Last week we got to take a family vacation, having a sweet reunion with my parents, siblings and our children. We choose a place in the mountains of North Carolina for the reunion. Like much of the nation, the day times were engulfed in an infernal 100-plus degree temperature, but the nights were refreshingly cool. One night, I had an experience that somehow opened up one of the inner insights about what it means to be fully human.
In a cool mountain night, I put on a few pieces of wood on the fire pit, and stood there watching them burn. Bit by bit, they gave in to the flame, and caught on fire.
After a while it dawned on me: The fire is from the wood.
The flame is simply the release of the energy inside the dormant fire.
It dawned on me: We are like this too.
All of us contain, in our very inside, immense Divine energy. Sometimes we need a spark, an encounter, to release the Divine potential inside. And then our souls catch on fire, giving heat and light to all around.
This is what the great Muslim sage Rumi expressed: The whole of my life can be summed up in these words:
I used to be raw,
Then I was cooked,
I am on fire.
May we be like these pieces of wood, like Rumi, catching on fire, releasing what's already inside us.
May every heart be ablaze, burning every all that is other than Divine, releasing all the potential inside.
Within the Islamic tradition, this "potential" is referred to as the fitra. It is what in another tradition might be called the "Buddha nature." It is the inner jewel, that always and already present Divine presence that is the most fundamental part of who and what we are. It is what the Quran refers to as God having revealed "I breathed into the human being something of My own Spirit."
In a lovey line, Rumi encapsulates the whole purpose of creation as becoming true to that Divine presence:
Seek out that rare jewel
That's your goal!
One of the amusing paradoxes about the Islamic tradition is the fact that the conception of God is quite simple (radically One), but the conception of the human being is subtle and nuanced.
That subtlety is expressed in myriad ways. Aagain, that incomparable sage Rumi says: "The human being is like a jackass, with wings of angels tacked on." We are all mixtures of good and evil, light and darkness, lower than the animal, and more sublime than the sublime.
This is what the Quran expresses as God having created the human in the "loveliest of forms" (fi ahsan al-taqwim, 95:4) and then bringing us to "the lowest of the low." Our task is to become true again to that loveliest of forms, to "thy own self be true."
Here is the mystery of faith and infidelity in Islam: The word commonly translated as "infidelity" (kufr) in reality simply means covering up. It is "covering up" that inner jewel, that Divine presence, that inner light. It is like covering up a brilliant diamond by mud or dung, pretending it doesn't exist.
And therein is the solution, the "how" of becoming an illuminated being is not by "adding" anything new, by "learning" anything, it is simply by washing away any and all that has blocked one's inner jewel. That "washing away" of the inner heart is the remembrance of God, what is referred to as dhikr in the Quran.
To remember God is to remember who and what we are, who and what we are intended to be. It is the quintessential message of Disney's "Lion King" (a great Islamic metaphor if there ever was one!): "Remember who you are. You are my son, and the one true king."
If we fail to remember who we are, we might be singing Hakuna Mattata, but we are still eating maggots. To fulfill our destiny, we have to remember who we are, to become the true kings of our cosmic mission.
Let's go back to Rumi. Rumi continues that same paradox of the human condition by a story he adapts from the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He states:
Last night the spiritual teacher was wandering around the town, with a lit torch at hand.
He said: "I am sick and tired of these two-legged beasts. I want to find one real human being."
Everyone said: "O, there is not even one of those to be found."
He said: "That very one that is not to be found, that's the one that I seek with heart and soul."
Diogenes' tale is one of cynicism, bemoaning the fact that there is not a single honest person to be found. Rumi's tale is a classically Muslim one, acknowledging the paradox that each and every single one of us is created by God, in the image of God, containing the spirit of God inside, in the primordial nature (fitra).
Far too few of us actually live life to that full potential, and fail to live life as a full and complete human being. In other words, we do not live as a real and complete human being, we have to become a real human being.
The one we seek is the one we have to become. May God help make of us a real human being.
May God release in us, from us, that Divine presence that is already contained within.
May our hearts be set ablaze with love for God, service to humanity.
Then each and every single one of us will be like that piece of wood, providing heat and light for all around.