There is a common theme in fairy tales about a person who is granted a wish – or sometimes three wishes. Just how such a special gift is gained varies from story to story, but almost always the point of the tale is that people don’t know how to wish. King Midas wished to turn everything he touched into gold, and as a consequence turned his beloved family into lifeless statues. When there are three wishes, usually the first two lead to calamity, and the third wish is spent on returning things to the way they were before we dared to change the fabric of reality. The stories present an implicit challenge – if we had the opportunity, we might ask ourselves, would we do better than the simpleton in the story? What would we wish for? Would we know how to wish wisely?
This is not just an idle question, for the spiritual path needs the focus of some ideal or aspiration; it is not merely aimless wandering. One of the Golden Rules is : ‘Hold your ideal high in all circumstances’ – but what should our ideal be? In our Sufi treasury we have a number of prayers that express wishes, and it seems safe to assume that they will not result in disaster. The prayer Khatum, for example, concludes with five petitions or requests, and if we look at them carefully, we will find they are very instructive about the wise way of wishing.
The word ‘Khatum,’ by the way, means ‘conclusion,’ and is usually mispronounced in the west. Western students transcribing this eastern word placed the letter ‘u’ there to indicate an unstressed vowel – but a better transcription might be ‘Khatm’, because from the usual spelling people have been tempted to stress the ‘u’ and say ‘Kha-toom.’ But in any case, what we call the prayer is not so important as the feeling in our hearts as we say it.
As the prayer draws to a close, it first asks the Most Merciful and Compassionate God to ‘Give us Thy great goodness.’ This sounds like a reasonable and an understandable wish – but what does this really mean? What is goodness? Does it mean, a comfortable house and a steady job? Or a long and peaceful life? Or happy children and many loving friends? Or perhaps there is someone who has a particular ambition, so would goodness in their case be success and fame? We might each have a different idea of what is good in this life. What is more, just a little observation will tell us that every person has difficulties, even if they are very pious and prayerful, so what is the point of this request?
To make this great wish for goodness clear, we must consider the distinction between the world of manifestation and the unseen world. The Divine Creator has drawn a picture of exquisite beauty, but to make any image there must be both light and shade; every form inevitably comes with a shadow. The gift of a body, with all its lessons and delights, comes with the necessity of illness, infirmity and physical death. The gift of individuality carries with it the shadow of separation.
If we awaken to the unseen world of the spirit, though, the experience is different: there in that realm there are not the same limitations. There is a reason why such an awakening is sometimes called liberation. By the gift of Divine Mercy and Compassion, we may leave behind our small self, the source of all frustration, and come to know the real goodness, which is the ever-living, all enfolding Divine Presence. When that light begins to dawn in our consciousness, we may at last experience the reality of this saying, another heartfelt wish, from Gayan Ragas:
Let me grow quietly in Thy garden as a speechless plant, that some day my flowers and fruits may sing the legend of my silent past.