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Dying Before We Die

Friday, September 28th, 2018


Dying Before We Die
Friday, September 28, 2018

Ironic, but one of the most intimate acts
of our body is

So beautiful appeared my death—knowing who then I would kiss,
I died a thousand times before I died.

“Die before you die,” said the Prophet

Have wings that feared ever
touched the Sun?

I was born when all I once feared—I could love.

—Rabia [1]

In her book God of Love, Mirabai Starr shows how at the nondual or contemplative levels the teachings of the three Abrahamic Traditions are quite similar, especially regarding the transformation of the separate self into union with God:

“Wash yourself of yourself,” says Rumi [a Sufi]. “Be melting snow.” In Kabbalah [Jewish mysticism], this process is known as bitul hayesh, “nullification of one’s somethingness,” and is consciously cultivated through prayer. In Christian tradition, the union of the soul with God in love is called “bridal mysticism.” And in Sufism, it is fana, where the soul attains complete unity with Allah. In every case, there is a dying of the false self into the truth of the Divine.

“God, whose love and joy are present everywhere,” said Angelus Silesius, the seventeenth-century German [Christian] mystic and poet, “cannot come to visit you unless you are not there.” [2]

Anthony de Mello (1931–1987), an East Indian Jesuit priest, was renowned for his storytelling, which drew from both Eastern and Western mystical traditions. One of his stories, “The Salt Doll,” illustrates the awakening to our true essence:

A salt doll journeyed for thousands of miles over land, until it finally came to the sea. It was fascinated by this strange moving mass, quite unlike anything it had ever seen before.

“Who are you?” said the salt doll to the sea.

The sea smilingly replied, “Come in and see.”

So the doll waded in. The farther it walked into the sea the more it dissolved, until there was only very little of it left. Before that last bit dissolved, the doll exclaimed in wonder, “Now I know what I am!” [3]

Jordan Denari Duffner is a leading advocate for interreligious dialogue. Drawing from her personal experiences of living and praying alongside Muslims in the United States and the Middle East, she writes:

Muslims describe beautiful experiences of God’s nearness, of feeling personally connected to [God] through prayer. The Prophet Muhammad once illustrated the experience of prayer this way: “During prayer, God lifts the veil and opens the gates of the invisible, so that His servant is standing in front of Him. The prayer creates a secret connection between the one praying and the One prayed to. Prayer is a threshold at the entrance to God’s reality.” [4]

Authentic God experience always “burns” you, yet it does not destroy you (Exodus 3:2-3), just as the burning bush revealed to Moses. But most of us are not prepared for such burning, nor even told to expect it. The Islamic mystics seem to be the most honest here, as we see in the ecstatic and erotic poetry of Rabia, Rumi, Kabir, and Hafiz. By definition, authentic God experience is always “too much”! It consoles our True Self only after it has devastated our false self.

[1] Daniel Ladinsky, inspired by Sufi mystic Rabia of Basra, “Die Before You Die,” Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (Penguin Compass: 2002), 7. Used with permission.

[2] Mirabai Starr, God of Love: A Guide to the Heart of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Monkfish Book Publishing: 2012), 59.

[3] Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (Image: 1984), 98.

[4] Jordan Denari Duffner, Finding Jesus Among Muslims: How Loving Islam Makes Me a Better Catholic (Liturgical Press: 2017), 74-75.

Adapted from Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life (Jossey-Bass: 2011), 13.

Image Credit: Muslims Praying toward Mecca (detail). Engraving.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: In the Qur’an, faith (iman) is something that people do: they share their wealth, perform the “works of justice” (salihat), and prostrate their bodies to the ground in the kenotic, ego-deflating act of prayer (salat). —Karen Armstrong
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