The following is an excerpt from a letter sent by ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (on whom and his letter writing see a previous post) to a friend of his living in the Ottoman town of Hayrabolu (in modern-day Turkey), one Ibrāhīm Efendī, in March of 1680. It concerns the practice of dhikr- remembrance- of God: its form, its effect, and its proper ‘translation,’ both into the letter recipient’s native tongue (in this case Turkish), and into right understanding of the role of the practioner vis-a-vis God. As such it is a good snapshot of how ‘Abd al-Ghanī envisioned the ‘mechanics’ of spiritual practice working in the practioner, including a glimpse into the real-world application of spiritual advice.

a_damascus_pottery_tile_ottoman_syria_17th_century_d5479930h

Persist in the dhikr of Sahl ibn ‘Abdallah al-Tustarī, God be pleased with him, which his shaykh invested him with and through which he attained to God in four days, with your observation adhering to its meaning in each moment. Then you will be benefited greatly by that, God willing. The dhikr of Sahl, God be pleased with him, is: ‘God is with me, God looks towards me, God is present to me.’ And if you translate it for yourself into the Turkish language, with words that make attention to its meaning easy for you, and so remember God by them, that is excellent. And it is thus when you pay heed to it with your heart but your tongue does not speak it. The intended goal is that there be no straining (takalluf) in yourself and in your thoughts for the flow of the remembrance of God (dhikr Allāh), and that you practice dhikr in every condition. Do not practice His dhikr believing that is you doing it under your own strength, rather, believe that it is He who is remembering Himself by means of your tongue and heart.

As God said: ‘God’s remembrance is greater,’ (Q. 29.45), which is an example of the attribution of the maṣdar [verbal noun] to its doer; that is, greater than the canonical prayer which is the dhikr of the servant towards his Lord. For indeed you are in His hand, in the disposition of His power, and He remembers Himself through you as He wills, and He makes your heart heedless of Him as He wills. Do not depend upon any but Him, and do not prop any of your affairs upon any but Him; do not imagine that any will benefit you other than Him, and do not believe that any can strike you other than Him. Be with Him by means of nothing else, and be in everything through Him. So stand upright and persist in that, and do not be displeased concerning His judgments over you, nor from the effect of His disposition in you. Be patient with the judgment of your Lord, and do not say, ‘He will not bestow good upon me.’ If He inclines thus for you, He will bestow good upon you in accordance with what He wills, not in accordance with what you will. If He wills, He will convey you in the moment, from state to state, and in a flash wholeness will come.

I have presented you with good advice, but it is God who is responsible for your guidance, for He is your Master. Do not fail to report about yourself to me, O brother, and write to me concerning everything that concerns your religious affairs, for I am the servant of this path, for the good of people. Peace in perpetuity!

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010),150-151.

 

IMG_1554

 

IMG_1552 

 

IMG_1556

 

IMG_1564 

 

IMG_1568  

 

IMG_1576

Taken along the Potomac River, below the Great Falls, Maryland, October 31. From top to bottom: Sycamore leaves on river-eroded stone; bits of downed wood; metamorphic stone up-close; driftwooded tree and Solidago sp.;  Chasmanthium latifolium, river oats; seed pods of Clematis sp.

Below is another selection from the autobiography Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1792), described in detail in a previous post. Here Paisius provides a charming vignette of life in the little skete of Trǎisteni in Ottoman Wallachia, where the small monastic community was split between monks living in common and monks living as hermits- though, as it turns out, their reclusion did not preclude participation in the common life of the community.

Ornament Detail 2

For the holy offices they all gathered together, both those who lived in common and those in reclusion. Among the latter was Father Proterij, a Ukrainian by birth, from the city of Rešetylvika in the regiment of Poltava, who had been a goldsmith during his life in the world. Whilst he stayed in the monastery he made the most beautiful spoons and sold them, and he received visiting monks with inexpressible love.

In his mercy he nourished the many diverse birds that flew in the air, providing them with an abundance of food at a suitable time. They would gather at his cell every day, and would await the time when he would come and open the window; and flying into the cell with no fear whatsoever they would eat the food he gave them. He took into his hand of them he wished, stroking them and letting them go: they in no wise feared him. When they had had their fill, they flew off. As he went to the holy office, many of the birds would gather and accompany him to church, some sitting on his head and shoulders, others flying round about him and singing in their diverse voices. As he entered the church doors, they all flew up onto the church and awaited his coming out. And when he came out of the church they flew down and sat upon him, accompanying him to his cell in like manner. Seeing this with all the others I marveled with great wonder and glorified God for having deemed me worthy to see such a servant of His.

Another of the recluses was the schemamonk named Ivan, a Russian by birth. This man, whenever he provided a meal for all the brethren out of the righteous work of his own hands, would go before the meal to each of the brethren with a vessel suitable for the washing of feet; and stopping at each cell and washing the feet of all, he would give them all a kiss of love. Others of these recluses copied books of the fathers and thus obtained their sustenance.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-71.

Over the course of the eighteenth century Orthodox monasticism and spiritual life would undergo a considerable revival, beginning in various parts of the Ottoman Empire and spread north into the borderlands along the Dniester River, regions contested between the expanding Russian and Austrian Empires and the contracting Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in addition to the maneuverings of local forces such as the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the various nobility of the Ottoman semi-autonomous principalities of Wallachia and Moldova. In time the currents of spiritual revival would make their way into Russia, contributing to the re-formation of the starets tradition in Russian monasticism and spiritual life, known to many readers in the West through Dosteovsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

One of the key figures in this spiritual revival was St. Paisius Velichkovsky (20 December 1722 – 15 November 1794). Born in what is now Ukraine, Paisius made his way as a young man to various monastic settlements in Wallachia, followed by a stay at Mount Athos, then a return north to Moldavia at the invitation of Prince Gregory III, the Ottoman-appointed ruler of the principality. The story below comes from his sojourn at the monastery and hermitage of Trǎisteni in what is now Romania. He later moved to a monastery at the northern edge of Moldavia, in the region of Bucovina, only to see the Austrians invade and annex Bucovina to their expanding empire. Due to the hostility of the Catholic Austrian polity to Orthodoxy, Paisius and many of the brothers retreated to Ottoman lands, settling at the monastery of Neamţ, where Paisius would die in 1794. Before his death, Paisius would devote much of his time to translating the now beloved spiritual classic The Philokalia into Slavonic, allowing its transmission throughout the northern Orthodox world. He also helped to introduce the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the same Slavonic lands, as part of his emphasis on reinvigorating older forms of Orthodox spirituality. In addition to these efforts, he began, though did not complete, an autobiography, which describes his travels and labors. The 17th and 18th centuries of the Ottoman world saw an explosion of travel narratives, autobiographical accounts, and personal chronicles or diaries, of which this account is no doubt an example, as well as being part of a West Eurasian-wide increase in literacy and authorship. As the excerpt below makes clear, Paisius wished to relate the mundane in addition to the sublime, and in so doing, reveals precious details of everyday life- in this case, an attempt at bread baking gone very wrong!

For more on Paisius’ life and historical legacy, see John C. McGuckin, “The Life and Mission of St. Paisius Velichkovsky (1722-1794): An Early Modern Master of The Orthodox Spiritual Life,” in Spiritus 9.2. (2009).

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

A detail from the Gospel manuscript of Luke the Cypriot (active 1583-1625), who worked in various places in the Ottoman Empire before settling in Moscow, where this Gospel was completed.

When everyone had gone off to the forest, then, to do the aforementioned work, the superior called one of the brethren who was the most experienced of all in the baking of bread and ordered him to show me the procedure for baking bread; and he ordered me to bake the bread, that it might be ready for the meal. This brother showed me in detail the procedure: pouring water into the cauldron, he showed me the pans of flour and the jug of kvass. He told me, ‘After you have heated the water, pour it into the flour in the pans and begin to knead it; then pout all the kvass from the jug into the dough and knead it all together.’

Having said this, he went off to the brethren in the forest. But wretch that I was, after his departure I heated the water and poured in the flour, completely forgetting to add the kvass. When I began to knead it, there was too little water, and too much flour. Having no experience, I did not know that it was possible to heat more water and add it, but thinking that once the brother had measured out so much water and flour it was in no wise possible to add or take away from it, I labored with great toil to knead all the flour; and the dough became so hard that it was impossible to put my fingers in it. At a loss for what to do with all the remaining flour, I cut the dough in pieces with a knife and placed it on the table. Sprinkling flour upon it, I beat it with a piece of wood and thus scarcely managed to knead in all of the flour; and placing all the dough in the pans with the greatest of difficulty, I scarcely managed to set them on the oven, so that the dough might rise more quickly in the warmth.

I waited for quite a while, and then I lit the oven so that it might be ready, but after I had burnt a great quantity of wood, the dough had still not risen. I was grieved by this, not knowing why it would not rise, but remained hard and immovable like a rock. In the afternoon one of the brethren came from the forest, not the one who had shown me how to bake the bread, but another, sent by the superior to learn whether the bread was ready or not. He asked me, ‘Why is the bread still not ready?’ Answering him with a sigh, I told him that it still had not risen. He and I then took the pans off the oven and, feeling it with his hand, found that it had been kneaded as hard as rock. Learning the reason for this, he smiled and said,’ You ignoramus! When you saw that there was too little water you ought to have added more without hesitation, or else taken away some of the flour, and thus you wold have kneaded the dough as one needs do.’ Then he asked me, ‘Did you add kvass to this dough?’ What fear and shame came upon me when I heard this! I scarcely managed to answer that I had forgotten to add the kvass. But seeing that I was terrified, and being a sensible man, he began to console me with spiritual words: ‘Do not grieve over this,’ he said, ‘for it was not from contempt, but from your inexperience in this work that you have erred.’ He heated some water and pour it upon the dough, and he and I began to knead it, adding the kvass. With great difficulty we scarcely managed to knead it somewhat, though it was impossible to knead it thoroughly on account of its great hardness.

Then, having given me instructions what to to do, he went back to the forest. I waited a rather long time, and when I thought the dough had risen somewhat, I made it into loaves and placed them on the table. After sufficient time I built up the fire in the oven, and it grew so hot that it emitted sparks. I swept these up carefully and, allowing the oven to cool a little, though not as much as was necessary, I put the bread into it, thinking that it would bake well. But because of the oven’s great heat it turned black forthwith and began to burn, and it was burnt nearly two fingerbreadths from the top and bottom. At a loss for what to do, I fell into great despair, firstly because through my ignorance I had made such a mess of things in the bakery of the holy hermitage, and secondly because the holy fathers would not find anything to eat when they came back from the forest. Taking the bread, then, completely burnt, from the oven, I awaited with fear the arrival of the brethren. And when they returned from the forest and saw what I, wretch that I was, had done in my ignorance, what great fear and shame came upon me! Not knowing what to do, I fell down at their holy feet with tears and asked forgiveness. The father superior and all the brethren, imitating Christ’s mercy, forgave me. Cutting one of the loaves, they saw that it was in no wise fit to be eaten; and they boiled corn mush (mǎmǎligǎ) and made a meal of this. No more did they bid me to bake the bread. But once having endured this, I thereafter watched diligently how the bread was baked and, with God’s assistance, I learned to do this. I describe here how I suffered because of my inexperience in this matter for the sake of the brethren who come now to our community, that they may not be frightened because of their inexperience in this or a similar obedience. For through God’s help and their own fervor they will be able to gain experience in the obediences assigned them.

Paisius Velichkovsky, The Life of Paisij Velyčkos’kjy, trans. by J.M.E. Featherstone (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1989), 70-72.

Bridging the gap between how we intuitively understand words and concepts and how people in the past, or people in the present but in quite different cultural-linguistic worlds from us, understood those same words and concepts is often a difficult task. In the text I’ve translated here from the great early-modern Ottoman Damascene mystical philosopher, poet, and traveler (to name but three of his occupations) ‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī (164-1731), we encounter both dissonances of meaning endemic to the gap between our time and his, as well as dissonances that ‘Abd al-Ghanī introduces. Easily one of the most fascinating and versatile thinkers of early modern Islam, ‘Abd al-Ghanī simultaneously defended the practices and concepts of Sufism, especially as embodied in the thought of Ibn ‘Arabī, while also frequently refashioning them and integrating them into a wider-ranging philosophy of Islam that embraced the rapidly changing world of early modernity, against the puritanical, ‘fundamentalist’ strains of Islam that fitfully circulated in the Ottoman world. In addition to defending the legal validity of smoking, coffee-drinking, dancing, musical performances, and other activities, ‘Abd al-Ghanī generally argued for a broad social ethic that rejected moralism and morality policing, instead encouraging positive, indeed tolerant social interactions across class and confessional lines. This is not to say that he advocated some sort of proto-liberalism or modernism: as is clear from the following text, ‘Abd al-Ghanī did not reject the practice of the sharī’a or traditional theological beliefs. But what he did with those beliefs and how he interpreted them in doctrine and practice could be quite surprising and even innovative (a term he would not have appreciated, I should note). His often bold textual moves can be quite jarring at times- as they no doubt were in some cases for people in his own day.

This text is the bulk of a letter ‘Abd al-Ghanī sent, in April of 1678, to one Mulla Aḥmad of Hayrabolu, in what is now the European portion of Turkey (it was evidently conveyed by friends of ‘Abd al-Ghanī, as the note at the end indicates). In it our author discusses ‘true’ and ‘metaphorical’ acts and states, in so doing reversing the ways in which we tend to speak now (though reflecting language C.S. Lewis used in some of his works): the really real seclusion (khalwat, a type of ascetic withdraw for spiritual purposes) takes place within the self and in relation to God and through Him the rest of the world; that of the body and in relation to physical society is merely ‘metaphorical,’ obtaining reality through its contact with the true practice of seclusion. And so on- ‘Abd al-Ghanī explains it pretty well, I think, though this English translation does not convey the word-play and subtlety of the Arabic original- always a problem in translation, especially in religious-philosophical language such as this. But so it goes- ‘Abd al-Ghanī would no doubt argue from such a state to the ultimately metaphorical nature of language, realized only through connection with the truly Real.

a_damascus_pottery_tile_ottoman_syria_17th_century_d5479930h

And I have heard regarding you, O brother, that you are firmly fixed in your religion, desiring conformity with the command and the prohibition, and I love you for that. And I love for you what I love for my own self: that you enter into the path of inner piety (ṭarīqat al-taqwā al-bāṭiniyya), so that the interior and exterior be made perfect for you. What I mean by ‘inner piety’ is your crossing from the outward ordinances to the knowable realities, so that you witness through the eye of spiritual perception that every motion out of the motions of canonical prayer and other than those from among the acts of worship possess a lordly sign (ishāra)  and merciful secrets. And every ordinance from the ordinances of the sharī’a has an application in the exterior and an application in the interior. The sharī’aic ordinance (ḥukm) is a body, while the divine wisdom (ḥikma) is the spirit of that body. Do not be content with the bodies apart from the spirits, and do not be distracted from the bodies by the spirits: rather, bring together the exterior and the interior.

And let my friend—God, exalted is He, give him peace—know that there is no recourse for that besides entering into sharī’aic seclusion (khalwat) and doing sharī’aic spiritual exercises. And I mean by ‘seclusion’ only your solitude in witnessing the true Doer apart from the metaphorical doer, then the witnessing of the true One Described, apart from the metaphorical one, then the witnessing of the true Existence, apart from the metaphorical existence. And persist in this witnessing so that the senses and the intellect are fully immersed. This is true spiritual seclusion. As for the metaphorical seclusion, it is that you enclose your body in a ḥalāl house and ḥalāl sustenance, and cut off your sight interiorly and exteriorly from all that is outside that house by negation or affirmation, until you find the true seclusion, then come out of the metaphorical seclusion.

Among that which brings you to this is your concern for and your paying attention to the books of the knowledge of Sufism, such as the books of Ibn ‘Arabī, Ibn Sab’īn, al-‘Afīf al-Tilimsānī, and the like of them—God hallow their spirits—after washing the spiritual sight of the dirt of rejection of any of them, so that the door of their luminescent secret is opened for the heart, and the reality of their stationing upon the stations of the Muhammadan sharī’a is unveiled for the heart. And it knows that they are knowledge of it in the most perfect sense, acting according to it without innovation (bid’a) in the exterior or interior. And someone is not veiled from them through unknowledgeable rejection of their path, unreflexively being against them due to uncritical imitation [of anti-Sufi views], or from being fearful in regards to others due to his not understanding their doctrine, hiding in his [public] disavowal with faith in their doctrine without thinking evil of them—that is more beneficial for him, if such a person is not an enemy of that which he does not know. Junayd, God be pleased with him, said: ‘Faith (al-īmān) in the doctrine of this group is wilāya.’ Meaning, with neither understanding nor critical objection. For every entity among the learned has technical vocabulary which they use but others do not know, so accusing them of error without awareness of their technical vocabulary is itself a mistake. And there is a people who understand the doctrine of Sufism in accordance with the Book and Sunna, even if the exterior of the.doctrine appears to be in opposition. Its people always exist—to God belongs praise in every place and time! The one who licitly seeks them, finds them. ‘Licit seeking’ is sincere devotion, trust in God, thinking evil of the lower self, and the non-existence of thinking evil of others, whoever it may be, and submission to God in every place of His judgement and His decree, good and ill. As for the practitioner of innovationist seeking, he is not benefited by anyone he meets, even a prophet from among the prophets, upon them be peace.

And I mean by ‘exercise’ (riyāḍa) whenever I mention it, the directing of the soul towards the attaining of the realities and their habituation in every state, little by little. And that is by attachment to the clear Truth (al-ḥaqq), then by being characterized by it, then by ultimate realization—that is real spiritual exercise. As for metaphorical bodily exercise by the limiting of the eating of food and the drinking of water, as he—peace be upon him—said: ‘The sufficiency of the son of Adam are morsels which suffice his loins,’ so it is an excercise seeking other than itself, not for its own sake. It is constituted in the whole and is an aid for the fulfillment of the spiritual exercise, and is what does not go to excess and so lead to corrupt imaginings, so becoming a harmful interdicted thing—for this reason the jurists discuss it in their books.

So I have explicated for you seclusion and its conditions, real and metaphorical, and its like, exercise, but we hastened the matter due to the closeness of the travel of the brothers to you. God guide us and you on a straight path, and upright religion, in every moment, to the hour of death.

‘Abd al-Ghanī al-Nābulusī, Risāla 6, in Wasā’il al-taḥqīq wa rasā’il al-tawfīq, edited by Samer Akkach, in Letters of Sufi Scholar (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 116-119. Translation by Jonathan P. Allen, 2014, no rights reserved.

It is also transmitted that to begin with Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn was extremely opposed to the samā’ [devotional, ecstatic dance and recitation] of the dervishes. One day [Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī] Mowlānā, having become greatly aroused with passion, came forth from his madrasa while performing the samā’. He entered the chamber of Qāḍī ‘Ezz al-Dīn and, shouting at him and grabbing him by the collar, he said: ‘Get up! Come to the banquet of God!’ He then dragged him to the gathering of ‘the lovers’ and revealed to him what was appropriate to ‘Ezz al-Dīn’s capacity. The latter tore his robe and joined in the samā’, spinning about and letting out shouts. In the end, he came to experience devotion and become a disciple in complete sincerity.

Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad-e Aflākī, Manāqib al-‘ārifīn, trans. by John O’Kane, 75.

I wish, O Son of the living God,
old eternal King,
a hidden hut in the wilderness
that it may be my dwelling,

A bright blue narrow stream
to be beside it,
a clear pool for washing sins away
through the grace of the Holy Spirit.

A beautiful forest near by,
around it on every side,
for nourishment of many-voiced birds
as shelter to hide them.

Facing south for warmth,
a little stream across its land,
choice ground with many benefits
that would be good for every plant.

A few sensible men
(we shall make known their number),
humble and obedient
to pray to the King:

Four threes, three fours
suitable for every need;
two sixes in the church
both north and south;

Six couples besides,
as well as me myself,
praying perpetually
to the King who makes the sun shine.

A lovely church decked with linen,
a house for God of Heaven,
bright lights afterwards
above pure white Scriptures.

One house to visit
for tending the body,
without ribaldry, without boasting,
without contemplating evil.

This is the housekeeping I would get,
I would choose without hiding it:
real fragrant leeks, hens,
speckled salmon, bees-

Enough clothing and food for me
from the king of good renown,
my being sitting awhile,
praying God everywhere.

Anonymous, Dúthracar, a Maic Dé bí, c. 800/900 AD, translated by Ruth P.M. Lehmann, in Early Irish Verse.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 84 other followers