Not Even Ashes

The great Sufi master, Ibn ‘Arabi, speaks of people who have real knowledge of God and so of God’s Self-manifestation. This knowledge is something way beyond reason and its articulations. Interestingly enough, Ibn Arabi at one point calls such a person a “worshipper of the Instant”(‘abid al-waqt). This is a person who worships every manifestation of God at every moment. In the words of Izutsu: “…each Instant is a glorious time of theophany. The Absolute manifests itself at every moment with this or that of its Attributes. The Absolute, viewed from this angle, never ceases to make a new self-manifestation, and goes on changing its form from moment to moment. And the true ‘knowers,’ on their part, go on responding with flexibility to this ever changing process of Divine self-manifestation.”

The first comment to make is that this is another way of approaching that reality which the hesychast tradition calls “continual prayer” or “pure prayer.” So this “continual prayer” thing is not so much something that we do, but more like an awareness, a watchfulness, an attentiveness to the Self-manifestation of that Absolute Reality which we call God and which goes on to make all the instants/moments of our existence. But both the Sufi and Christian traditions would also say that this is not a passive awareness, but more like an “interior prostration” within each moment, a sense of worship as the Instant unfolds into another Instant, a doxology of the Present Moment for it comes directly from God, a sense of abiding with awe within each Instant because in effect each Instant is the “Burning Bush.” But also we realize that we ourselves are part of that Instant, not some separate entity looking on from the outside. The Divine Self-manifestation takes place within us just as much as “out there.” Thus there is no duality here because our very awareness of the Divine Self-manifestation is simply also that very self-manifestation. Thus the “event” ‘out there,” our awareness of that event, and our response to that event is all part of that Divine Self-manifestation. The only thing that matters is how we bring that mysterious thing which we call our freedom into alignment with that Divine self-manifestation, which in its turn is also another aspect of that very theophany. Our very hearts are on fire like the Burning Bush through which God manifested to Moses.

So this brings us to that familiar theme of the Awakening of the Heart, but we won’t explore that for now. What needs to be underlined, however, is the main obstacle to this “worshipping of the Instant.” And that is, of course, the ego self. For the ego self each instant is in relation to it and at its service. Thus if the instant is pleasureable, pleasing, comforting, causing gain and increase, well, that instant is then affirmed as “good.” However, if the instant brings loss, discomfort, pain, etc., then that instant is to be shunned or “cured” of such things. Modern life presents many, many such “cures.” Or the Instant is only a kind of stage on which the ego self acts. Whatever transpires, whatever is seen, whatever is experienced is merely a “prop” for the ego self and of course something “out there”—the ego living as an atomized reality closed to the Divine Self-manifestation—this is the real root of evil in the world—a kind of blocking or attempted blocking of that Divine Love. When the heart awakens it sees all, including its own suffering, as part of the Divine Self-manifestation in Love, and this is a great mystery for suffering is not something we view in any positive light. It is good not to preach this to people who are experiencing suffering for it might be badly misunderstood(then again, someone might have a real breakthough when they see their suffering in this light), but when our hearts awaken, we will understand the meaning of this to a certain extent.

Every spiritual tradition talks in one way or another of the “death” of this ego self if the heart is to awaken or “become enlightened” or better yet to realize its enlightened state. The Sufis make it more radical and more sharp when they call for “fana”—“extinction” of the ego self. This is not a suppressing of one’s own psychological self, but a level of awareness far beyond the psychological ego, so that for all practical purposes it is “extinguished.” A whole new level of awareness will emerge, and this too has many levels that one needs to inhabit and then go deeper through deeper “extinctions,” etc. We will conclude with a few lines from one of Thomas Merton’s favorite Sufi poets, from whom he adapted some translations . The poet is Ibn’Abbad, also from medieval Spain, from the same environment that produced John of the Cross:

“For the servant of God
Consolation is the place of danger
Where he may be deluded
(Accepting only what he sees,
Experiences, or knows)
But desolation is his home:
For in desolation he is seized by God
And entirely taken over into God,
In darkness, in emptiness,
In loss, in death of self.
Then the self is only ashes. Not even ashes!

To belong to Allah
Is to see in your own existence
And in all that pertains to it
Something that is neither yours
Nor from yourself,
Something you have on loan;
To see your being in His Being,
Your subsistence in His Subsistence,
Your strength in His Strength:
Thus you will recognize in yourself
His title to possession of you
As Lord,
And your own title as servant:
Which is Nothingness.

Amen.

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