First published in The Huffington Post
Looking back over almost half a century of spiritual practice, I sometimes ask myself what was the greatest challenge, the most difficult lesson. On the spiritual quest we are faced with our love and longing, our darkest fears, our failings. We are taken into the darkness and then into the light. I do not believe that there is anything so demanding or exhilarating as this inner journey. And yet more and more I return to something so simple and essential, and almost unbearably difficult: learning to bow down before God.
As Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, tells us, "There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground." Each in our own way we have to learn to bow down, to want nothing for ourself. But what does it mean to want nothing for oneself?
One of the dangers of much contemporary spirituality is a focus on personal fulfillment, on living a richer and more meaningful life. The inner journey does give us access to a depth of meaning that a focus solely on the outer, physical world, denies us. But central to mystical life is the understanding of spiritual or mystical poverty, a state of inner emptiness or surrender, of offering oneself completely. Again to quote Rumi,
Last night my master taught me the lesson of poverty
Having nothing and wanting nothing.
So simple and so difficult, this wanting nothing for oneself. For many years I wondered at the saying of Christ's in the Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Known as one of the "Beatitudes," the idea of poverty of spirit mystified me until I began to understand how essential our inner poverty is before God, that we are nothing, that we have nothing of real worth to offer God except our surrender, our bowing down. In a culture dominated by acquisition, by images of material and even spiritual self-worth, it can be difficult to understand the deeper value of "having nothing and wanting nothing." But in my own experience it is this inner longing, this "poverty of spirit" that allows us to live in the presence of God, that enables us to be of service. All we can ever be is an empty cup waiting to be filled. This is echoed in a Sufi prayer, "I offer to Thee the only thing I have, my capacity to be used by Thee."
Meditation, longing, and prayer can take us to this inner space, this place that is deep within the heart of each of us. Here in the silence of our innermost being is a state of divine receptivity, part of the feminine mystery of the soul: how it bows down before God. Whatever inner experiences we are given on the path — experiences of love and light, longing and pain, the peace or bliss of our divine nature — we are finally taken to this place. It is our natural state of inner surrender, a state of service to God.
We all carry this secret in our inner being, but the challenge for each of us is to live this in our daily life, particularly in a culture that celebrates the ego and its accomplishments. How can we bow down before God in the midst of life's many demands? Outwardly we can aspire to live as simple a life as possible, though even this is not easy if our outer life requires that we drive a car, have a mortgage and healthcare to pay for — even having a computer seems almost an essential part of today's life! An uncluttered outer life can give us more space for an inner life, and for the time and attention this requires. But real poverty of spirit is an inner attitude, an inner recognition that only the deep connection in the heart can fulfill us, can meet our deepest needs. In essence it is a constant state of prayer, an inner emptiness that we carry with us, this space for the divine that is present amidst our daily activities, our work and family, shopping and cleaning, laughing and making love.
Spiritual poverty is not a denial or renunciation of life's pleasures, its joys or sorrows. As one Sufi wrote, "It is turning away from everything that is not God, but there is not anything that is not God!" Rather it is a celebration of the divine that is present within everything, within every smile and every tear. Bowing down before God we give space for the love within our own heart and within all that exists.
The mystical path takes us to the center of life and to the center of our self. It is a simple way to live, awake to the oneness of love. In the words of an ancient prayer:
At Thy Command Only
Will I Carry Out the Pilgrimage of Life
For the Love of All Created by Thee
and for Thy Glory.