A Writer/Poet Perspective
by Dr. Robert D. Frager, Co-Owner, President, & CEO of PageMill Press, LLC
Creation can be described as a triangle. The top of the triangle is God, and the two bottom angles, created by God, are the physical universe and humanity. The universe is often called the macrocosm and the humanity the microcosm.
My Sufi Master used to laugh and say, “Really it’s the other way around. The human being is the macrocosm and the physical universe is the microcosm. The individual is greater than the universe because God took a spark from the Divine Soul and placed it in humanity. A spark of the infinite is infinite. Your soul is greater than the universe. The Divine spark within you could burn up the entire universe in a second.”
But you must have access to your soul. You are like a beggar who forgets they have millions of dollars in a numbered Swiss bank account. They live in poverty although they possess millions of dollars. Actually your soul is a far greater treasure than a huge Swiss bank account, but it is useless if you forget it! Your practices of prayer and remembrance of God are practices to remember who you are, and to reclaim the infinite resources God placed within you.
You are meant to be God’s deputy and to serve creation. Your destiny is to be God’s right hand and carry out God’s will. God gave you the capacity to do that, but first you have to remember your soul.
We all suffer from the same problem and that will continue until we come to know who we are.
This triangle model is very different from the mechanistic Western view of the cosmos. In the West the universe is regarded as a giant clockwork mechanism. A mythical clockmaker wound it up an infinite number of years ago and it’s still ticking. From this point of view, the universe has no life or meaning.
The great Muslim scientists, sages and scholars have approached the universe in a way that is poetic, not mechanical. You need the skill of a poet to describe God’s creation. Why? Because it is alive; it is not a giant mechanical clock!
These three aspects of the triangle are not separate. God says in the Qur’an, “To God belong the east and the west, so wherever you turn you are facing ‘towards’ God.” (2:115, Khattab, transl.) That is, the universe is completely pervaded by God’s presence. It is the opposite of the image of a dead physical universe, unconnected with God. Every part of the universe is filled with God. You cannot capture God’s infinite presence with rational prose alone. You need poetry.
When I was writing Sufi psychology in Heart, Self and Soul, I studied a ninth-century manuscript written by a great Muslim scholar, Imam Tirmidhi. He wrote a wonderful essay about the heart.
Imam Tirmidhi wrote that as you penetrate into the depths of your heart, you come closer to God. It is a different view from the common spiritual model of going toward heaven to get closer to God.
He described the four levels of the spiritual heart, which are arranged like concentric rings:
The first ring is the breast, sadr, or the outer heart. The breast is where you connect to the world. It contains the “light of Practice,” that is, the breast is directly affected by your words and actions. This light grows with prayer, charity, and service.
Second is the heart proper, qalb. It is the term most commonly used in Arabic for the heart. It houses the “light of Faith,” and is the source of inner knowledge. It is the home of your awareness of God.
Third is fu’ad, the inner heart. It is the place of inner vision and the “light of Gnosis” or knowledge of spiritual mysteries.
The heart knows and the inner heart sees. Knowledge without vision is like book learning without experience. Vision alone is like experience without understanding. The first is like a scholar who reads about another country but has never visited it. The second is someone who visits another country but does not know its history, language, or culture.
Fourth is the innermost heart, your heart of hearts. It is called lubb, or the kernel of the heart. Your heart of hearts is directly inspired by God. It is the home of the “light of Spiritual Understanding,” the realization that nothing exists beside God.
Tirmidhi’s sections on the first three levels of the heart are all clearly written. He explains beautifully the breast, the heart proper, and the innermost heart. But when Tirmidhi discusses the innermost heart, he switches to metaphor and poetry.
I became upset at his sudden switch to poetry. I was writing a book on Sufi psychology and I wanted logic, not poetry! It took me years to realize Hakim Tirmidhi was using poetry to describe the indescribable—your heart of hearts where God lives, the seat of your soul. If Tirmidhi had used linear concepts and logical reasoning, he would have distorted his description of this transcendent dimension in each of us. The only solution is to write like a poet.
When you think about the universe, think like a poet. Poets get away with breaking all the conventions and rules. Human-made rules don’t bring you closer to God. They distract you from God.
I had a very dear friend, Bill Everson, who was a marvelous Western mystical poet. He had been part of the group of San Francisco Beat poets that included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
When he was thirty-six, Bill began writing extraordinary mystical poetry and converted to Catholicism. He soon became a Dominican lay brother named Brother Antoninus. When I taught at UC Berkeley, I invited him to talk with my students. They loved Bill’s dramatic eloquence and also his white Dominican robes.
I still remember Bill declaiming dramatically, “I am an archetype!” Nobody but a poet would dare do that. Jung was very clear that archetypes are deep and powerful forces within the collective unconscious, beyond the understanding of any single individual. It takes a poet to dare to say, “I am an archetype.”
Some years later he left the Dominican order because he had fallen in love. When I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz I invited him to the campus to speak at my course on the psychology of religion. He had returned to his old name, Bill Everson. He wore an old leather jacket and a necklace of bear teeth, symbols of his return to nature. I realized he had adopted a new persona, a poetic and powerful way of representing himself in the world.
I also brought him to see the collections librarian, as the UC Santa Cruz library had developed a Bill Everson collection. Bill was also a bookbinder and made many of his own books by hand. The librarian was delighted to meet him. She was very proud of her collection of his writings.
But she scolded him a little, “As a librarian you’re driving me crazy. First, I had you catalogued as Bill Everson, and I had to change it all when you become Brother Antoninus. Now you’re going back to Everson! And it’s too much for my catalog system,” she said. She was clearly joking because she loved his work.
I introduced Bill to my campus colleagues and he eventually moved to Santa Cruz. For years he taught a course at UC Santa Cruz called “The Birth of a Poet.” Every student passed because the course was not about academic requirements. Bill transformed almost all his students. He embodied the archetype of a poet in a way that most of us wouldn’t even dream of doing.
So, there’s something very compelling about viewing the world as a poet and engaging with creation as a poet, with passion, love, and caring.
The great Sufi sage Najmuddin Razi described the path of Sufism as a great circle. The first half is your descent into matter; the second half is your ascent back to God.
The top of the circle is Divine Intelligence. It is a place of perfect unity. But, for creation to exist God had to break that unity. In a famous hadith qudsi God said, “I was a hidden treasure and longed to be known and so I created creation.” By creating creation separation came to exist.
The first part of creation is composed of the minerals and elements. The minerals exist independently, and they are slightly differentiated from the pure, undifferentiated Divine Intelligence. By the very fact that they exist, gems and minerals, mountains and rivers are separate from each other.
Next is the world of the plants and vegetables. Vegetables are more differentiated than minerals. They have new capacities; they can take in nourishment and grow, put down roots, and grow toward the sun. That is the first example of the impulse in creation to move toward God.
Each of these aspects of creation also deepens in potential to connect with the Divine. The plants and vegetables love God through loving the light of the sun, a reflection of God’s Light.
Then we come to the animal world. The animals have locomotion and emotions. They kill but they also love in a way that plants and minerals cannot love. For example, some animals will sacrifice themselves for their offspring. A new and deeper kind of love entered creation with the development of the animal world.
The birth of humanity occurs at the bottom of the circle. God gave humanity free will, but we seem to use it primarily to follow our egos and ignore God’s teachings. The story of the Garden of Eden is a clear example. Adam and Eve were told not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and they immediately did what God told them not to do.
But the goal of humanity is to become closer to God whether people realize it or not, whether they rebel against it or not. The Sufi sages teach the goal is to become more and more of an insan kamil, a perfect human being. God teaches in the Qur’an, “We created humans in the best form, but we will reduce them to the lowest of the low … except those who believe and do good.” (95: 4–6, Khattab, transl.) God has given humanity the greatest potential, but we start out at the bottom of the circle, the furthest away from God.
We have to claw ourselves back in our ascent toward God as we seek to become real human beings, real Muslims, and real dervishes. These are all different names for the same thing. This is the real heroic journey. We move toward God by deepening our worship and embodying God’s Beautiful Names, God’s Divine attributes.
This process reconnects the three points of the triangle, because the Names of God are also referred to as God’s signs. They are God’s attributes. Nature is filled with God’s signs and teachings. God’s presence is everywhere. Even though you began at the bottom of the cycle, you have the capacity to learn from everything in the universe. You have the capacity to discover your own soul. You have the capacity to serve others and serve God’s creation. In this process you become capable of acting as God’s right hand.