Listen to the full sermon by The Rev. Clare Morgan here.
Good evening, St. Brigid’s. I’m so, so glad to be with you. My name is Clare Morgan, my pronouns are they/them, and I will serve among you as interim pastor for the next nine months. I am thrilled to get to know you, the gathered community of Christ’s beloved here in this place.
Today, we and these very good doggos and kittehs and birbs and hammies and piggies and bunnehs and all other creatures on this earth observe the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, who is dear to me as someone carrying the name of his best friend, St. Clare of Assisi.
But I’m also going to introduce someone else to you, because I couldn’t stop thinking about him as I read the stories of Francis, a child of God most known for his poverty and desire to challenge the authority of the Medieval Church.
That other person is Qays Ibn Al-Mulawwah, more commonly known as Majnun. Over the course of the pandemic, his story has been healing to me, so I wanted to share it with you.
There’s a lot of debate over where Majnun actually existed. A poet carrying this name existed, but the things he became known for have become mythic – truer than true. Living sometime in the 5th century, born of a Bedouin tribe in Saudi Arabia, he became infatuated with Layla, a woman of Hawāzin origin. Their families, like the Montagues and Capulets, forbid them from being together. The name Majnun actually means “possessed by jinn,” or, if you’ll forgive me for the slur, “crazy.” His love for Layla is said to have become so great that it pushed him into madness, which drove him to abandon his family and run into the wilderness, where he becomes a poet, praying for his words to be carried to Layla, who was said to have received them but for her own protection kept her love hidden. In the story they never marry, but their love never dies.
This story has become one of the most beloved stories in Middle Eastern and Central Asian tradition. In the grand tradition of The Song of Songs, it is read among mystics as a cipher story for the soul’s longing for God, and God’s hidden desire for the soul. The most famous rendering is probably the one composed by Nizami Ganjavi, Persia’s greatest romantic epic poet, who completed his masterpiece when our Francis was a young child. Mysticism was really thick in the air all across the world back then.
Majnun and Francis both had blessed childhoods, growing up in well-to-do families with good education and plenty of resources. Francis, the son of a cloth merchant, was a dandy who loved high fashion, good food and wine, and gallivanting around the country playing sports and having fun with friends. Majnun, or Qays as he was still known, was born to a kind-hearted Bedouin sayyid, and grew up with great beauty and wisdom. By the time he was in school he was already a gifted orator and poet.
And then, one day, everything turned upside-down for both of them.
Francis grew aware of the poverty and illness that surrounded him every day, in the face of beggars and in his service as a soldier. Love plants the seeds and grows wild within him. He became exceedingly generous, even reckless, with the wealth his father allowed to him, which annoyed his father immensely. Francis eventually had a foundational mystical experience, receiving a command from Jesus at a ruined church in San Damiano. Jesus asks that Francis help rebuild the church, which he does by spending even more, as well as renouncing his rich lifestyle and becoming destitute, begging one brick at a time.
Like Francis, Qays also finds himself caught up short by Love. He enters school and first lays eyes on Layla, so beautiful inside and out that he becomes bewitched. Remember here that the mystics see Layla as a cipher for the divine, and Majnun the human soul. While things are perfect at first, with the two of them lost in each other, their love begins to attract attention from others who mock them for their intemperate displays of affection. The couple tries to mitigate these whispers by spending time apart, but it makes them burn all the more. Worse still, Layla begins to attract attention from would-be suitors whom her father deems better suited than poor Qays, who was becoming more embarrassing by the day as he sought without success to tame his passion. Like all true mystics, he is unsuccessful, and eventually earns the name of Majnun, the madman.
The two fathers eventually find themselves at an impasse with their wayward, wild-hearted sons. Francis’s father ends up taking him to court in an attempt to retrieve some of his lost riches. Francis famously renounces his family by removing the clothes his father had given him and standing before the court naked before walking away into a new life of poverty and itinerancy, befriending lepers, preaching to birds, and composing songs of praise to all of creation.
Likewise Majnun’s father, who tries everything to help his son, finally brings him to the Ka’aba, the holiest site in Islam, and pleads for him to pray to God for liberty from this obsession. Majnun does the opposite. Nizami, in Rudolph Gelpke’s translation, renders his prayer thusly:
“Let me love, oh my God, love for love’s sake, and make my love a hundred times as great as it was and is!”
Majnun then also chooses to walk away, living among the beasts of the wilderness and singing incredible love songs, which are so powerful that those who happen across him begin to actually share them, singing them in the streets. Creation itself in the wind and birds also bear his words to Layla, who waits in her tent, holding her own heart-shattering love inside, just as God’s love must always, even for the most mystical of us, be known primarily by faith until we return at the end of our lives on earth.
It is in the joyful overturning of convention that these two prophets offer worship to the object of their desires. In their so-called madness, they embody a profound truth: that it’s those very conventions, stereotypes, and unspoken rules that are the sickness. True love unbound by politeness and civility is where God becomes most manifest. True love is embarrassing. That’s why Jesus says the wise don’t understand it. Only children do. That’s why he too, as Love incarnate, wandered through the wilderness of mortality and humanity, loving us madly and embarrassingly.
Francis and Majnun’s stories have a hint of romantic tragedy about them, both burning with a love that to some extent isolates them from the world around them. Both stories include friendships with other humans and animals – such an amazing confluence between the two – and indeed, as proper for all mystics, the ultimate erasure of all separateness in the wildfire of God’s love.
For Francis, this occurred in 1224, about two years before his death. While fasting in Mount La Verna, he received a vision of a crucified angel on Holy Cross Day, and found himself overcome with ecstasy shot through with incredible pain. Tradition then tells us that, as the angel departed, Francis discovered the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on his hands and at his side. Overwhelmed by desire for his beloved, he had in a sense become his beloved.
Again, in an incredible confluence, the Sufi master and poet Fakhr al-Dīn Ibrahīm ‘Irāqī, contemporary to both Nizami and Francis, relays the following story, as translated by Omid Safi:
“This radical love
is a fire
When it enters a heart
it consumes everything in the heart
Even the Beloved’s image
is effaced away
from the heart
Majnun was burning in this love
They told him: “Layla is coming”
“I am Layla”
And lowered his head”
May we never allow convention, heteronormativity, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or any other principality or power temper our love. May we befriend and bless these friendly beasts, empowering them for the work of love. May our love for one another never be less than our love for God. May we like Christ be pierced by love. May we like Majnun become love.