This week I brought in some love poetry, which is not a poetic I gravitate towards, even in its more refined forms. I have no fondness for the grand gesture, and evocations of love in the particular are often too cozy and exclusive for my liking. But more importantly, this week brought new blood to the group, which had the desired effect of re-invigorating everyone by reminding them why they think it is worth turning up each week.

On an instrumental level, having a new member gave me opportunity to revisit the rules of engagement. As I’ve alluded to before, this reading group is different from others. In most reading groups, half the discussion centres on what to read as opposed to what’s been read, and once the decision is made group members trundle home to do their reading, reconvening perhaps only weeks later to discuss what they thought of the book. In this group I bring in the texts: that is my joy and my privilege, and I take the selection of texts very seriously. Also, I read them aloud, so that everyone present can come to it freshly. There’s an immediacy to the shared experience of being read to in this way that is difficult to qualify: it’s a bit like being in a theatre except that you’re entitled to respond.

But there are rules. Firstly, we are cordial. I get to read a poem or story all the way through and then whoever wishes to voice a view is allowed to do so without interruption. We’re also respectful. Given that ours is a multi-faith group, we need to work both around and in hand with profound differences in outlook and opinion. That said, when we went round the group this week so that everyone could introduce themselves to Matthew, and him to us, it turned out that no one had particularly strong doctrinal affiliations. Cassandra is a Methodist married to a Jewish convert; Otis is an ex-Orthodox Jew; Clive a Catholic-Anglican convert; Judy a Protestant-Jewish convert. Angie was brought up Hindu, but is a now a non-believing spiritualist; Rupa is a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, and Matthew, for his part, is an Anglican married to a Hindu.

As for me, I’m a Jewish-born agnostic, given to leanings rather than beliefs, with a weakness for mysticism and a seeker’s thirst for spiritual knowledge. Enough said.

So. Love poetry. And not just any love poetry. Sufi love poetry – in which earthly love, however avidly sought and exquisitely savoured, only qualifies as pale shadow of divine love.  Love does great service as a metaphor for the Sufi journey of inward purification that eventually leads to mystical union with the Divine,  since earthly love gropes and grasps by increments towards its ultimate realisation, glimpsing the form of divine love in everything it cherishes, yet always falling foul of its own carnality.

I read a bunch of poems, kicking off with the Ibn ‘Arabi verses that inspired the title of this blog. We read some Hafiz (not his Ghazals, which I rather wish I’d brought in, but the first ten of his Rubiyat, which nobody liked very much). We read a poem by the Indian Sufi mystic Amir Khusrau and another by Farid ud-Din Attar, author of a much-loved allegorical  verse-story, Conference of the Birds. The poem that gave us most to chew on, however, was Rabi’a al Adawiyya’s ‘Perfume of the Desert’.

In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes knows; the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
And who lives as a sign for your journey?
 

Everyone honed in on the poem’s two middle lines, in particular the idea that knowing cannot be spoken, and that any attempt to explain it is intrinsically inadequate.  ‘This poem is very harsh on speech’, said Angie, ‘and by implication on all those who don’t know’.  This, I feel, is spot on. Speech, like earthly love (and also the written word) is seen merely as a tool for grasping at meaning — for striving to bridge the distance between ignorance and knowledge. Born out of longing, it fills the emptiness with sound and sense. But ultimately speech cannot be trusted. It is just so much distracting noise.

The question marks attending the second half of the poem underline this challenge for the Sufi mystics: given the inadequacy of words, how does one give expression to one’s experience of the Divine? To the feeling of being ‘blotted out’ and consumed by pure love?  This, presumably, is where the Sufi passion for dance comes into its own, expressing the ecstasy of mystical union by whirling and whirling at ever greater speeds, until the self, or at least one’s sense of oneself, dissolves.

Otis made a general observation to the effect that we’ve rather lost the point of love these days, because contemporary culture has cheapened it. Not just by making it tawdry, but in the consumerist sense of proliferating its dumbed down forms. Thus love is the stuff of Valentine cards and Disney, of daytime TV drama and text messaging, bargain bouquets and soppy serenades; in the case of self-love, it is the advertising of chocolate and, more generally, the merits of shopping: go on, treat yourself. Love is casual. It is fluffy, corny and kitsch. It’s l.o.l. xxxx.

Matthew said that in Greek, there are multiple words that range over the landscape of love, where we make do with just the one word to cover everything from spiritual love right down to lust.

And don’t forget that God is love, said Cassandra, before adding:  ‘John 4:8’. Looking up the verse now I find the full sentence reads: ‘The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.’  So, to love is to know. Not so different from Sufi mysticism then?

We finished up this week with a love poem that is about as far removed from Rumi, Hafiz and their Sufi confreres as can be: Thom Gunn’s The Hug. It was recommended by another Royal Literary Fund reading group convenor on the online forum where ‘lectors’ can trade texts that ‘worked’ (or didn’t) with other group leaders.

Anyway, as so often happens when you don’t over-think things, The Hug turned out to be the perfect choice. It is not about higher love, or religious love. It’s not even about heterosexual love. Instead, the eponymous hug between Gunn’s male lovers tells of a familiar and well-worn love that has stood the test of time and that lasts long after passion is spent. A love that breaks through the stillness of sleep to make itself felt, annihilating time and place –  even the material world – so that all that exists for the person being held is ‘The stay of your secure firm dry embrace’.

Like Sufi love, it is silent and sex-less. It is a brace, a stay, and a hold. It is not a love that speaks, but a love that  knows.

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