So Much Closer: Jesus and Rumi, Death Cab and Red Rocks

whirling dervish

…I hope to spin bewildered while I can.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic, said that. We like mystics. They make for good memes, especially when they’re exotic and provocative. It just sounds cool – Sufism – as if surfing, kung-fu, and philosophy had a three-way baby. But sometimes I worry about the meme-ification of spiritual experience, that it  can diminish the depths and the demands (to say nothing of the rewards) of religious life.

When I gleefully ‘like’ a mysti-meme on Facebook or Instagram it does nothing to commit me to the transformative act the mystical imperative suggests I undertake. That would require actual experience and in actual experience selling cleverness is, like, difficult. We ‘like’ mystics, but we rarely take their advice. And what a shame that is, because I, for one, could surely use more bewilderment and less cleverness.

Jesus also invites us to a mystical yardsale — perhaps less poetic and yet, more pointed. “Sell everything,” he says. “Give it all to the poor, and come along for the ride.” (my Greek is sketchy…but you get the point) Now I know what you’re probably thinking: Hold on a minute there, J.C. Selling my cleverness I can get behind — it sounds groovy and virtuous — but my possessions? I smell communism. You wouldn’t be the first to react this way. Whoever Rumi was talking to probably hit the dancefloor, rapt with joy. But that dude Jesus invited to dump his junk on Etsy to join the mystical circus of love and justice? Well, that guy went away sad, disturbed, we might even say grumpy. (Again, my Greek? Not great.)

The point is this: the imperative in both of these invitations challenges us to change. In both instances we’re invited to become someone new, to be the mystic, to be the Christ, to let go of our ego and to love wildly in a dramatic act of reckless generosity and awe. We’re given clear and simple instructions and, within the imperative, a promise — Do this and you’ll become that. Sell everything and you’ll be perfectly, completely, wholly…um, well, holy.

So, where is your cleverness? What are your saleable possessions? I can’t answer for you. But I assure you, real experience is out there. Just sell your selfie-stick and buy it.

***

I once blew all the money I had on a concert ticket. I was a poor novice who had spent too much time sitting in a prefab-mod-pod classroom with the same 70 guys in a hot parking lot in Denver, Colorado listening for weeks on end to what felt like an infinite litany of Jesuit triumphalism, ahem, I mean history. I needed a break. A fellow novice and I decided to spend our entire monthly stipend on a couple of tickets to see Andrew Bird and Death Cab for Cutie at Red Rocks. [Spoiler alert!] It was an excellent choice — recklessly extravagant and, at that point in the summer, absolutely necessary.

We arrived at the venue — an impressive natural red rock amphitheater made all the more impressive by the human drama of rock concert liturgy — and joined thousands of others to summon the muses. After weeks of studying the long history of the Society of Jesus, our many missionary endeavors and their impressive global scope, I was struck, in this concert-going crowd, by how irrelevant we were to this contemporary reality. How many of these thousands could say what a Jesuit was, let alone offer a reasonable description of what it means to be one? Not many. If any. It was a disheartening thought.

As the concert began I slowly slipped from Jesuit navel-gazing into something more like appreciation, that is, from clever to bewildered. I adopted a posture ironically more authentically Jesuit, a posture of attentiveness. I watched Andrew Bird, a solitary genius, compose orchestral ballads alone before my eyes. I saw the sun set dramatically in the distance as Ben Gibbard and friends played away in the foreground. And the encore? Mystical. Thousands sung together the provocative last lines of the haunting and ache-filled anthem, Transatlanticism, a song about isolation and longing.

And there we were, two broke Jesuit novices, lost in a sea of thousands, all of us strangers to each other, chanting out from the now dark canyon over and over and over, “I need you so much closer. I need you so much closer. I need you so much closer.”

***

The mystics and the muses invite us always to the same thing — encounter. We are invited beyond our ideas and (pre)conceptions into real experience. We are invited into a quality of life more receptive and less critical, more about enjoying than avoiding, more about knowing than naming. We’re invited to let go and to embrace. We’re invited into the generosity of becoming. You want to know the mystical secret? Give up. Give away. Give in.

Leaving that concert I was moved by how profoundly our Jesuit mission is affirmed in the truth of that longing — a crowd of thousands wanting, leaping, screaming for connection, for intimacy, for meaningful encounter, for bewilderment and love. Returning to our Jesuit history course I was able to sense in the same old stories of missionaries and spiritual directors, theologians and clowns (yes, literal clowns – you can’t make this stuff up) something authentic and radically relevant. I saw a desire for connection, but even more, I saw the sacrifice and hard work necessary to make these connections happen.

The early Jesuits did tougher things than sit in a hot parking lot in Denver. They got on boats that would never bring them home again. They sold everything and joined the circus of encounter, the great quest for God in all things, all places, all people, and all times. They made the commitment of bewilderment.

I’m not here to fall back into the Jesuit propaganda game, surely we aren’t alone in this endeavor and surely our history isn’t without its faults. But I am here to invite you to join in the song, to sell what you have for those in need, those longing for love and justice. Sell your indifference and buy mercy. Sell your self-interest and buy solidarity. Sell your opinion and buy experience. Sell your ‘point of view’ and buy perspective. Sell your isolation and buy encounter.

And why? Because I need you. I’m here to recruit you. Like Rumi, I hope to spin bewildered while I can. And like Jesus, I’ve got a long road ahead (stories to tell, feet to wash, wounds to heal, bread to break, and wine to pour). I could use the company. I’d rather not make music alone. I’d like you to sing along. So come on. I need you so much closer. Sell your cleverness and anything else you’ve got at hand and come on….come on…come on.

 

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The cover image, from Flickr user Shannon Tompkins can be found here.

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