Excerpt from Chapter 1: The Prayer of the Heart
God Most High hath brought forth creation and said,
Entrust Me with your secrets.
If you do not do this, then look toward Me.
If you do not do this, then listen to Me.
If you do not do this then wait at My door.
If you do none of this, at least tell Me your needs.
THE FIRST PRAYER
Why do we pray? What is the real nature of prayer? The mystic knows that the essence of prayer is the hidden secret, "I am He whom I love, He whom I love is me." In the deepest prayer of the heart there is only oneness, for when the heart is open and looks towards God, He reveals His unity. In this state of prayer there are a merging and melting that transcend the mind and its notions of duality: the heart overwhelms us with His presence which obliterates any sense of our own self.
These moments of prayer are moments of union in which the lover is lost. The lover has stepped from the shore of his own being into the limitless ocean of the Beloved. We make this offering out of devotion and selflessness, out of the heart's need to share its secret. Standing on the shore, we call His name; we cry out our need to be with Him, our need to talk with Him, to share with our Beloved our troubles and joys. But when He comes close, our words fade away, left behind with our mind that has dissolved in His presence.
When love reveals its real nature we come to know that there is neither lover nor Beloved. There is no one to pray and no one to pray to. We do not even know that we are lost; we return from these states of merging only knowing that we gave ourself and were taken. Our gift of ourself was accepted so completely that we knew nothing. We looked towards Him and He took us in His arms, embraced us in oneness, dissolved us in nearness. For so many years we cried to Him, we called to Him, and when He came the meeting was so intimate that we knew nothing.
But when we return from this merging of oneness, when the mind again surrounds us, we can see the footprints that led us to this shore, to the place where the two worlds meet. We can tell stories of the journey that led us to the edge of the heart's infinite ocean, of the nights we called to Him, and the tears we cried in our calling. For so many years our need was all that we knew, a need born of the despair of separation, the deepest despair known to the soul.
This need was our first prayer, planted in the soul by Him who loves us, who wants us for Himself. This need of the soul is the bond of love, the mystic's pledge to remember Him. The awakening of this remembrance is the knowledge of our forgetfulness, the knowledge of separation. The lover is made to know that she is separate from her Beloved, that she has forgotten Him. Awakening to this knowledge, the lover brings into consciousness the soul's need to return Home, to journey from separation to union. The first prayer is the sigh in the soul, the reed's lament that it has been torn from the reed bed and longs to return.
This first prayer is deep within us, and we feel it often blurred and indistinct, as the mind and ego block us from the potency of its message. Buried in the heart, in the innermost chamber of the heart, lover cries to Beloved, and we feel the echo of this cry as an unhappiness, a discontent. Subtly we are tormented by this call, and often try to avoid it, to run away from its primal sorrow. The world is full of so many distractions, the mind and psyche full of so many patterns of avoidance. But gradually, or in some cases suddenly, we know that we have to go Home, that we have to honor our longing, that we need to bring the prayer of the heart into our consciousness.
What began in the heart is passed to the tongue: "Oh Beloved, help me. I am so alone and I need you." The prayer is then made conscious, is incarnated with the word. With all the power and limitations of language, we speak our need, and so come to know our despair. We make conscious the pain of separation, and so call to Him even more, knowing in the depths that "I respond to the call of the caller when he calls to Me" (Qur'an 2:186).
This prayer, born of need, is so simple, giving voice to the heart's pain. Each in our own way we make this prayer; we bring into time and space the soul's sigh. And each time we pray, each time we call upon Him, we engrave this need more firmly into consciousness. The potency of the word is that it belongs to this world, to the world of separation. In the dimension of union there is no word; communication is communion, an unfolding of oneness. In the world of separation we need words, even to speak to our Beloved. When we speak to Him we acknowledge that we are separate and need Him. We state the gulf, the abyss between us. With each word we come to know our longing more consciously.
Sometimes we call with spontaneous prayer, du'â', the free prayer of the heart, which is the intimate conversation of lovers. Or we may call with ritual prayer, salâh, which for the Muslim mystic is a time of connection, "the moment of proximity to God."(2) In the words of Kharrâz, "When entering on prayer you should come into the Presence of God..., stand before Him with no mediator between."(3)Or we repeat the inward prayer of remembrance, the sacred syllables of the dhikr. In these ways we make known our need to call upon Him and to be with Him, make it known to ourself as well as to our Beloved. He knows we belong to Him, but with the words of our prayer we come to Him and remind ourself of His eternal presence. Our supplications remind us of our need to be nourished by Him alone.
Yet prayer, born of need, does not answer this need—it makes it more potent. We come to know more fully that we are separate, and that only He can help us. But to whom do we pray? To some idea of a distant God, a kind father figure, a nurturing mother? To someone who will wash away our tears and look after us, or even to an antagonistic tyrant? We personify our longing, clothe our tears in the image of a deity or lost love. In our weakness we look for strength, in our sorrow a comforting shoulder, in our pain a tormentor. Later, much later, we come to glimpse the closed circle of love, that our need is His need, that our cry to Him is His eternal answer: "Thy calling 'Allâh!' was My 'Here I am,' thy yearning pain My messenger to thee."(4)
We make an image of God to suit us, to give us comfort and security, to contain the pain of being human. But gradually all images fall away, for they too are veils of separation, denying the truth of union. How can He be separate from Himself? How can He call to Himself, long to return to Himself? The mystic is a part of this mystery, a mystery that can never be known to the mind and is even veiled from the heart.
In the closed circle of love He calls to Himself within the heart of His lover. Our need is His need, and yet He is complete in every way. We carry the seed of His longing and make it our own. Our very prayer to come closer to Him is an unfolding of intimacy, a sharing of something so precious that only His trusted servants are awakened to know it. To know that we need Him is to know that He needs us. He shares His longing with us. He calls to us and we call to Him, and so love reveals itself. What was hidden within the heart becomes part of everyday life, part of the texture of His world. We are burdened with the pain and bliss of sharing this secret, even though we can never fully know it.
PRAYER AND SURRENDER
Need is the beginning of prayer. Calling His name, crying out to Him, we make known our need to ourself and to Him. Need is the potency of our hidden love, and our prayer makes this love more visible, makes its fire burn stronger. Ibn 'Arabî prayed, "Oh Lord nourish me not with love but with the desire for love."(5) He knew that this desire would reveal what is hidden, would tear away the veils of separation. These veils isolate the lover, catching his attention in a world of multiplicity. Need turns us inward, away from these myriad reflections, towards the source, the oneness that is the root of our desire. But while we remain separate our need is also reflected in these veils, and so takes on different forms and qualities. All these forms we offer to Him in our prayers.
We pray according to our need, according to the need of the moment. Sahl said that "the prayer most likely to be answered is the prayer of the moment," "by which he meant the one the supplicant is forced to make because of the pressing need of what he prays for."(6)
At different moments our needs are different. We may pray for forgiveness, for understanding, for kindness. We may pray that our relationships not be clouded in mistrust or that our children not suffer. We pray for ourself and for others. All of the myriad difficulties that we encounter in our daily life we can embrace in our prayer, the difficulties of our own ego and the troubles of the world. We hope to bring His attention to these problems, so that His infinite grace can reach into His world and help with the pain of being human. He threw us into the world of separation where we need His help. The more we walk along the path, the more we realize how we are dependent upon Him, and the more we come to know the wonder of His mercy.
Prayer is infinitely powerful because it connects us with His infinite power. Praying to Him, we offer to Him the difficulties of living in a world of separation, in the deepest knowledge that only He can help us, He who is the source of all life and all love. We who are so small and alone look to Him, and so turn our attention from multiplicity back to oneness. Sometimes people think, "Why should I bother Him? How can my difficulties be of concern to Him?" But this is in fact arrogance, because it places the individual against God. In His oneness everything is included, everything is embraced. Nothing is other than He, and we are His eyes and ears in His world. In offering our sorrow, our difficulties, back to Him, we help Him to heal Himself, if it is His will.
Only if it is His will ... because prayer is an offering of surrender. Otherwise it is an act of will, a demand, and a servant never demands. We look to Him, ask Him, implore Him, but do not demand. Always a prayer contains the heart's supplication, "If it is Thy will." Without this attitude of surrender the individual remains isolated, separate, and the prayer stays in the ego or the mind, where it is never heard. Through surrender we acknowledge a oneness greater than ourself, a oneness that brings help and mercy and grace unto itself. Healing and help come from within, from the source of all life that flows in the depths. What matters in all of our asking is that we call to Him and allow Him into our life. We turn from our separation to That which is not separate, to the One who is both the creation and the Creator, "both that which is drunk and he who gives to drink."(7)
"If the heart has heard the prayer, God has heard the prayer." The heart is the chamber of love's oneness, the infinite inner space where He is always present. Prayer leads us to the door of the heart. Surrendering to His will, we acknowledge His presence behind the door. We allow love to work according to its own ways. Rûmî tells a story of how He delays in answering the requests of those whom He really loves, while others He answers immediately:
When two people, one decrepit and the other young and handsome, come into a bakery where the baker is an admirer of young men, and both of them ask for bread, the baker will immediately give what he has on hand to the old man.
But to the other he will say, "Sit down and wait a while. There's fresh bread baking in the house. Almost ready!"
And when the hot bread is brought, the baker will say, "Don't leave. The halvah is coming!" So he finds ways of detaining the young man.... (8)
Why does he make those whom He loves empty and destitute? Because He wants them to call upon Him. He loves to hear their voice. "It is related that Yahya b. Sa'id al-Qattan saw God in his sleep and exclaimed, 'O my God, how many times have I prayed to You and You have not answered me!' He said, 'O Yahya, this is because I love hearing your voice.'"(9)
If He answered our need fully and completely, we would no longer look to Him, no longer call to Him. He knows how to draw us to Him, "with the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling."(10)Through our prayers He calls us to Him, whether they appear to be answered or not. Surrendering to His will, we allow our prayers to carry the fragrance of His love back to us.
STANDING AT THE DOORWAY
Praying within the heart, we stand at the doorway between the two worlds, waiting for Him to help us. He who is our innermost essence is always there, eternally watching, listening, waiting for us to come to Him. We think He is separate, because we stand outside the door, caught in the world of duality. But when we pray with feeling, pray with the intensity of the heart, then the door opens. Actually this door is not closed; the ego only drew its veil across the threshold:
Salih al-Murri said, "Whoever is persistent in knocking at the door is on the verge of having it opened for him." Râbi'a asked him, "How long are you going to say this? When was the door closed so that one had to ask to have it opened?"(11)
The intensity of our feeling takes us beyond the ego. Love hears our call and opens the door that is never closed. We are heard by our own heart, and our need is answered by love. Love is drawn by need, as Rûmî so poignantly writes:
Not only the thirsty seek the water,
the water as well seeks the thirsty.(12)
Love, the greatest power in the universe, does more than heal hearts. Love is the vehicle for His grace, the means of His mercy. Love brings both understanding and nearness, both wisdom and comfort.
Prayer is an ablution of the heart, for it takes us into the purifying stream of love that flows at the core of creation, the stream of "He loves them and they love Him" (Qur'an 5:59). In our prayer we are purified by our remembrance of Him rather than any desire for purity, as is beautifully imaged in the following dream:
I am in the courtyard of a very ancient mosque. From an old black tap crystal clear water is running down on my hands, which are as if in prayer. I am having an ablution. The whole of me feels very ancient.... It is as if I am inwardly merging into this beautiful water while every atom in me is singing His prayer. I become purer and purer.
In the sacred space of her own heart the dreamer prays, and her prayer is an ablution, an ablution in which the sacred water of her devotion runs down onto her hands, purifying her. Hers is the deepest prayer of merging, a prayer without words in which she gives herself into her prayer so completely that she hears every atom of her being singing His prayer. The potency of her prayer is the purifying power of love and devotion, a devotion that belongs to every atom of herself. This is a prayer born of oneness that carries the power of His love.
The heart evokes the deepest need of the soul, the need to look to Him whom we love, to return from duality to oneness. But in this world of separation the heart's need can manifest in different ways, the prayer of silence manifest into words. Lovers bring their needs and the needs of others to the attention of their Beloved. And when we pray with the intensity of real need, either for others or for ourself, we attract His love, we are carried into love. But when we pray for ourself, it should not be for material matters, but for the work of the heart, for understanding, compassion, whatever may bring us nearer to our Beloved or help us to serve Him. We do not pray for the ego and its desires, because the prayer of the heart belongs to the greater dimension of the Self. Prayer points us from duality back to unity, but if we pray for the ego we are caught in duality and separation.
Even when we pray for others, we need to be careful. We can pray for healing, for guidance, for help in difficult situations, an abusive relationship for example, but should we pray for material things? It is not "wrong" to pray that someone find an apartment, or get a job, but only too easily is our attention caught in the material plane, which the mystic knows is a dance of appearances, a magic hall of mirrors that can teach us about ourself.
Often it is better to pray for understanding, for ourself and others, so that we can learn from a situation, rather than ask to change it. If we understand the teachings of an outer situation, apply our effort where it is needed, the situation will change of its own accord: a job will come to us. Life is the greatest teacher, and inner guidance can help us to catch the meaning of an outer situation, to learn the lesson it is trying to teach us so we don't have to repeat it. Walking the path between the two worlds, the wayfarer knows the importance of taking inner responsibility for outer situations.
The sincere seeker is not interested in outer results, in success or failure, for she knows that life is a stage on which we have lessons to learn from our interaction with events and people. Prayer can help us to uncover the real meaning of an outer situation, and help us to stay with a situation, however difficult, until its deeper purpose is revealed. Otherwise, to quote T.S. Eliot, "we had the experience but missed the meaning."(13) Prayer, connecting us to our innermost self, can contain difficulties within the sphere of our own devotion, within the larger purpose of the soul. Offering to Him our problems, our unknowing, we know that we are heard somewhere. We know that a connection has been made to what is beyond time and space, beyond the conflicting opposites that cause us so much pain and confusion.
But this quality of prayer requires surrender and patience. We have to accept that we will know and understand only according to His will, not our own apparent need. We require patience to wait until the real meaning has unfolded, until we are allowed to know the deeper meaning of a situation and its means of resolution. And we have to trust what has been given and what will be given. This quality of surrender is an aspect of spiritual poverty, in which we acknowledge that we are in His hands and that only He can remedy our ills, only He can fulfill us.
BEING ATTENTIVE TO HIS NEEDS
Learning to ask with humility, patience, and poverty is also learning to listen. Within the heart we wait for His answer, for His words, even when we have not asked. Listening is a form of prayer, in which our whole being is receptive. Prayer is communion with God; we share with Him our needs, and we also learn to be attentive to His words, to His needs for us.
Listening within the heart is attuning ourself to our Beloved. We develop the ear of the heart, the inner listening of the soul. His words have a higher frequency than ordinary discourse; they are more subtle and easily overlooked. Listening requires both attentiveness and discrimination, as we have to discriminate between the voice of the ego and the voice of our Beloved. But there is a distinct difference: the words of the ego and mind belong to duality; the words of the heart carry the imprint of oneness. In the heart there is no argument, no you and me, just an unfolding oneness. The heart embraces a difficulty, while the ego takes sides.
Listening, waiting for His words, turns us away from our own needs to being attentive to His need. In our need we call to Him, and then we wait at the doorway of the heart, listening for His answer. But gradually, imperceptibly, this inner listening becomes more important than our own need. Our questions become fewer, our attention to Him grows. Once He begins to nourish us with His response, the soul's need for His company is nurtured, and the soul is no longer a starving infant crying in the darkness of abandonment.
We look to Him and He looks to us. Many times His response to our prayers is so deep or so subtle that we do not notice it—it is not captured by consciousness. But when we are made aware of His grace then the inner communion of the soul with its maker is brought into consciousness. Sometimes His response is a feeling, an increased awareness, an intuition. He may open our heart more fully, or touch the heart of another. His response may come to us in the outer world, a synchronicity that captures our attention, a change of situation, a healing that is given.
Sometimes He communicates directly with words. We may hear His words as a still, small voice, or a thought suddenly appearing. In meditation, when the mind is silent, we may hear His words of help and guidance. Or He may speak to us in dreams, when His words carry an energy that we know does not belong to our psyche, as when I was told that "He has a special tenderness for His own personal idiots." Sometimes we open a book we know and the words that we read are a message from our Beloved. In so many ways He speaks to us, answers our prayers, reveals Himself "on the horizons and in themselves."
When He speaks to us, hints to us, then we know we belong to Him, and we begin to feel the security of this belonging. His response carries the intimacy of this relationship. Even in the times of dryness, when He does not speak to us, we remember the imprint of His response. His actions carry the wonder of a miracle, His words the quality of divine consciousness. When He responds to us we know that He knows us, not just as part of the great mass of humanity, but as an individual, with our own unique needs. His infinite oneness comes to us in our aloneness.
We pray to Him and He answers. Knowing that our prayers are heard, we feel the wonder of knowing that the inner connection of the soul to God exists, not just as an abstract idea, but as a living reality. Being told that "God cares for us" is very different from experiencing the intimacy and individual nature of this care. His response brings into consciousness the soul's link to its Beloved. We experience the eternal as it becomes part of time and space, the vertical connection of the soul as it meets the horizontal plane of this world. We then no longer believe in God, we know.
When we know that He exists and cares for us, is attentive to us, we long to serve Him. That He should care for His servant awakens the servant's desire to serve Him. This desire to serve our master is imprinted into the soul, from the day of the primordial covenant, when God addressed the not-yet-created humanity with the words, "Am I not your Lord?" and humanity responded, "Yes, we witness it" (Qur'an 7:171). When this covenant is brought close to consciousness, it carries the wonder and numinosity that belong to the soul. Instinctively we bow before Him, and then know that we have bowed. We honor the soul's function to witness that He is Lord and we embrace our role as servant. The satisfaction that comes from living this primal relationship, from consciously enacting our role as servant, is deep and enduring. We bring our life onto the stage of the soul's relationship with its Creator.
Being attentive to His needs fulfills the real need of the servant. We are born to serve Him; this is our innermost nature. When the servant knows her role as servant and begins to live this attribute, a wonder, beauty, and depth of meaning permeate life. Listening to His needs and trying to meet them, we align our whole being with the soul's deepest purpose. Then the song of the soul can be heard in our daily life. The servant's need to serve her master is as deep as the need of the lover to reunite with the Beloved. Some Sufis would even say it is sweeter to serve Him:
A thousand times
sweeter than Union
I find this separation
You have desired.
I am the servant of self, in separation
my Master's slave;
and I would rather
be busy with the Friend
whatever the situation
than with myself.(14)
Being attentive to the Beloved turns us away from ourself and back to Him. Our attention is held by the inaudible call of His presence and by our need to serve Him. Recognizing and then living our role as servant opens wide the door of the heart-the ego drops its defenses when we accept this deeper purpose. The servant looks to her master and He looks towards her: "I have servants among my servants who love Me, and I love them, and they long for Me and I long for them and they look at Me and I look at them...."(15)
THE REFLECTION AND THE SOURCE ARE ONE
Our needs, our prayers, our supplications come from our despair at being separate. We need His mercy, His grace, His wisdom, His strength. We need to bring His qualities, His names and attributes, into our life. His response is to let us know these qualities within ourself, to find within our heart His wisdom, His forgiveness. The greatest illusion, the illusion of duality, that we are separate from Him, begins to dissolve as we taste and then live these qualities. Then we are embraced by the paradox that these divine qualities are other than ourselves and yet are a part of us. They belong to the Self and not to the ego. If the ego identifies with these qualities, then we suffer from inflation, feelings of grandeur and self-importance. But when the ego bows down before Him, when we become "less than the dust at His feet," then the servant can reflect the qualities of her Master. And within the heart the servant comes to know that the reflection and the source are one.
As the heart's prayer deepens, we pass from duality to oneness, and yet remain in the role of servant, knowing His divine otherness. To the mind this is a bewildering paradox, to the heart a simple truth. We have called to Him and He has answered; even in His silence He answered us. He is our call. Our confusion was that we did not recognize it. Surrendering in our prayers to His will, we recognize His omnipotence, and know that, because we are a part of Him, He fulfills His own need at the right time, in the right way. The simplicity of this revelation is overwhelming.
He needs us to call to Him so that He can come to know His own need. The more intense the call, the more full of feeling, the greater His need. We carry His consciousness in this world of duality-our consciousness is His consciousness (consciousness is His greatest gift to humanity). When we use this divine consciousness solely for the purposes of the ego, we remain within the ego, walled in separation. But when we use it for His purpose, so that He can hear the heart's need and other needs of His servants, then He reveals the oneness that is imprinted in this consciousness. He reveals the secret hidden within creation, hidden within our own hearts. Everything within the lover belongs to the Beloved, as Fakhruddîn 'Irâqî tells us:
The lover's search and desire is but a sign of the Beloved's aspiration. Indeed, all his attributes—shame, desire, joy, taste, and laughter—everything he "owns" belongs in truth to the Beloved. The lover but holds it in trust; he cannot even be called a partner, for partnership in attributes would demand two separate essences. But in the lover's contemplative eye there exists in reality but a single Essence.
A hundred things
a million or more
if you look to their reality
Thus all attributes pertain to the Beloved alone, leaving no ontological attribute to the lover. How could nonexistence possess the attributes of existence?(16)
The prayer of the heart lays this truth, the secret of secrets, at the feet of the Beloved. We have come to know His oneness, but in this experience there is no knower—we are not present. We give back to Him what He gave to us, the truth of His presence, the simple reality of His oneness. In this reality we are non-existent. The closed circle of love reveals its essential emptiness.
Notes from Chapter 1 Excerpt:
(1) Quoted by Al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, trans. B. R. von Schlegell, pp. 275276.
(2) Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 148.
(3) Quoted by Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 150.
(4) Rûmî, Mathnawi, quoted by R. A. Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p. 113.
(5) Quoted by Claude Addas, Quest for the Red Sulphur: The Life of Ibn 'Arabî, p. 61.
(6) Al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, p. 278.
(7) Jîlî, quoted by R. S. Bhatnagar, Dimensions of Classical Sufi Thought, p. 120.
(8) Trans. Coleman Barks, Delicious Laughter, p. 14. Rûmî's image of the baker reflects a tradition which relates, "When a servant whom God loves prays to Him, He says, 'O Gabriel, delay answering the need of my servant, for I love hearing his voice.' When a servant whom God dislikes prays to Him, God says, 'O Gabriel, answer My servant's need, for I dislike hearing his voice.'" Quoted by Al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, p. 278.
(9) Quoted by Al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, p. 278.
(10) The Cloud of Unknowing, quoted by T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding," l. 238.
(11) Quoted by Al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, p. 282.
(12) Quoted by Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 165.
(13) "The Dry Salvages," l. 93.
(14) Fakhruddîn 'Irâqî, Divine Flashes, trans. Peter Lamborn Wilson, p. 116.
(15) Al-Ghazzâlî, quoted by Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 139.
(16) Divine Flashes, pp. 118119.