poem by the Sufi mystic Rumi begins, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.”
The beginning of the year seems close to that part of us that responds to the promise of the new, with an urge, if not to make resolutions, at least to entertain hopes and even ideals. And that takes us across the street to Fazil Manzil, the family home of Hazrat Inayat Khan, where ideals are polished like jewels.
But first, a comment about dawn, which seems as fitting a metaphor as any to think about the beginning of a new year. I was surprised to learn that dawn is the beginning of the twilight before sunrise, a time of scattered, diffused light before direct sunlight takes over (according to the guru Wikipedia). I would have said that dawn is the beginning of sunrise. The French must have consulted Wikipedia because their word is crépuscule du matin (morning twilight) as compared with crépuscule du soir (evening twilight).
The reason these nuances are germane is that the first day of the year is the birthdate of Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan, the eldest child of Hazrat Inayat Khan.
And, in fact, her name, Noor, means light, although it is a special meaning of the word light. Noor, an Arabic word, means the all-pervading light, the light that permeates all things. Noor means the essence of light and light as the essence of all things, present even in the darkness. If this is a little challenging to grasp, perhaps it would be fitting to say, welcome to her world, since she was the daughter of a mystic, where tautology, (something defining itself) and even seeming contradiction appear to coexist harmoniously.
I would like to exit gracefully (or not) from trying to clarify further and talk about where Noor was born, which, interestingly was in Moscow in 1914. Inayat Khan said that he was very taken with the deep religious feeling he found in Russia. And I wondered about that.
One day, I happened to be in the finished basement of Fazil Manzil where there had been a musical event of some kind. Indian singers and musicians would sometimes perform, along with the fabulous Persian singer Shahram Nazari. I have given a link to his complete album (ha ha–nothing else to do) because he is singing Rumi’s poetry.
Afterwards, I happened to be near Pir Vilayat. “I have a question for you, Pir Vilayat,” I said.
“You always have a question,” he replied.
Oops, I thought. Apparently, I had been annoying the poor man. Pir Vilayat was Noor’s younger brother, who carried on the teachings in Indian Sufism that his father had begun. Indian Sufism has elements of Iranian Sufism, which is to say Persian poets and philosophers, as well as Buddhist practices and Hindu expression. Pir Vilayat led meditations and symposia all over the world, including with the Dalai Lama and renown scientists such as David Bohm. I got it that he probably wanted not to be “on,” so to speak, and talk about these matters all the time.
Suddenly it appeared that I would be asking my last and only question. So, in that flash of time before speech, I reviewed my options. I remember as a 17-year old at the university coming back to my dorm room, where I was greeted by my roommate. “What did you do today?” she asked me. This may be hard to believe, but no one had asked me that question before. How’s school, sure. And I was thrilled to tell her the little twists and turns of the day. I have never forgotten that question.
Probably asking Pir Vilayat what he did today was not the best last question, since I would now refrain from questions. I took a breath. “What one quality do you remember about your father?” I asked him.
“His sense of sacredness,” he answered, smiling now. (I think I had gotten back in his good graces.) And he added that the best way to experience that sense of the sacred was through Russian sacred music.
RUSSIAN SACRED MUSIC
Because Noor was born in Moscow at the new year it seemed a fitting time to look for some examples. The Yale Russian chorus presents this music, familiar to me because Rev. William Teska, among others, sings in this chorus. Here is a clip. It is a setting of the first psalm. And while I found it randomly on the Internet, I had to look to see if Bill were there. And yes! Just to the right of the conductor in the back row. Just listen for a minute. (These are long clips.)
CELEBRATING A LIFE
A few words about Noor, who died in Dachau, when she was 30 years old, such a stain on our world, that period. But here I would like to talk about her life, celebrate it from under the shadow.
Noor studied the harp, and if you enter her home, Fazil Manzil, in Suresnes, France, you are struck by the presence of an exquisite golden harp standing in the drawing room. This was her harp.
She also wrote children’s stories. One that interested me was summarized in a biography of Noor by Jean Overton Fuller. In French the story is called Or des Cimes or Golden Peaks. A young girl and her brother step onto a peak where the rocks are golden. They gather up the rocks, intending to take them down to the people at the foot of the mountain. But when they leave the peak, the rocks turn back into ordinary rocks. They realize they have to go down and bring the people up to the peak. Noor told her biographer that she leaves the story there, with the children confronting the problem. I was always intrigued by this story, and I tried unsuccessfully to find it, relating as it does to her name and perhaps to her understanding of spiritual realization.
She presented a book called the Twenty Jataka Tales, still in print, a retelling of Buddhist legends about the Buddha’s former lives, involving animals who are filled with heroism, generosity, and sacrifice. She herself attained to that level of sacrifice. Our tramps in Godot may have less of a sense of despair had they read these tales. Or if Rumi might have whispered, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don’t go back to sleep.” Yet even in Beckett’s play there is a sense of the ideal, which I’ll talk about next week.
And in the meantime, now that we have passed through the winter solstice, light is increasing. And given the need to face our troubled times—politics, the pandemic—it helps me to think about light in its many forms as we move into the new year.
Tous mes voeux, as the French say all throughout January. All my best wishes for a wonderful New Year. May our 2021 be filled with light, kindness, prosperity and joy!