Around a thousand years ago, Sufis in the middle east began to write poetry about the spiritual journey using the language of love. To the unwary reader, the poems might seem to be describing the delights and enchantments of a human lover, enthusiastically praising the eyes, the lips, the cheek and so on, but in this case the real object of adoration is the Divine Presence.
A good example is the short verse by Attar, posted here. The poem addresses ‘Majnun’, a standard figure, of whom many long tales have been told, who represents the lover that has been consumed completely by love. In the poem, Majnun is sitting in the road, sifting through the dust, searching, and the poet asks him what he is searching for? Majnun replies that of course he is seeking for his beloved – he looks for her everywhere. It is a poem that only works, conceptually, when it is translated into the spiritual; if Majnun were so far gone in love that he goes searching for his flesh and blood sweetheart with a sieve, we would hardly waste our time with his lunacies. But if it is a seeker who hopes to find the Divine Presence even in a grain of dust, then we have a powerful image, one from which we might learn something.
There are some, of course, who find such poetry extreme, and if so, then obviously it is not meant for them. But if there is anything that separates religion – the respectful observance of sacred laws and forms – from the mystical journey, it is simply intensity of longing. In his lecture on The Maturity of the Soul, Hazrat Inayat Khan uses the metaphor of ripening fruit: the human soul is like the fruit of the tree of creation, and it will ripen in its time. We may endeavour to ‘force’ the process, just as we use various methods to bring green bananas to ripeness, but he says that it is better to leave the fruit on the tree and let it ripen naturally. And above all, he says, what brings the soul to maturity is longing: For the soul to mature, a passion must have awakened it, a passion for the incomprehensible, for that which is the longing of every soul.
Many souls in this world are still green and hard, but once in a while we may have the good fortune, the privilege, to meet one that has been softened by longing, a soul that emits a sweetness that can nourish a whole multitude. What is more, the sweetness helps to stimulate our own longing, our own ‘passion for the incomprehensible,’ so that we also begin to ripen.