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Dance, when you’re broken open
Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off
Dance in the middle of the fighting
Dance in your blood
Dance, when you’re perfectly free
– Jalaluddin Rumi
A great sense of peace and openness flowed throughout the Whitley Theological Center at the Oblate School of Theology as Professor Mehmet Oguz, regional director of the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest, introduced the evening’s events with a tribute donning the traditional Mevlevi Sufi attire honoring 13th century mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi and the night’s featured event – the Whirling Dervishes of Konya, Turkey.
Guest speakers Chuck Gibbons and Lopita Noth enlightened the audience with readings of Rumi – “The Guest House” and “Who Are You?” – set to a live Turkish Sufi music ensemble playing a reed flute and variations of stringed instruments accompanied by vocals.
Rumi and Sufism 101
Teresa Eckmann gave the opening remarks on the universal teachings of Rumi and the symbolism embedded within Sufism.
Eckmann described Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam, as “the spiritual path of the broken heart.”
She illustrated the many forms and flavors that define this divine spiritual practice. There is the soft, subtle, and contemplative “jamal,” balanced by the fiery and powerful “jalal.”
Emboldened by the lesson of poverty, having nothing and wanting nothing, Sufism also appears as a love affair with God. Rumi presented his message with such love and “simple procession,” she said, that when listening to the poetry of Rumi over seven centuries later, “even just a thought or a phrase (of Rumi’s) breaks open our hearts.”
Rumi’s own heart was broken open by a wandering spiritual messenger, Shams of Tabriz. Shams, literally meaning “Sun” in Arabic, challenged Rumi’s mystical scholarship in such a way that he left his university to become a student of Shams, nearly twice Rumi’s age, in his quest for a divine love-union.
“Dervish” literally means “doorway” and circling is the perfect motion in the ceremony of Sema. The dance is performed as an introspective revolution, circling deeper towards a true sense of self.
Each article of clothing bears meaning for the spiritual journey taken by the dancer, also known as a semazen. The black cloak represents the ego, the semazen removes this upon engaging in the dance. The camel’s hair hat serves as a tombstone for the ego and the white skirt and vest represent the ego’s death shroud. All become lost in the turning as love for divine transcendence takes over.
The entire audience was awestruck with each turn, the semazen in complete control of the seemingly endless spinning with the ability to stop on a dime to bow to the next dancer to enter the circle.
The dance itself is a system of surrender, transcending the notion of separateness altogether, each step a submission of both body and soul dissolving into a singular, divine form. It is also said that the ritual represents the planets (semazen) revolving around the sun (the sheikh).
The Turkish ensemble played religious tunes through the ceremony and afterwards they further engaged the audience by sharing with us a traditional Turkish folk music, further showcasing the musicians’ talent and ability to evoke a visceral emotion through their instruments.
The night ended with closing remarks by Oguz and a recitation of “Song of the Reed” with the imagery of the reed flute as a conduit for which God’s breath travels through to reach each note. The flute was only crying out because it was cut from the reed bed, representing our use of language as a longing to return to the source:
Hear the love fire tangled
in the reed notes, as bewilderment
melts into wine. The reed is a friend
to all who want the fabric torn
and drawn away. The reed is hurt
and salve combining. Intimacy
and longing for intimacy, one
song. A disastrous surrender
and a fine love, together. The one
who secretly hears this is senseless.
Rumi’s Message in the 21st Century
“Some things never get old,” Oguz said, speaking on the importance of Rumi his universal brand of Sufism in the 21st century.
In the face of institutions promoting hate, “Rumi and his dervishes are nowadays what we need,” Oguz said. “Not just in Islam, but finding a common ground among all religions.”
Rumi left us with a formidable canon of literature as spiritual guidance. One collection of 30,000 verses, dedicated to Shams, the Divani Shamzi Tabrisi and another 50,000 verses in the six books of the Masnavi. Throughout the confounding spirit of Rumi’s poetics, love is the message that maintains in each verse, in every stanza, whether it be a teaching story for fellow dervishes or a lament for the Beloved. We need only look through the love in his work to point us on the path that this great spiritual master embodies. But seek within, Rumi urges:
Lovers work, so that when body and soul
are no longer together,
their loving will be free
Wash in wisdom-water, so you will have no regrets
about the time here.
Love is the vital core of the soul,
and of all you see, only love is infinite.
Your non-existence before you were born
is the sky in the east.
Your death is the western horizon,
with you here between.
The way leads neither east nor west,
*Featured/top image: The Whirling Dervishes of Konya, Turkey perform at Whitley Theological Center at the Oblate School of Theology. Photo by Rene Jaime Gonzalez.