In a recently posted poem, Awhad al-Din Kirmani says that on the pathway of God there are two Ka’bas, the physical one and the heart. He tells us that the Ka’ba of the heart is a thousand times more valuable than the outer one, and that we should make pilgrimage to it as often as we can. The Ka’ba in Mecca is, of course, the physical point of orientation for Muslim prayer (In predominantly Muslim countries, it is common to find an arrow on the ceiling of hotel rooms, indicating the direction to face while praying.), and it is also a place to which the faithful are obliged to make a pilgrimage at least once in their life, if they are able to do so. To say that the heart is even more sacred than such a religiously essential location sounds very poetical and inspiring–but what could be the meaning of making a pilgrimage there?
To engage in a pilgrimage is, first of all, to leave one’s accustomed situation for the sake of some ideal. In a very small way, we make such a journey whenever we rise and cross the room to greet someone; we are placing our respect for the other person above our comfortable attachment to the arm-chair. Therefore, to come to the heart in the spirit of a pilgrim means to leave behind for a moment our habitual thoughts and attitudes. Outer forms of pilgrimage traditionally involve the observation of certain rituals and rules, with the aim of purifying pilgrims from their usual inner baggage. For example, one may have to wear certain apparel with a symbolic meaning, like the pilgrims going to Mecca wearing the shroud of interment, or, like Moses coming barefoot to the burning bush. in other words, a pilgrimage is very distinct from tourism. One may travel for relaxation, or for entertainment, or to collect some selfies on the mountaintop, but a pilgrimage is not a holiday. Very often, it is hard work; one may face discomfort, the various hardships of travel, and perhaps most challenging, the voice of doubt. Fariduddin Attar’s long allegory, The Conference of the Birds, tells the story of a large group of birds who set out on a journey to find the ‘Great Bird,’ but along the way many of them turn back, defeated by their own lack of faith, of inner resolve.
Although we may not realise it, many of us learned an image in our childhood that illustrates the pilgrimage to the heart. In the story of Sleeping Beauty, the princess is in a deep sleep, and all the court sleeps with her; they are doomed to slumber until the prince comes to waken the princess with a kiss. But to reach her, the prince must fight his way through a dense thorn forest that has grown up around the castle. This is an image of the human heart. The spark of the divine presence is there, within, but asleep, and surrounded by the countless thorns of selfish feeling that seem to multiply every day. To fight our way through requires a concentrated exercise of will, cutting through our habitual thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine,’ and it requires devotion to the Ideal, represented by the beauty of the princess.
This is the true meaning of prayer; and the one who has learnt the secret of prayer is privileged to make the pilgrimage to the heart with every act of devotion.