‘A garden among fires’ is a line from a 13th-century Sufi poem by the Spanish Muslim mystic Muhyi-al Din ibn ‘Arabi, or ibn ‘Arabi for short. I don’t think I’m traducing any copyright laws in reproducing it here, much less causing any ancient bones under the earth to rattle in protest. But what you need to know is that ibn ‘Arabi fell in love with a learned lady from Isfahan while making a pilgrimage to Mecca, and that the good lady Nizam inspired him to write a collection of mystical love poems in which human love stands in for and mirrors divine love. Both kinds of love, according to ibn ‘Arabi, revive the heart and uplift the soul: reflecting and amplifying The Other, the mystic becomes lover, and the lover, mystic.

‘Incredible! A garden among fires,
My heart turns to all forms,
It has become a meadow where gazelles graze
                            a monastery where monks pray;
                            a temple for idol statues
                            a cube for circumambulating pilgrims;
                            both Torah scroll and bound volume of Qur’an.
I follow the religion of love:
                     Where love’s camels lead, there is my religion and there my faith.
 

Ibn ‘Arabi’s  ‘camels’ are the giveaway here; quaint, local, antique, they betray the author’s origins and culture. They also mark the only point in reading the poem where you are glaringly aware of the shortfalls of translation. Yet even as love’s camels strike a somewhat dissonant note inside ears attuned instead to arrows and tendrils, they do a great job of conjuring the desert wastes across which any lover must trek to reach his beloved, or the parched landscapes that drive believers ever onward in search of God. In my mind’s eye, I picture the romantic figure of a lone rider, battling elemental sand and dust; swathed from head to ankle in rough turban and flowing robes, he plods determinedly on, with stick-whip in hand and water gourd tied to his saddle, eternally thirsting for that which lies always just beyond the horizon.

With the exception of love’s camels, every other allusion in ibn ‘Arabi’s poem strikes me as timeless and true. In the throes of a passionate love, earthly or otherwise, the heart’s generosity knows no bounds. It is buoyant, elastic, marvelous in its capaciousness. Agile as a circus acrobat, it attempts one transformation after another in its attempts to contain the joys of its passion: now it is meadow,  now temple, now cloister,  now scroll – all places of knowledge, nourishment and devotion.

I particularly like the image of this organ as ‘a garden among fires’. It makes me think of of Christ’s sacred heart, shining and aflame with divine light.

But ‘a garden among fires’ is also a rather apt metaphor for my reading group, which, through the kind auspices of St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation – has the good fortune to be able to hold its weekly meetings a soft-lit Bedouin tent, complete with earth-coloured cushions, oriental carpets and electric heating. The tent sits bang in the middle of high-rise, corporate London,  overlooked and overpowered by landmark structures like the Gherkin. But it is hidden from public view behind an old Church, and accessed via a narrow stone path that leads away from the glassy palaces of Bishopsgate behind a buzzer operated metal grille. The tent is a venue for all manner of activities, some more spiritual than others. There are yoga lessons and meditation sessions, private meetings, group sessions, lectures and prayer meetings. It is not unusual to see an elderly soul, dressed immaculately in a karakul and expertly starched dishdasha, to wobble into the Centre with the help of a wooden cane – step-click, step-click – and be followed inside by a long line of acolytes. Or to arrive early to find a dozen Sufis occupying the tent, curled into pretzel shapes and chanting in unison.

The reading group is bit of an oddity in this context. For one thing, it is so verbal. For another, we’re as interested in good literature every bit as much as spiritual relevance. We meet in the afternoons, every Monday, and over tea and biscuits, in weather fair and foul, I read aloud a couple of poems or a short story that I’ve specially brought in for our consumption, then I lead the group in discussion. Anyone can offer their reflections and reactions. They can be intellectual or emotional, contentious, benign, or even pickily literary, and each contribution is received with respect. Every week the reading group throws me a curve ball; for however closely I think I know its various personalities someone will always surprise me. Invariably I learn something. Invariably someone makes me laugh. And, invariably, the session ends with everyone buzzing on a high. From its inception last year, this group has been my secret joy. But I also think of it as ‘a garden among fires’ — my fertile, creative refuge from the raging storm of indifferent, big city life.

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