Saturday, August 14, 2010

The joy of fasting according to Rumi

One of my favorite poems about fasting (there are not a lot to choose from!) is by Rumi, who captures brilliantly the joy and freedom that comes with a true spiritual fast:

"There's a hidden sweetness in the stomach's emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less. If the soundbox
is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and the belly are burning clean
with fasting, every moment a new song comes out of the fire.
The fog clears, and new energy makes you
run up the steps in front of you.
Be emptier and cry like reed instruments cry.
Emptier, read secrets with the reed pen.
When you're full of food and drink, an ugly metal
statue sits where your spirit should. When you fast,
good habits gather like friends who want to help.
Fasting is Solomon's ring. Don't give it
to some illusion and lose your power,
but even if you have, if you've lost all will and control,
they come back when you fast, like soldiers appearing
out of the ground, pennants flying above them.
A table descends to your tents,
Jesus' table,
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages."

Irma Raumbauer wrote the "Joy of Cooking" but the joys of fasting are just as delicious, according to Rumi, and also according to my own experience. So many of us are obsessed with food: we either overindulge, or we punish our bodies with diets, merely to gratify our animal nature. But does this obsession with food bring joy? Does it make the heart sing?

Fasting frees us from the demands of the body and opens us up to the joys of spiritual freedom. Rumi compares fasting to Solomon's magic ring which gave him the power to command demons, call up spirits (jinn), and talk with animals. It is amazing how creative and empowered one feels when one is not enslaved by one's body!

I love the concluding line of this poem: juxtaposing Jesus' heavenly banquet with the junk food that the world offers.

For the worldly, nothing could be better than a fine restaurant serving gourmet food, surrounded with important people and celebrities. I have been to such restaurant on rare occasions and I can testify the food did not satisfy like the food served at Walteria's hotmeal program for the homeless.

Given what Rumi wrote, it should come as no surprise that feeding the homeless is a crucial Muslim practice during Ramadan. Several mosques in the LA area call these opportunities "humanitarian days. I was pleased to learn that at least some Christians see the spiritual value of fasting while helping/showing love to the poor. I have been told that a Presbyterian Church challenges its young people to fast for one day and feed the homeless. I think people young and old can benefit from this challenge. I believe this is what Rumi meant when he talked about Jesus' table descending to your tent. In the Middle East, a tent is a place of hospitality--the place where Abraham fed the three strangers who turned out to be angels.

Recalling that famous incident, Paul wrote in his letter to Hebrews: "Forget not to show hospitality unto strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hospitality is sometimes translated as "love" and rightly so, since the Greek word is "philoxenia," or "love of the stranger.")

Today I am going to Walteria United Methodist Church for their monthly hotmeal program, inshallah. I plan to bring my homeless "daughter-in-Christ" Melissa and her boyfriend Shaun. The poor and homeless community who gather at Walteria are my family in Christ and I always feel that I come closest to heaven when I spend time in their company. In Matthew, Jesus compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding feast--a party in which all are invited, but the rich and powerful are too busy to attend. So the king invites people from the street, all kinds of people, to join in the party. That's what the hotmeal program at Walteria UMC is like. It is a feast for the soul, with Jesus sitting at the head table.

What better place to celebrate during the holy month of Ramadan?


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