Lock & Key

I am a mountain. What I say
is an echo of what you say.
I am a painting being painted.

I am the lock. A key slips in
to help me make an opening sound.

This talking is not mine.

Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
tr.Coleman Barks
from Rumi: Soul Fury
Rumi and Shams Tabriz on Friendship
HarperCollins 2014

This quatrain presented me with a number of illustrative options, but it was the lock and key image that called most strongly to me; and it served to remind me of a Sufi story that Coleman Barks has told a couple of times. I enjoy the subtle differences between these two versions, and I have let the second quote run on a while because it is always fascinating to follow him when he wanders off, like Rumi himself, following his bliss.

Meditation, or any solitary practice (a walk before dawn, a poem every morning, sitting on the roof at sunset), gives depth and expands the soul’s action.
A man in prison is sent a prayer rug by his friend. What he had wanted, of course, was a file or a crowbar or a key!  But he began using the rug,
doing five-times prayer before dawn, at noon,
mid-afternoon, after sunset, and before sleep.
Bowing, sitting up, bowing again, he notices an odd pattern in the weave of the rug, just at the qibla, the point where his head touches.  He studies and meditates on that pattern, gradually discovering that it is a diagram of a lock that confines him in his cell and how it works.  He’s able to escape.  Anything you do every day can open into the deepest spiritual place, which is freedom.

from The Essential Rumi
HarperCollins 1995

I have a friend who works in prisons.  She says the prisoners have a phrase they use among themselves for where they are: in medium.  There is an old Sufi story about practices.  A man is visited in prison by a friend who he hopes will help him escape by bringing a file or some tool for physically escaping, but all he brings is a prayer rug.  He begins to do five-times prayer, and after a period he realizes that the place where his forehead touches the rug, the point called the qibla, is a diagram of the workings of the tumblers of the lock on his cell door.
He escapes. I have been in the medium of this practice for thirty-four years.
Rumi often speaks of the bird who sits in the cage even though the cage door is open.  He does not fly off.  I sometimes feel like that bird. I was told by a teacher once that these translations are beautiful (“They have to be, for they are coming out of Rumi’s love”) but that there is a danger in them for me, because they could become “ecstatic self-hypnosis.” So it has sometimes been. My love for the beauty of the poetry has felt like enough, but it is not enough.
The poetry is meant to lead the listener into an experience…
I want to try and say something about my sense of what it is like inside a Rumi poem. Plotinus has a wonderful metaphor for the predicament of human consciousness: a net thrown into the sea. This is what we are with our longings, our works of art, our loves. We are the net. Soul is the ocean we are in, but we cannot hold onto it. We cannot own any part of what we swim within, the mystery we love so. Yet the longing we feel is there because of soul. To some degree we are what we are longing for. Some part of the ocean swims inside the fish. In Plotinus’s view the visible universe – the entire cosmos, nature, ourselves, and all that we do – is a net thrown into the ocean of soul:

“The cosmos is like a net thrown into the sea, unable to make that in which it is its own. Already the sea is spread out, and the net spreads with it as far as it can, for no one of its parts can be anywhere else than where it is. But because it has no size, the Soul’s nature is sufficiently ample to contain the whole cosmic body in one and the same grasp.”
-Ennead IV, Section 9
Elmer O’Brien, The Essential Plotinus
(New American Library, 1964)

There is great poignancy and beauty and longing in the situation, and to paraphrase Plotinus again, as we begin to recognize that beauty, we become more beautiful ourselves.

from Rumi: The Big Red Book
HarperCollins 2010



2 comments on “Lock & Key”

  1. Deeply thought provoking and insightful. A joy to read.

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