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Vastness of the Universe, Greatness of the Human

The female mystic Rabi‘a was sitting inside her home, in intimate prayer and sweet meditation with her Beloved God. A friend came in and said: “Rabi‘a, come outside and see the glory God has made!”
Rabi’a answered:

“Come inside, my friend,
and marvel at the vastly greater glory
God has made
in here!”

I marvel today at the vastness of the glory outside, and the greatness of the glory inside the human.

After the extraordinary series of images that emerges from Pluto, we have yet another reminder of the marvels of the universe, even relatively close to our own cosmic backyard.

We have no idea, truly, of the vastness of the universe. The portion of the universe that we know about — what we can see and sense — bewilders, baffles, and humbles the imagination. Instead of miles and kilometers, we measure it in the speed of light.

Light takes eight minutes to get to us from the sun. In other words, the sunshine we can see now departed the sun eight minutes ago. We measure the distance between stars in how many years light needs to travel, at the awesome speed of 300,000 kilometers per second. We as humans drive 60 or 70 miles per hour; light travels 186,000 miles per second.

The very closest star to our solar system, Alpha Centauri, would take 4.3 years to travel to at the speed of light. I let that sink in to my own heart.

And then for the wow factor, I lift up my head to heights I cannot even fathom. The visible universe contains 10,000 billion galaxies. Each one of these galaxies contains about 100 billion stars.

Imagine each star being a grain of sand. There are more stars in the portion of the known universe than there are grains of sand on Earth.

And yet vastness is not the same as significance. If it were just vastness, bigness, largeness, transcendence, then our lives would seem insignificant.

The late Arthur C. Clarke said:

“Two possibilities exist:
either we are alone in the Universe
or we are not.
Both are equally terrifying.”

Instead of terrifying, I might have said awe-inspiring or even awe-some. To be the sole sentient being in this beyond-vast universe would be awe-inspiring, reminding us of the cosmic significance of each life. To have one human life taken is a cosmic insult to the scarcity of life itself. To have company in places light years away would, and should, help us see beyond the narrow confines of race, religion, and nation. It would mean having to ask crucial questions about any type of a tribal, nationalistic, or even human understanding of God. Both possibilities should lead us to a greater understanding of God, and more humility before the sanctity of human life.

What if we balance that sense of vastness, grandness, and transcendence with immanence, tenderness, sacredness, intimacy? What if we come to see God in the small places, as well as the vastness beyond imagination?

There is a saying of Muhammad, conveying a private conversation between him and God, in which God says:

“The heavens and the earth cannot contain me,
but the heart of my faithful devotee suffices me.”

This is a magic that Rabi‘a’s saying reflects.

Come inside, my friend.
And see the wonder that God has made in here.
Come inside, my darling.

This is what it feels like when we look at each other through loveglances. This is what it’s like when we hold each other with a loving touch. This is what it’s like when we speak and listen to each other with lovewords.

For you, my friend, my darling, there is a mystery in you more vast, and more intimate, that the whole world seen and unseen.

The Muslim sages used to talk about this. They spoke of the entire realm of heavens and Earth as the “small universe” (‘alam-e saghir). It was humanity that they recognized as the “Grand Universe” (‘alam-e kabir).

For this tradition, the human heart is ultimately a mirror that reflects all cosmic realities. As above, so below. As in the heavens, so in our hearts. So the entire celestial realities are mirrored in the human heart — not the fleshy muscle blood pump, but the inner heart, the seat of the spirit, the throne of God.

The great Rumi hints at this:

“There is a secret
hidden in the heart of God’s people.
That secret
even Gabriel
Cannot find.
Seek it!”

You, my beloved, are that secret. The spirit of God dwells in you. The vast universes, beyond sight and hearing, are all reflected in you.

What a mystery there is in these loveglances, these lovetouches: you make me feel like nothing, like everything, and all like that there is in between. You make me melt in this love, so all there is, is the Beloved. And in that melting you make me everything.

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