“If you are elated with the Divine,
even for a moment, the world grows
too small to contain you.
A heart made glad by the Almighty
vanishes from the world, freed.”
-from Sholeh Wolpé's translation
As the birds start to mature in their faith and ask better questions, the hoopoe provides another fountain of parables, some of which are moving, disturbing, or just plain hilarious.
We often take holy literature very seriously, but imagine standing at the ambo on Sunday to read the parable of the donkey who farted, or Rumi’s story of the fly who loudly proclaims his sovereignty while floating on a blade of grass in a puddle of urine! We don’t have parables quite like this within our Gospel canon, although Jesus also knew how important it was to keep stories memorable!
Something else prevalent in this text, and in my own personal experiences with Sufism, is playfulness. In one of my most treasured memories of Turkish Sufi teacher Sherif Baba Çatalkaya, he invited me to sit in a swing hanging from a tree while he gently pulled at the rope so I rocked back and forth. We both laughed at the time, but later he explained that all of us are called to “hold onto the skirt of aşk,” or Love. This is not a phrase he coined himself – it comes up often in Sufi texts. Like Jesus telling us to take our cues from children, we are called here to learn through humility and play.
While continuing to question the hoopoe in a conversational style (a standard display of Sufi learning called sohbet), the birds learn about the importance of obedience, sacrifice, zeal, justice, audacity, and devotion.
“Obedience” and the language of servanthood and slavery is receiving a much-needed re-evaluation in theology these days. What strikes me, though, is how often playfulness and overwhelming mercy shine through.
One parable tells the story of a king returning home to a town splendidly decorated in celebration of his arrival. All through the streets he sees jewels, gold, and banners of silk, and smells perfume in the air. And yet he only stops when he arrives at the prison. The prisoners, who have nothing to decorate their cell, have chosen whatever they had on hand: chains, severed heads and limbs, and internal organs! Moved, the king sets all of them free, and heaps gold upon them. When his horrified servants ask him what he is doing, he explains that everyone else in town decorated to show their power and wealth. These prisoners, though, decorated to show the king’s power.
Reading this, I wondered if the actions of these prisoners could be seen as an act of protest that ends up paying off. I was even more impressed when I read what the king says next:
“This jail seems like a garden to me and its prisoners flowers because I am as much theirs as they are mine. Just as the task of a discerning Wayfarer is to obey, the duty of a king is to visit the prison.”
There was something so strangely beautiful about this passage: the notion that king belongs to prisoner just as surely as prisoner belongs to King.
The parables associated with zeal and audacity (both of which the hoopoe says are necessary to seek God) carry forward this playfulness. In another parable, Joseph, son of Jacob, is on the slave block after being sold by his brothers. In Muslim tradition Joseph is known for his astonishing beauty, so many would-be buyers offer mountains of gold as the slave-trader gleefully inflates the price. Among the crowds, an old woman comes forward and offers for Joseph a few hanks of twisted thread she has made. The slave-trader and the crowd laugh at her for being so foolish, but,
“The old woman replied: ‘I knew for sure
That nobody would sell this lad for this,
But it is enough for me that, whether by friend or foe,
It might be said, ‘This old hag made a bid for him.’”
We see that Jesus also rewards zealous behaviour, praising those who show it for having great faith (the Syro-phoenician woman comes to mind here).
One bird asks if audacity is permissible in the Court of the Beloved. Of course, says the hoopoe:
“[I]f you act out of turn, it’s from pure enthusiasm.
You’re so giddy with love, you can walk on water.
Good fortune to you. May you prosper
in your boldness, for you’re like a lunatic on fire.”
He then tells one of my favourite parables. As a poor and ragged dervish, or holy man, walks through a particular town, he sees a retinue of exquisitely beautiful men: luminous and splendidly dressed, bedecked with jewels and sporting pearls in their ears. The dervish asks a passerby if these are angels, and the passerby says no, they are servants of the governor. The dervish looks up to heaven and cries,
“Great God, look down from your exalted sphere –
Learn how to treat your slaves from this man here!”
The hoopoe tells several more parables about dervishes who were cheeky with God! Attar encourages us to seek a more intimate, radical, Psalmic relationship with God, marked by love-play and saucy banter.
We know that the birds are progressing in their journey because, while we seem to re-tread old ground as the hoopoe tells another bird to discard his ego, notes from Peter Avery show that some of the hoopoe’s advice is intended for extreme ascetics and mystics. This is not about the so-called ordinary faithful learning basic humility, but those who see themselves as spiritually evolved learning to move beyond self-righteousness. Again, Attar challenges notions of who is holy and who is truly enlightened.
“Your ecstasy and asceticism are no more than illusion.
Whatever you relate as having achieved is nothing more than absurdity.
Do not be deluded by the chimerical light in the Way –
Your carnal self is with you. Only be vigilant, nothing else.”
This is where the farting donkey comes in, by the way! Sheikh Abu Bhakr of Nishapur, a highly respected spiritual leader, is walking his donkey through throngs of disciples when his donkey lets one rip! (And if you think I didn’t cackle at that…well, I did). The sheikh starts sobbing and tearing at his robe, which makes his servants feel embarrassed. They finally say to him, “What’s the problem here? It’s not like you farted!” But he responds,
“I was looking up and down enjoying the sight of my disciples, for they numbered as far as the eye could see. At that point I said to myself: ‘By God, I am no less than the great, wise Bayazid! I have such devoted followers that surely on the Day of Judgement I’ll be able to enter that lofty arena with my head held high.’
“Just as I said this to myself, my donkey released a fart. In other words, to he who boasts in such a manner, the donkey gives his proper answer.”
Not exactly “Those who humble themselves will be exalted,” but I bet you’ll remember it!
Finally a bird asks what he can bring to Court as a gift, for he doesn’t dare come empty-handed. The hoopoe says, “Don’t bring anything. Once you see God, you’ll want nothing else.”
“If you enter the Great Innermost Chamber,
you’ll come to know bit by bit your Beloved.
If you catch even the dust-scent of that Lofty Court,
nothing in the world can lure you away from it.”
In the season of Lent, we seek to strip away the things that keep us from God or our own sense of beloved-ness. Attar insists that if we bring to God our vulnerability and flaws, this is more than enough, for God as Source of Life lacks all of these things.
Our belief as Christians, of course, is that Jesus borrowed them for a while, in order to make them holy.