When Moses saw the burning bush on the mountain, it must have been a thorn bush that he saw. What else could it have been? A scraggly, twisted, unforgiving bush with hard claws that tear one’s clothes, and leave beads of blood on the skin. Light always has to go through a trial.
One version of the story is that Moses saw something shining up on the mountain, and told his family he would go and fetch fire for them; glowing embers would have been valuable to those simple people living in the desert. When he discovered the source of the light, though, it proved to be a bush that burned but was not consumed. Then a voice came out of the bush, and Moses suddenly went from being a shepherd who looked after his father-in-law’s flock, like any man working in the family business, to a prophet sent by the Almighty to guide his people to righteousness and freedom.
We might ask ourselves why God would choose to speak from a bush. With infinite power, he could have called to his servant from a pine tree or a spring of water or a bird or a shadowy cave. Perhaps the bush was meant to show that to approach the Divine Presence, sacrifice is required. If we want to gain, we must be prepared to give – to die before death in order to gain life, as the Sufis say.
It is also true that a thorn bush that burns but that is not destroyed is a good symbol for the never-ending hardships of life. There is no life without difficulties, whether one is a liberated soul, an awakening prophet, a stumbling, groping newborn seeker or someone deeply asleep in the embrace of the material world. The only difference is in what we hope for when the thorns hook and cling to our flesh. For the sleepers, those whose eyes are closed, the light that shines from the bush remains unseen – their hope is simply to get over the trouble, to turn from nightmare back to pleasant dreams and comfort. But there is no mountain so great that it will not one day crumble, and if our hope is founded on the earth, we will surely be disappointed. Or to put it another way, the material thorn bush that molests us is never consumed by the fire.
For those who are striving to awaken, the brightness starts to be recognizable, and then the hope is to profit from the experience and rise still further. In this way the pains and sorrows of life serve, like the thorn bush, as a framework for the spiritual fire that lights our way. They teach us detachment. It is not that the spiritual student seeks pain, not at all – life gives us enough, there is no need to seek an extra helping. It is only that the pain reminds us to distinguish between what is reliable and what is not. In this connection, these two sayings from Gayan Boulas are helpful:
Pleasure blocks, but pain clears the way of inspiration.
The pain of life is the price paid for the quickening of the heart.