“Gardens upon gardens
in our minds,
in our hearts,
and fall from our fingertips
when You smile
You who are the promise
and the rain of Grace.”
Here Helminski reflects on Mary’s conception and birth to Anna and Joachim. Neither of Mary’s parents are given names in the canonical Scriptures, although they are in some that didn’t make it into our canon such as the Protoevangelium of James and Pseudo-Matthew.
Joachim is described in Pseudo-Matthew as a faithful and generous owner of flocks who gives away a third of his income to orphans, widows, strangers, and the poor. Anna, who shares the name of the mother of the prophet Samuel, is a woman of deep faith. Despite these virtues, they remain barren, a sign of shame in ancient Jewish culture. Of course, this narrative is regularly overturned in the Jewish Scriptures by the blessing of children as in the story of Abraham and Sarah and others, showing that the God of the Israelites cared deeply for those whom society may have seen as cursed.
Both Joachim and Anna receive angelic promises that they will bear a child – Joachim while tending his flocks in the wilderness, and Anna while listening to the sparrows in her garden. They finally conceive Mary, a girl-child.
Helminski links Mary to Miriam, sister to Moses, and gives Mary’s parents and cousins a priestly and prophetic heritage through the line of Aaron. She also details a bit of the story of Mary’s birth from the Islamic perspective, mentioning accounts from historians Jafar as-Sadiq (702-765 CE) and Al-Tabari (839-923 CE). Mary’s connection to Zechariah and Elizabeth, mother of Yahya/John the Baptist, is detailed in the Qur’an in Surah 19. In Surah 3, Mary’s father, who is named ‘Imrān in the Qur’anic text, dies before meeting his daughter. Zechariah is given guardianship over Mary and instructs her in the faith. He is a very different character from the scoffer portrayed in the Gospel of Luke!
It’s interesting to contemplate the parallel between these two couples – Anna and Joachim, and Elizabeth and Zechariah – who deeply long for a child, and Mary, a yet-to-be-married woman who conceives in one moment, without request. Some labour to bring God’s will to birth with tears and desperate longing…and to some God comes suddenly, without warning, inviting them to take part in the dance of Life and Love. (I remember once asking my friend Seemi if Mary turned/whirled when she conceived. Seemi replied matter-of-factly, “Of course.”)
I find myself thinking of the precious pairing of zhikr and sema: both acts of ecstatic praise in Sufi liturgy, but somewhat different in my personal experiences of them. Zhikr is most often marked by chanting and song while many types of sema are more formal and tend to include the characteristic Sufi whirling.
I treasure two memories of each during a 24-hour long liturgy at RumiFest 2019, held in Seattle. During a session of zhikr which lasted nearly two hours, from midnight to around 2am, I remember chanting, “Hayy, hayy, hayy” (the Arabic word for "life"), all our hands rising and falling in exuberant, emphatic motions. Then, I remember whirling by myself during a 6am lull, accompanied only by one musician and several exhausted dervishes sleeping along the walls, the holy silence which had blossomed in my heart and emptied my head.
It’s not only formal acts of prayer which are necessary to do God’s will, but the willingness to become a garden – not merely words and actions of liturgy, sacrament, or salah, but a posture of openness.
We need both to birth the sacred.