LIGHT UPON LIGHT, CHAPTER ONE: SPIRITUAL MOLTING
Light Upon Light
meditations on the restorative path
Timothy J Gianotti, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2014 Timothy J Gianotti. All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical publications or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher. For permission, please send an email to email@example.com and write “Permissions” in the subject line.
All English renderings of the Qur’an or classical Arabic sources are, unless otherwise noted, the translations of the author.
ONE: SPIRITUAL MOLTING
the unmaking and remaking of the self on the path to God
“It may well be the case that you despise a thing when it is [actually] good for you and that you love a thing when it is [actually] harmful to you. God knows while you know not.”
– The Qur’an 2: 216
“All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
– Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor
One of the reasons why I shy away from whole-heartedly walking the spiritual path is because I am afraid of the destruction that I know is waiting there, the “unmaking” that clears the way for growth and new life. It is not so much that I am completely happy with myself in my current state or that I want to freeze my life in its current form as it is a feeling of aversion for the mess and difficulty of the deconstruction, the unmaking, the death of my status quo… I intuitively know that walking the restorative path is going to make me uncomfortable, embarrassed and ashamed of my clinging habits and persisting vices, and so I recoil from the path and distract myself with a hundred other “urgent” matters that may be worthy but do not threaten to challenge or change me.
The Qur’ān illustrates the simultaneous ruin and promise of growth in what it calls the “best of stories” – i.e., the story of Yusuf (Joseph, may God’s peace be upon him – ‘alayhi as-salaam). In many ways, Yusuf’s painful and bewildering experiences (being cast into a well, sold into slavery, uprooted to another country, falsely accused, thrown into jail, and then finally – after all this – raised and exalted with honor and power) all point to the mystery of this chapter. Indeed, his life story serves as an archetypical model for spiritual transformation and ascent – beginning with the fall into the pit, the powerlessness of having one’s “reality” (or fantasy of reality) stripped away and being cut off from the relations and associations that shape one’s identity, the discovery of one’s true priority or value (often in the most unlikely place or situation), and the eventual emergence of the authentic self in honor, dignity, and power (albeit a power not one’s own).
“…and [so] that is [a story] from the tidings of [the realm of] the unseen; we reveal it to you, for you were not among them when they decided together and when they played out their deception…” (12:102)
“There exists, in their stories [i.e., the stories of the prophets of old], a lesson for those endowed with [true] understanding. It is not a fabricated tale but a verification of what [was sent] before it, a detailed exposition of everything, a guidance and a mercy for any people who believe.” (12:111)
Another Qur’ānic text that seems to speak to the promise of God’s blessing in the wake of trial, loss, and unmaking, comes in the second surah or chapter, where we read,
“O you who believe! Seek help in [the practice of] patience and prayer, for truly God is with the patient ones…God will certainly test and try you with some experience of fear, hunger, loss of wealth, loss of life, and loss of the fruits [of your labors]. But give glad tidings to the patient and forbearing ones, who emphatically say “we belong to God and to God we are [all] returning” whenever a calamity afflicts them. These are the ones upon whom [descend] blessings and mercy from their Lord; these are the ones who [humbly] seek to be guided.” (2:153-157)
It is instructive for us to notice the order of operations here: the advice to seek God’s help through patience and prayer; the promise of affliction and loss; the promise of blessings and mercy to those who remember God in the midst of their affliction and remember that life is a return journey to the One who is the origin and ultimate end of our existence. Thus the afflictions and the loss – far from being signs of God’s displeasure and punishment – are part of the mechanism that clears the way for divine blessings and mercy.
Later in the same chapter, we are reminded that we often hate what is good for us and love what is detrimental to us (2:216) and so are encouraged to embrace hardship and difficulty with faith and hope and even gratitude. Of course, this takes some training and work and is far more easily said than done.
In the later, post-prophetic spiritual literature of Islam, we can find many spiritual reflections upon the destruction or unmaking of the conventional self so that the authentic self – the soul as God created her to be – can emerge. For example, in the autobiography of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111) – one of the most acclaimed sages of the medieval Sunni tradition – we read how he, in the height of his public fame and fortune, underwent a complete breakdown that led to his escape from public life and his ten year search for illumination. Some profound, evocative, and poetic metaphors for this unmaking also come to us from Jalaluddin Rūmī, a 13th century Persian mystic poet (who also enjoys the honor of being one of America’s best-selling poets, thanks to the translations of Coleman Barks). For example, in a poem entitled “Checkmate,” Rumi compares the soul to a porcupine, which expands (due to the extension of its quills) when it is beaten. This explains why the soul of a prophet has to be so tested and afflicted, he writes: because it has to become so expansive and lovely and powerful. In other poems, the theme of unmaking is articulated in the metaphor of a reed being cut from the reedbed so that it can become a flute (“The Reed Flute’s Song”), a chickpea being cooked in a boiling pot (“the Chickpea”), a multitude of sorrows that enter your house and leave it desolate and empty (“the Guesthouse”), a burned out village (“Moses and the Shepherd”), or counter-intuitive, miraculous “signs” that include crying through the night, giving up all you possess, losing your health, and other experiences of helplessness (“Acts of Helplessness”). All point to the unmaking of the conventional, egocentric self so that a new, illumined, theocentric self can emerge.
As I ponder the mystery of spiritual molting within my own life and experience, painful and even disturbing memories emerge: a traumatic automobile wreck that brought me to the brink of death in my teens; a loving and respectful yet devastating and drawn out separation and divorce in my twenties; the rather dramatic and sudden erosion of my family’s sense of stability and security in the wake of September 11, 2001, after which we gave up a home, a solid job, and a settled life to escape a threatening situation; the diagnosis of an incurable, untreatable, neuro-muscular degenerative condition as I entered my fourth decade… While it may well be said that my experiences of devastation and unmaking do not compare with the horrors that my sisters and brothers have experienced and are experiencing in theatres of war and situations of ethnic cleansing, genocide, torture, and the soul-rending trauma of sexual violence, they nevertheless stand out for me as personal moments of powerlessness, devastation, estrangement, shame, fear… as moments when the person and the life I had constructed were reduced to raw materials. As difficult and painful and confusing as each experience was, the unmakings cleared the way for an array of new becomings, new insights, and much personal growth, so much so that I can now see God’s hand entering into the destruction and darkness and pain and confusion to lift a new creation out of the mess. And I can give thanks.
It is important to note that, in cases involving the criminal and reprehensible violation of another human being, this spiritual alchemy or transformative teaching does not excuse or absolve the perpetrator or make the violation in any way acceptable. Rather, it offers the broken victim a path of hope and new life arising from the ruin of the experience. The Divine “hand” thus represents the opening of a path to a new and transformed life rather than remaining in the shadow of the violation, the violence, the rending of the soul. As it says in the Qur’ān, “God is the Guardian of those who believe; God takes them out of the darknesses and into the light.” (2:257)
In her deeply instructive book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times – a profound meditation on the theme of the unmaking of the constructed or conventional self – the American Buddhist teacher and abbess Pema Chodron writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”
So we come to a seemingly universal principle: every beginning involves an ending; every time we step into a new life, we must first experience the death and unmaking of the old life. Perhaps this is, in part, one of the lessons of Jesus’ apocalyptic teachings in Luke: “Anyone who tries to preserve his life will lose it; and anyone who loses it will keep it safe.” In our contemplation of his promise of a time of unmaking and his counsel to let go, we cannot help but hear an echo in the Qur’anic assurance that “every soul shall have a taste of death” (21:35), for we truly cannot live if we are unwilling to experience death.
Echoing Rumi in his American, free-verse poetry, Robert Bly writes:
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a mineral,
And then I died and became a plant.
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as a plant,
And then I died and was reborn as an animal.
I lived for hundreds of thousands of years as an animal,
And then I died and was reborn as a human being.
What have I ever lost by dying?
So what are we to learn from all this teaching, which spans centuries and cultures and religious traditions? Maybe it is a kind of life-coaching telling us, the next time we are confronted with a moment of unmaking, a moment of devastation and disaster, we should be mindful, meet it, and summon the courage to seek the transformative grace awaiting us there. At the very least, we should remain hopeful. Pema Chodron counsels us to “lean in” while Rumi encourages us to meet it at the door with a smile. For each experience, he says, comes “as a guide from beyond.”
I cannot recall ever having seen it
but they say it was a ‘66 Buick
hurtling down the mountain freeway
with no chance to turn or brake…
Before I was taken up I was taken down
my broken body left for a while
on a stretcher in the ICU…
I never saw the seven heavens
but I was lifted
so I could see
my body and then
a beaten path in the high seagrass
not-yet-walked but beaten down
to show me…
when I awoke the way was hidden
though I searched everywhere…
the seagrass, it seemed, was in another world
beyond my reach.
Shams, I saw the Buick in your eyes too late
to turn or brake, but that time
I was not lifted up
Just taken down, only
to find the seagrass in the ruins of my soul.
 See The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks, with John Moyne, AJ Arberry and Reynold Nicholson (Castle Books, 1997).
 Shambhala, 2000.
 Luke: 17:33. Translation borrowed from The Jerusalem Bible (Darton, Longman & Todd, Ltd., and Doubleday & Co., 1966).
 What Have I ever lost by Dying? Collected Prose Poems by Robert Bly (Harper Perennial, 1992).
 The Essential Rumi, p. 109.