"Junayd was asked, ‘Tell it to us straight, when does a heart find true contentment?’
That wise Sufi of Baghdad replied, ‘The moment the Beloved steps into it.’"
-from Sholeh Wolpé’s translation
The story of the sheikh and the Christian girl affects the birds so deeply that they become even more excited to begin the journey to find their king. But as they open their wings and take flight, they discover that the path before them is completely empty. When they ask why there is nothing there, the hoopoe tells another parable, one that reminded me of the Genesis passage from a couple of weeks ago.
One night, Bayazid, a famous Sufi mystic, walked out into the desert, where he was awestruck by the beauty of the stars and silence. Frightened by its emptiness, he cries:
“At such a Court as that which in sublimity You have,
Why is there such a lack of eager seekers?”
The answer is that the heavenly court is not for everyone. It is too lofty for just any beggar, and too bright for those who are “asleep.” Only one out of a hundred thousand souls might gain admittance.
This terrifies the birds, and they ask the hoopoe how they could hope to continue. One asks why the hoopoe understands so much about how to find the Simorgh. The hoopoe says,
“Questioner, it is because Solomon’s gaze fell on me but for a moment.
That bounty did not give me silver or gold, but in that one glance I found grace.”
He goes on to tell more parables about characters who received blessings simply because they received a glance from a king or a holy one. A poor boy fishing on a riverbank to feed his starving family becomes companion to a king because the king notices him. A murderer on the gallows ends up rejoicing in heaven because a wandering Sufi gave him a glance of mercy.
Despite these hopeful parables, the birds share more doubts and fears. One bird complains that he will surely not survive the journey, especially since many others with more strength failed before him.
How often do we compare ourselves to others whom we perceive as stronger, more faithful, more deserving of God’s love? This is one of the blessings of having saints: those capable of great things who were just as fickle, spiteful, and vulnerable as we are!
The hoopoe responds,
“If you say: Isn’t such a desire arrogance,
this assumption that you can find your way
to that Ocean when no one else ever has?
I’d say: If I lose my life in the path of this proud desire,
it’s still better than occupying my heart
with keeping house or managing shop.”
He then tells several parables about deeply faithful people who endured great hardships and bad luck. The Path is anything but easy, but we should not let it convince us that we are unworthy of it.
Another bird claims that he is too sinful and wicked – similar to the earlier complaint of the peacock. The next set of parables, all of which are deeply moving, are about instances of God’s incredible mercy and compassion, two words so fundamental to Islam that every chapter of the Qur’an, when recited, begins with “Bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim” – “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.”
In one parable a sinner, who had promised never to sin again, is so ashamed of his backsliding that he feels he can’t repent. God insists that there is no tax on further sin and the door to forgiveness is wide open:
“If you have sinned, the door of repentance is open.
Repent, because this door will not be closed.”
In another, the archangel Gabriel is shocked to discover that God is offering a blessing to an idol worshiper. God explains that the idolator is in error through no fault of their own and that God will therefore teach the idolator wisdom out of kindness and love.
Yet another has God raise a sinful man to heaven simply because, as his body was being carried through town in a funeral procession, a righteous person in the crowd looked at him with scorn.
“If all were pure of all iniquity,
God could not show His generosity;
The end of Wisdom is for God to show –
Perpetually, His love to those below.
One drop of God’s great wisdom will be yours,
A sea of mercy with uncharted shores[.]”
This is good news indeed in the season of Lent!
Yet another bird complains of ambivalence:
“Sometimes the devil takes me with a single glance,
and other times angels win me back with a wink.
Being always of two hearts
is like being stuck in a prison or lost in a deep well.
Hoopoe, what must I do?”
The hoopoe offers kind words of comfort, insisting that everyone struggles with indecisiveness and ambivalence, and starts in with the parables again, some of which are surprisingly bawdy and one of which deserves a more explicitly queer/trans read some time. (Maybe that'll be a later project!) Each parable, though, shows the importance of personal integrity.
More birds voice their fears and the things they don’t want to leave behind on the way. While some birds lament leaving behind their lovers, wealth, or high stations, others are honest enough to say things like,
“Should the angel of death come to claim me,
I shall go with him, but sobbing,
for if you pick up a blade against death,
it will split both sword and hand in two.”
The hoopoe admits that facing death is the hardest part of the journey, and tells more parables. The lonely phoenix, who lives without a mate for a thousand years only to burn up and resurrect itself, over and over. A rich governor, asked how he is faring while on his deathbed, who responds,
“What can I say? I rushed through life, and now I dash toward dust. Nothing more.”
In a world beset by war and climate change, how can our hearts not feel a deep empathy with this bird?
But the hoopoe goes on to say,
“You have lost yourself, oh seeker of the secret,
Before your life expires, the secret find.
If you do not while living re-find yourself.
When you die, how will you know the mystery?”
Avery includes a footnote with this last line referring to a hadith, or sacred saying from outside of the Qur’an, which states, “Whoever has known himself knows his Lord.”
During Lent, we are given the opportunity to practice self-reflection. If we choose to fast, we are, in a sense, proclaiming a certain level of vulnerability, taking away things we might feel keep us apart from God, or removing creature comforts to feel a deeper need for God. In our self-reflection, we mirror Jesus’s time in the wilderness, a prophetic act of proclaiming need for God in anticipation of his hour of greatest need: the call from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Only when we pass through these moments of brutal honesty with ourselves about our vulnerabilities and needs can we face the sunrise bells of Easter. But there’s no need to fear the dark before that dawn, because Jesus, like the hoopoe, will show us the way through it.
 I have added a hyphen here to clarify that this was not a typo of Avery’s; he presents the word without one.