Yesterday (literally!) I thought I had nothing new to give you, but then I realized I did have something old to offer, the wisdom of the poet Kahlil Gibran. My mother loved reading his books in the sixties and I’ve been reading her copy of Mirrors of the Soul, translated with biographical notes by Joseph Sheban and published by the Philosophical Library of New York in 1965. It’s amazing to me how relevant it is today.
In seminary I had a friend from Lebanon who could not understand why Gibran was so popular in the United States. “There are better poets in Lebanon,” he said frankly. But reading this particular book explains it to me. He immigrated to the U.S. with his family when he was a teenager, though he returned to Lebanon for his higher education. No doubt being “bicontinental” as well as located in New York City gave him the exposure needed in the publishing world.
This book begins with a quote of Gibran that speaks to our need to listen to our own hearts and the heart of the universe:
My soul is my counsel and has taught me to give ear to the voices which are created neither by tongues nor uttered by throats.
Before my soul became my counsel, I was dull, and weak of hearing, reflecting only upon the tumult and the cry. But, now, I can listen to silence with serenity and can hear in the silence the hymns of ages chanting exaltation to the sky and revealing the secrets of eternity.
How often we only attend to “the tumult and the cry” rather than “the hymns of [the] ages”!
Sheban contends that Gibran was “a rebel, but only against ceremonial practices,” while familiarizing himself with a wide range of spiritual teachers, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Confucian, non-religious philosophers, and more. In one of his stories in Arabic, “Kahlil the Heretic,” a novice urges his monastic community to go out and serve the people, saying,
“The hardships we shall encounter among the people shall be more sanctifying and more exalting than the ease and serenity we accept in this place. The sympathy that touches a neighbor’s heart is greater than virtue practiced unseen in this convent. A word of compassion for the weak, the criminal and the sinner is more magnificent than long, empty prayers droned in the temple.”
Of course, the novice in the story is driven from the monastery!
Another character from another story, “John the Madman,” prays, “Come again, O Jesus, to drive the vendors of thy faith from thy sacred temple.”
Finally, these excerpts from Kahlil Gibran’s essay entitled “The New Frontier” written a hundred years ago may have a familiar ring and relevant reverberations for our time:
Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.
Are you a merchant utilizing the need of society for the necessities of life for monopoly and exorbitant profit? Or a sincere, hard-working and diligent person facilitating the exchange between the weaver and the farmer, charging a reasonable profit as a middleman between supply and demand? If you are the first, then you are a criminal whether you live in a palace or a prison. If you are the second, then you are a charitable person whether you are thanked or denounced by the people.
Are you a religious leader, weaving for your body a gown out of the ignorance of the people, fashioning a crown out of the simplicity of their hearts and pretending to hate the devil merely to live upon his income? Or are you a devout and a pious person who sees in the piety of the individual the foundation for a progressive nation, and who can see through a profound search in the depth of one’s own soul a ladder to the eternal soul that directs the world?
If you are the first, then you are a heretic, a disbeliever in God even if you fast at day and pray by night. If you are the second, then you are a violet in the garden of truth even though its fragrance is lost upon the nostrils of humanity or whether its aroma rises into that rare air where the fragrance of flowers is preserved. …
Are you a governor who denigrates himself before those who appoint him and denigrates those whom he is to govern, who never raises a hand unless it is to reach into pockets and who does not take a step unless it is for greed? Or are you the faithful servant who serves only the welfare of the people?
If you are the first, then, then you are as a tare in the threshing floor of the nation; and if the second, then you are a blessing upon its granaries.
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Copyright © 2019 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Photo from California desert by Chris.