a fresh spring leaf.   
On the wonder in the face of children.    
In the way old couples hold hands.   
How dust dances in the light.    
In a cat stretching in the sun.   
In the joy on my parents’ face when they see my children.     
In the touch of a lover’s arm
In ours dogs when they senses their people return home.

(Florian Rohart / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

Joy was also a friend, but a friend who would come unexpectedly, and leave just as much.

         And that’s when joy came to stay.  

There is this newfound joy, 
   She’s not a transient guest in my heart.  
My heart is her home.
  She is my home.  

I breathe well with her.    
    I dream better, soar higher, laugh deeper, cry easier.  
O joy, sweet, lovely joy.  

This joy I hadn’t known before, 
     and yet I have always known.   
There was no time in which I hadn’t known this joy.   
I knew her before there was a time, 
     way before there was such a thing as place.    

This joy was there with God at the very beginning.    
This joy will be there long after this body of mine is dust.   

This joy… this joy…
I am out of words to describe her.

This joy is every joy I’ve ever known.  
     And nothing like them.


It was only when joy came to stay that I finished reading that same Rumi poem that I have loved so for so many years. Here’s the rest of the poem:

He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah… All praise to Him.
How grateful for every guest that has ever come to my heart.
Grateful for every suffering.

Every rubbing of my heart was a polishing, 
Taking the rust off of this forgetful heart.

I give thanks for the suffering, for it paved the way for joy.   

Suffering was the Jesus that had to kick over the tables of the moneychangers, 
Before the Spirit of God could come rushing in to the Temple of my heart.  

The joy now is possible
    because of the suffering all along. 

Grateful for the suffering
Grateful for the joy. 

The One who sends the suffering
Also sends the joy.


Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

(Florian Rohart / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).)

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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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