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A murmuration — not a tweet but a simurgh

Friday, January 4th, 2019

[ by Charles Cameron — from ornithology, via mystical poetry to the sheer joy of language ]
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Here’s a murmuration of starlings, beautifully videographed near my home town of Sacramento:

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Thousands of starlings can explode from a single tree — an impressive sight — but atill photogrphers tend to capture their images when the murmurations appear to resemble something — in this case, a bird of some sort, but not a starling..

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The Simurgh:

Which brings me to the great Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar, whose Conference of the Birds opens with the hoopoe, wisest of birds, taelling the world’s birds in assembly that they must cross seven perilous valleys to find their true sovereign, the Simurgh . These valleys are the valleys of the Quest (Talab), of Love (Ishq), of Knowledge (Ma’refat), of Detachment (Isteghnâ), of Unity (Tawhid), of Wonderment (Hayrat), and of Poverty and Annihilation (Faqr and Fana). You can read something of the meaning of each valley in this page, or here

Some birds die simply hearing what each valley demands, others as they traverse the valleys — but finally, thirty birds survive and arrive at the Simurgh’s throne:

ust 30 birds arrive at the home of the simurgh where they realize a startling truth: they are themselves the simurgh. In fact, the word in Persian means “30 birds.” Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.

Or otherwise told:

Out of thousands of birds, only thirty reach the end of the journey. When the light of lights is manifested and they are in peace, they become aware that the Simurgh is them. They begin a new life in the Simurgh and contemplate the inner world. Simurgh, it turns out, means thirty birds; but if forty or fifty had arrived, it would be the same. By annihilating themselves gloriously in the Simurgh they find themselves in joy, learn the secrets, and receive immortality. So long as you do not realize your nothingness and do not renounce your self-pride, vanity, and self-love, you will not reach the heights of immortality.

You know, there’s a parallel between the Simurgh, comprised of thirty birds, and the Church as body of Christ, constituted by the disciples with whom he broke bread with the Words of Institution, Matthew 26.26:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

— and not forgetting the Great Prayer of Union of John 17.11:

And now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are.

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Translations:

  • Sholeh Wolpé, The Conference of the Birds
  • Penguin Classics, The Conference of the Birds
  • James Lipton, An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game
  • From that last:

    An “exaltation of larks”? Yes! And a “leap of leopards,” a “parliament of owls,” an “ostentation of peacocks,” a “smack of jellyfish,” and a “murder of crows”!

    Slope #1: Mattis Trump, a study in opposites

    Saturday, December 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — Mattis and Jalaluddin Rumi ]
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    Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker, James Mattis Is Out; What Comes Next?

    From the beginning, Mattis and his boss, President Trump, were nearly perfect opposites. Trump, lazy and self-indulgent, appears to think, when he thinks at all, almost entirely of himself. Mattis, by contrast, is a picture of self-restraint, driven by a sense of loyalty to the country and his ideals, symbolized by his high and tight haircut and forty-four years of military service. While his boss revelled in his own hedonism, Mattis walked the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq carrying a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman stoic.

    Neatly done there: Mattis‘ hair is specified, Trump‘s implied..

    Seriously, though, it’s both obvious and surprising that Filkins tackles Mattis, on the occasion of his retirement, in geometric or logical terms of the opposition between the man and his boss.

    **

    In the first of his sermons in Fihi ma Fihi, Jalaluddin Rumi offers us the paradox that when a sage visits the court of a prince, it is the prince who visits the sage:

    when scholars do not study to please princes, but instead pursue learning from first to last for the sake of truth — when their actions and words spring from the truth they have learned and put to use because this is their nature and they cannot live otherwise .. Should such scholars visit a prince, they are still the ones visited and the prince is the visitor, because in every case it is the prince who takes from these scholars and receives help from them. .. Their trade is giving, they do not receive. The Arabs have expressed this in a proverb: “We have learned in order to give, we have not learned in order to take.” And so in all ways they are the visited, and the prince is the visitor.

    Mattis is a scholar of strategy, and Trump not much of a prince.

    **

    The point is, there’s a downhill slope here, and the man of service holds the high ground over his sad little master.

    Mattis writes in his resignation letter:

    One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. [ .. ]

    Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

    My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

    **

  • NYT, Jim Mattis Kept His Country From the ‘Dark Side’
  • **

    As we all now know, Mattis eventually felt the inverted slope was untenable. Hence:

    Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

    Three books in one day — splendid!!

    Friday, June 22nd, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — Imagination, Joan of Arc, and Coronation ]
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    Oh, the other day was a great day, bringing me three terrific books:

  • Henry Corbin, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi: Alone with the Alone
  • Marina Warner, Joan of Arc: the Image of Female Heroism
  • Matthias Range, Music and Ceremonial at British Coronations: From James I to Elizabeth II
  • The Corbin is simply the most dedicated book on spirituality I would take with me if I could, and which I’d dearly love to crack. Marina Warner was a stellar presence in the cafe I frequented in Little Clarendon Street in Oxford, and hijacked me once to help paint her new digs. And the Range? It’s a book I’ve long wished to read and finally, here it is.

    Quite a trio!

    Seeking the Beloved, for Jim Gant

    Thursday, June 7th, 2018

    [ by Charles Cameron — two great poems, my friend, and the impassioned voice of Sara Mingardo ]
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    Rainer Maria Rilke:

    You who never arrived..

    You who never arrived
    in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
    from the start,
    I don’t even know what songs
    would please you. I have given up trying
    to recognize you in the surging wave of
    the next moment. All the immense
    images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt
    landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and
    unsuspected turns in the path,
    and those powerful lands that were once
    pulsing with the life of the gods–
    all rise within me to mean
    you, who forever elude me.

    You, Beloved, who are all
    the gardens I have ever gazed at,
    longing. An open window
    in a country house– , and you almost
    stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
    Streets that I chanced upon,–
    you had just walked down them and vanished.
    And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
    were still dizzy with your presence and,
    startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
    Who knows? Perhaps the same
    bird echoed through both of us
    yesterday, separate, in the evening…

    **

    Hide and go seek, or for the truly young at heart, peek-a-boo, is the earliest of games, and the most profound. We are seekers: there is something, some treasure to be found.

    Among the greatest of our comrades was Rabia of Basra who, sensing an unaccustomed absence of the divine beloved, wept all night long in prayer, WHere are You, Why have you left me? — only to be comforted in the morning by the renewal of the presence, which patiently asked, And Rabia, who do you suppose cried all night long, praying so urgently for my presence?

    Let us go seek, for the great game is upon us.

    **

    David Jones:

    If Rilke gave us the romantic beloved, Jones shows us the search for the beloved in the person of Christ, seeking his form without success in the structures of modernity..

    This poem is remarkable also for the two great wailing cries in Latin that give it its title and final words, giving poetry a passion more eaily found these days in the blues.. I know of no poem in the English language quite like it,.

    A, a, a, Domine Deus

    I said, Ah! what shall I write?
    I enquired up and down.
    (He’s tricked me before
    with his manifold lurking-places.)
    I looked for His symbol at the door.
    I have looked for a long while
    at the textures and contours.
    I have run a hand over the trivial intersections.
    I have journeyed among the dead forms
    causation projects from pillar to pylon.
    I have tired the eyes of the mind
    regarding the colours and lights.
    I have felt for His wounds
    in nozzles and containers.
    I have wondered for the automatic devices.
    I have tested the inane patterns
    without prejudice.
    I have been on my guard
    not to condemn the unfamiliar.
    For it is easy to miss Him
    at the turn of a civilisation.

    I have watched the wheels go round in case I
    might see the living creatures like the appearance
    of lamps, in case I might see the Living God projected
    from the Machine. I have said to the perfected steel,
    be my sister and for the glassy towers I thought I felt
    some beginnings of His creature, but A,a,a Domine Deus,
    my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible
    crystal a stage-paste … Eia, Domine Deus.

    **

    We are frtunate to have that same cry, Domine Deus, delivered with unmatched devotional intensity in the voice of Sara Mingardo, in Rinaldo Alessandrini‘s version of Vivaldi‘s Gloria, RV589:

    I am posting this in the hope that it will go some way towards illuminating the equivalent devotional inttensity in Jones‘ poem. The whole Gloria in Alessandrini‘s version with Mingardo, can be found here on YouTube.

    Devotion, modeled in magnet and iron filings

    Friday, June 16th, 2017

    [ by Charles Cameron — science and Islam, but not the creationist, the analogivcal approach — sufism and the nature of pilgrimage ]
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    I am apparenrly not alone in finding that iron filing surrounding a magnet resemble pilgrims cirucumambulating the Kaaba:

    The upper photograph depicts the work of the artist Ahmed Mater. A note elsewhere on his work notes:

    Ahmed Mater is a Saudi artist and qualified GP. Working in photography, calligraphy, painting, installation and video, Mater reflects his experiences as a doctor and the ways this has challenged his traditional background and beliefs, and explores wider issues about Islamic culture in an era of globalisation. In the series Magnetism, what at first appear to be pilgrims circling the Ka’ba, the sacred building at the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca, are in fact iron filings spiralling around a cube-shaped magnet. Mater refers to the spiritual force that Muslim believers feel during Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

    **

    The lower photograph, portraying actual pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba, is accompanied by the following tale of Junayd:

    A man came to visit Junaid Baghdadi, whose life reflected no change, even after having performed Hajj.

    Junaid asked him: “Where are you coming from?”

    “Sir, I have returned after performing Hajj of the House of Allah”, was the reply.

    “So, have you actually performed Hajj?”

    “Yes, Sir, I have performed Hajj “, said the man.

    “Did you pledge that you would give up sins when you left your home for Hajj?” asked Junaid.

    “No, Sir, I never thought of that”, said the man.

    “Then, in fact, you did not even step out for Hajj. While you were on the sacred journey and making halts at places during the nights, did you ever think of attaining nearness to Allah?”

    “Sir, I had no such idea.”

    “Then you did not at all travel to the Ka’bah, nor did ever visit it. When you put on the Ihram garments, and discarded your ordinary dress, did you make up your mind to abandon your evil ways and attitudes in life as well ?”

    “No, Sir, I had no idea of that.”

    “Then, you did not even don the Ihram garments!” said Junaid ruefully. Then he asked; “When you stood in the Plain of Arafat and were imploring Allah Almighty, did you have the feeling that you were standing in Divine Presence and having a vision of Him?”

    “No, Sir, I had no such experience.

    Junaid then became a liltle upset and asked: “Well, when you came to Muzdalifah, did you promise that you would give up vain desires of the flesh?”

    “Sir, I paid no heed to this.”

    “You did not then come to Muzdalifah at all.” Then he asked: 0?Tell me, did you happen to catch glimpses of Divine Beauty when youmoved round the House of Allah?”

    “No, Sir, I caught no such glimpses.”

    “Then, you did not move around the Ka’bah at all.” Then he said: “When you made Sa’i (running) between the Safa and the Marwa, did you realize the wisdom, significance and objective of your effort?”

    “Sir, I was not at all conscious of this.”

    “Then you did not make any Sa’i!” Then he asked: “When you slaughtered an animal at the place of sacrifice, did you sacrifice your selfish desires as well in the way of Allah?”

    “Sir, I failed to give any attention to that!”

    “Then, in fact you offered no sacrifice whatever.”

    “Then when you cast stones at the Jamarahs, did you make a resolve to get rid of your evil companions and friends and desires?”

    “No, Sir, I didn’t do that.”

    “Then, you did not cast stones at all”, remarked Junaid regretfully, and said:

    “Go back and perform Hajj once again, giving due thought and attention to all the requirements, so that your Hajj may bear some resemblance with Prophet Ibrahim’s Hajj, whose faith and sincerity has been confirmed by the Qur’an:

    Ibrahim who carried out most faithfully the Commands (of his Lord).” (53:37)

    **

    A similar point is made by an anonymous Celtic source, who admonished pilgrims in his own time and circumstance:

    Coming to Rome, much labor and little profit! The King whom you seek here, unless you bring Him with you will not find Him.


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