Prayer


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.

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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.

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.

_____________

I have removed to a distance, Benevolent One, I dwelt in the desert
and I was hidden from You, the sweet Master.
I came under the night of life’s worry,
and there I sustained many stings and wounds,
having gone up I bear many blows in my soul,
and I cry out amid the suffering and trouble of my heart:
have mercy, have pity on me the transgressor!
O soul-loving doctor Who alone loves mercy,
Who heals the weak and wounded as a gift,
cure my bruises and wounds!
Drip the oil of Your grace, my God,
and anoint my injuries, wipe out my infections,
form scar tissues and bind up my severed
members, and remove all the scars, Savior,
and heal the whole of me completely as before
when I did not have defilement, when I did not have any bruise,
nor infected injury, nor stain, O my God,
but calm and joy, peace and meekness,
and holy humility, and patience,
the illumination of long-suffering and excellent works,
long-suffering and utterly unconquerable power.
Hence much comfort from tears each day,
hence the exultation of my heart
gushed forth like a spring, flowed everlastingly,
and was a stream dripping honey, and a drink of merriment,
continuously turning in the mouth of my mind.
Hence all health, hence purity,
hence cleansing of my passions and vain thoughts,
hence dispassion was with me like lightening,
and always associated with me. Understand me spiritually,
I who say these things, be not wretched, defiled!
The dispassion produced in me is the unutterable pleasure of communion,
and boundless desire for the wedding feast, for union full of God,
partaking of which I also became dispassionate,
I was burned up with pleasure, blazing with desire for it,
and I shared in the light, yes, I became light,
higher than all passion, outside all wickedness.
For passion does not touch the light of dispassion,
just as the shadow or darkness of night cannot touch the sun.
And so having become such, and being such a kind,
I was relaxed, Master, as I took confidence in myself.
I was dragged down by worry about perceptible matters,
I fell down, wretched, to the concern of life’s problems,
and I become cold like black iron,
and lying around for a long time I took on rust.
Because of this I shout to You asking to purified anew,
Benevolent One, and to be lifted up to the first
beauty, and to enjoy fully Your light
now and always unto all ages. Amen.

St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), Hymn 46. Trans. Daniel Griggs

Blessed Virgin, Elected One,
We name you a Paradise in which the perfumed tree is planted.
We name you the Fountain, from which gushes forth the water of life.
We name you the Land, which bore the apple fruit.
We name you the Bush which was enwrapped in fire.
We name you the Rod which budded forth a shoot.
We name you the Pole which bore the cluster of grapes.
We name you the Fleece which was covered in dew.
We name you the Tent of Dwelling, which was covered in glory.
We name you the Ark, covered with the Mercy Seat.
We name you the Cloud which rained down food.
We name you the Dove, whose sides were covered with red hued gold.
We name you the Turtle Dove whose wings stretch over her chickens.
We name you the Ship laden with riches.
We name you the Harbor, that calms the heaving sea.
We name you the Land that gives a rich crop.
We name you a Heaven [who contained Him the heavens could not contain].
[We name you the Throne] and the Cherubim bear you up.
O Virgin, your glory is deeper than the Abyss, and higher than the heavenly heights;
There is no human tongue which can exhaust your praise.
Now I pray to you with fervent request, incomparable Queen,
Protect me in your majesty; grant me your clemency.
Gentle Lady, to whom revenge is wholly foreign,
Gird me about with your righteousness and endow me with courage.
My spirit calls upon you; in you my heart has put its trust.
May your mercy follow me all the days of my life.

From the Ethiopian Orthodox hymn to the Theotokos the Enzira Sehbat, trans. John A. McGuckin

In secular usage, meditari means, in a general way, to think, to reflect, as does cogitare or considerare; but, more than these, it often implies an affinity with the practical or even moral order. It implies thinking of a thing with the intent to do it; in other words, to prepare oneself for it, to prefigure it in the mind, to desire it, in a way, to do it in advance- briefly, to practice it… To practice a thing by thinking of it, is to fix it in the memory, to learn it. All of these shades of meaning are encountered in the language of the Christians; but they generally use the word in referring to a text. The reality it describes is used on a text, and this, the text par excellence, the Scripture par excellence, is the Bible and its commentaries. Indeed, it is mainly through the intermediary of ancient biblical versions and through the Vulgate that the word (meditation) has been introduced into the Christian vocabulary, particularly into monastic tradition, where it was to continue to retain the new shade of meaning given it by the Bible. There, it is used generally to translate the Hebrew hāgā, and like the latter it means, fundamentally, to learn the Torah and the words of the Sages, while pronouncing them usually in a low tone, in reciting them to oneself, in murmuring them with the mouth. This is what we call “learning by heart,” what ought rather to be called, according to the ancients, “learning by mouth” since the mouth “meditates wisdom”: Os justi meditabitur sapientiam. In certain texts, that will mean only a “murmur” reduced to the minimum, an inner murmur, purely spiritual. But always the original meaning is at least intended: to pronounce the sacred words in order to retain them; both the audible reading and the exercise of memory and reflection which it precedes are involved. To speak, to think, to remember, are the three necessary phases of the same activity.

To express what one is thinking and to repeat it enables one to imprint it on one’s mind. In Christian as well as rabbinical tradition, one cannot meditate anything else but a text, and since this text is the word of God, meditation is the necessary complement, almost the equivalent, of lectio divina… For ancients, to meditate is to read a text and to learn it “by heart” in the fullest sense of this expression, this is, with one’s whole being: with the body, since the mouth pronounced it, with the memory which fixes it, with the intelligence which understands its meaning, and with the will which desires to put it into practice.

Jean Leclercq, O.S.B., The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, pp. 16-17

‘I prostrate myself, Lord, at the throne of Your majesty, I who am dust and ashes and the dregs of humanity. A thousand upon thousands of angels and countless legions of seraphim offer You, the holy Nature hidden from the senses and knowledge of all created beings, spiritual worship in the hiddenness of their natures with their fiery praises and their holy impulses; for You are close at hand, Lord, with Your assistance to everyone at all times of need, and Your door is open in season and out of season for the entreaties of all. You do not abhor sinners nor does Your Majesty feel loathing for the souls which are stained with all kinds of sins; rather, You draw up everyone from endless evils, including me, Lord, who am utterly defiled, seeing that You have held me worthy to fall down before You on my face and make bold to pronounce Your holy name with my mouth, even though I am a vessel full of uncleanness and not worthy to be numbered among the children of Adam.

‘Grant me, Lord, that I may be made holy by praising You, and be made pure by the remembrance of You; renew my life with a transformation of mind and with beneficial thoughts which You, in Your grace, stir within me. Be a guide to my mind in my meditation on You, and make me forget my stumbling conduct through a renewal of mind which You instill in me. Stir up within me requests that are beneficial, with my will in accordance with Your will, for it is You who give prayer to those who pray. Imprint in me a single will, one which gazes towards You at all times, and a deliberation which is never weakened in its hope of You by continual deaths for Your sake. Grant, Lord, that I do not pray before You with unfeeling words (just uttered) with the lips, but may I spread prostrate on the ground in hidden humility of heart and repentance of mind.’

St. Isaac the Syrian, in The Second Part, ed. and trans. by Sebastian Brock (CSCO Vol. 555)

ردوا علينا ليالينا التي سلفت و امحوا الذي قد جرا منا

Return to us the nights that have been lost to us,
And erase, by Your favour, that which has been issued from us.

فكم زللنا و انتم تصفحوا كرمآ و كم اسانا و نزجو حسب عفوكم

How much we have sinned, yet out of generosity You forgive!
How much we have erred, yet we still hope for Your good pardon!

ما لي سواكم و انتم حزني و قد جهلت و ما لي غير ستركم

Nothing but You have I- You are the recourse of my sorrow,
I have been ignorant, and possess nothing but Your indulgence.

لو كان الف لسان لي يبش بها شكرآ لم يقم يومآ بشكركم

Were to have a thousand tongues with which to express
Thanks to You, I would not stop thanking You for a single day.

Abu Madyan, Qasida in Mim

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