by Andrew Sprung

As an agnostic, chary of the assumed authority of scriptures and clerics, I confess to having a soft spot for mystics.  Just as the human race spawns Michael Jordans, born to play ball, and Michael Jacksons, born to sing, it persists in spawning Michaels- --those near to God, seized heart and soul and mind by what they at least perceive to be direct communication and union with the divine. 

I admit to some inconsistency in my attitudes, since scripture is in large part the direct or indirect product of mystic perception, and clerics study that product in search of a secondary buzz -- and many of them are in fact mystics of some sort. But let's just say that most of what comes from the horse's mouth (as the mystically inclined/psychotic artist in Joyce Cary's great novel of that name calls the source of inspiration) -- gets lost in an endless game of telephone.

But I do sense the mainline connection at work in some writings. Call the perceived contact with the divine psychosis or an evolutionary quirk, if you will.  But it strikes me as at least marginally more plausible that the human mind connects with some other form of mind than that mind itself is simply an accident of physics. That suspicion gets a further boost from accounts of near-death experiences.

All this is by way of too-long introduction to my own beginner's pleasure in the poetry of Rumi, aka Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi, the great Persian Sufi mystic poet, whose works have been called a Persian Koran. It's heady stuff -- seemingly straight from the horse's mouth, per Joyce Cary above.  For those of us in the West who encounter Islam chiefly through fearsome Koranic quotes about "infidels" or pious assurances that it is "a religion of peace," these verses open a window. (And many have opened it; Rumi is perhaps the best-selling poet in America.)

I am reading Rumi cold, and my knowledge of Sufiism is Wikipedia-thin, so I will avoid the hubris of commentary and just share my own unmediated 'first contact.' Here's an early favorite -- one of a series that figure the world as a tavern and life as drunkenness.

A Children's Game

Listen to the poet Sanai,
who lived secluded: "Don't wander out on the road
in your ecstasy. Sleep in the tavern."

When a drunk strays out to the street,
children make fun of him.

He falls down in the mud.
He takes any and every road.

The children follow,
not knowing the taste of wine,
or how his drunkenness feels. All people on the planet
are children, except for a very few.
No one is grown up except those free of desire.

God said,
"The world is a play, a children's game,
and you are the children."

God speaks the truth.
If you haven't left the child's play,
how can you be an adult?

Without purity of spirit,
if you're still in the middle of lust and greed
and other wantings, you're like children
playing at sexual intercourse.

They wrestle
and rub together, but it's not sex!

The same with the fightings of mankind.
It's a squabble with play-swords.
No purpose, totally futile.

Like kids on hobby horses, soldiers claim to be riding
Boraq, Muhammad's night-horse, or Duldul, his mule.

Your actions mean nothing, the sex and war that you do.
You're holding part of your pants and prancing around,
Dun-da-dun, dun-da-dun.

Don't wait till you die to see this.
Recognize that your imagination and your thinking
and your sense perception are reed canes
that children cut and pretend are horsies.

The knowing of mystic lovers is different.
The empirical, sensory, sciences
are like a donkey loaded with books,
or like the makeup woman's makeup.

It washes off.
But if you lift the baggage rightly, it will give joy.
Don't carry your knowledge-load for some selfish reason.
Deny your desires and willfulness,
and a real mount may appear under you.

Don't be satisfied with the name of HU*,
with just words about it.

Experience that breathing.
From books and words come fantasy,
and sometimes, from fantasy comes union.

-------

* The pronoun for the divine presence

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.