Tag Archives: obedience

The Holy Mariner

the flood

When the Bosphorus blew and
the flood myth that grew turned
the black lake to the Black Sea,
no one whose world was lost then
could ever, thereafter, let it go.
So when Noah left Gilgamesh
to sail from Babylon
to Israel via Ur, He went
with the best of company:
each one teach one, shanna,
two-by-two, up the gangway
and into the belly of the beast—
Eden becoming Ridván.
From there the third dove
did not return, but flying on straight
to the rainbow, decided, instead, in love,
to lay down and let go of everything
it had once known, thereby proving
everything it needed to know.
Shanna.

swril2

Wall, wall, reed wall, reed wall is generally the first line of the Babylonian versions of the Flood Story. In fact, the first non-Biblical translation of the myth in the 1870’s rocked the Victorian age and was the opening salvo in the modern-day battle to contend that the Old Testament is not a history book, but one of spiritual metaphors. Since then, further research has proven that the Mesopotamian Flood myth far predates the creation of Genesis and firmly establishes that the story, which is so central to that entire region’s psychology and conscious, is most probably based on some real cataclysmic event of the long distant past.

A leading contender for that event in the creation of the Bosphorus seaway. It is speculated that the creation of this amazingly narrow, thread-like sea channel that cuts through modern-day Istanbul and connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, is the cause. Formed in 5,600 BC (agriculture had by then created villages and towns, but had not yet flared into cities and city-states) it is suggested that the Black Sea was then a fresh water lake which had much shrunk in size due to the lack of melt water from the glaciers which had long since retreated north. However, on the other side of the land bridge, the levels of the Mediterranean had grown much higher, again owing to the ending of the Ice Age. These dual-pressures finally and terribly exploded into the creation of the Bosphorus, which would have discharged into the Black Sea three times the flow of Niagara Falls for over three hundred years before levels equaled. The resulting constant growth of the Black Sea, and the pressure of a steadily advancing shore line could have, it is suggested, created the Flood myth.

A few notes: “shanna” (pronounced SHAW-naw) is the Babylonian word for “by twos” and is specifically used in the oldest version of the tale known. “Ridván” (pronounced RIZ-von) is the Arabic word for “paradise” and is used in the Bahá’í Faith in several contexts; in the poem it refers to both the Covenant and a state of spiritual bliss.

In the end, regardless of the story’s origin, the power of the Flood myth to teach the importance of obedience and trust in God, as well as a symbol of the eternal Covenant of God is undiminished.

Thank you for reading The Holy Mariner. I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain, and as always, I look forward to your comments.

The photograph of Lake Tahoe was taken from the Heavenly ski hill, observation deck and shows the Coriolis effect created by the wind swirling in the valley bowl in which the lake rests. For more photography, please visit the Book of Bokeh.

john

Photograph, poem and notes © 2014 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. The poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original written work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2014 by John Etheridge,  https://bookofpain.wordpress.com. The photograph is not licensed for use or reproduction in any way, unless so granted in writing by the copyright owner.

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The Copper Tree Tops

The Radiant Sun bursts forth
Reflecting on the tree tops
Electrifying their pose with a copper glow.

The Fast begins.
I have prepared my body
With an abundance of food and water.
I have prepared my soul
With an abundance of prayer and meditation.

The Sunlight envelops all the trees
From the top to the base… and all
That is in its path. The copper glow
Has transformed into a clear, warm Light.

The fast continues…
The Will of God encircles me.

Clouds rumble across the sky
As midday bells chime.
They act as veils dulling the Light
And the hues of the trees seem less clear.
Yet, the bell tones re-energize the amity.

My body is hungry. I know this will pass.
The corners of my lips feel sticky.
I cherish the opportunity to splash water against my mouth
While saying my ablutions.

It is mid afternoon.
The Light has changed angles.
New and different shadows appear on the ground.
Shadows that are unhindered by leaves
That will soon encompass the branches.

The hunger pains have passed into nothingness.
My head, on some days at this time, feels strangely foggy…
On others, strangely vibrant.

It is a few minutes before sundown.
The trees stand strong and silent
Urging me to cast-off my doubts and join them.

During those last moments,
We are on fire again.

up

Again this year I am very proud to post this poem by my wife, Lyn. It is during the Fast, the period from March 2 through to the 21st, when Bahá’ís refrain from eating or drinking from sunup until sundown. If you have never participated in an extended period of fasting, it would be natural to fear the process, thinking it to be a physical misery. It is anything but.

The point of fasting is not, in any event, the physical process itself. This is, I believe, true of the fasting tradition for all religions: the 28 day Muslim fast of Ramadan, the 40 days of Lent for Christians, or the 25 hour fast of Yom Kippur for Jews. The physical discipline is meant to act as a lens and allow you to concentrate on the spiritual process that is the heart of true fasting: obedience to the Law and disciplining oneself for control over your actions. But while this is, in itself, meritorious, there is even a sweeter reason to fast: it is an act done out of love for the Founder of your religion. And this love, this transformative force, is the very heart of what the religious experience is all about.

Lyn’s poem dates from 2006 and the story she tells of the early dawn light, copper coloring the tops of the tall trees outside our kitchen window, and then illuminating them from behind at sunset, is absolutely true…and particularly noticeable at this time of the year. Every year the beauty of it grabs us more and more. Alas, the church up the street, which does have a carillon (bells played with a keyboard-like instrument) no longer has anyone to play them and we miss their gentle, clear, clean rhythms. But all things, it seems, change and grow older…

Thank you for reading The Copper Tree Tops by Lynette D. Tolar. It is used with her permission. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

The Copper Tree Tops by Lynette D. Tolar © 2006; all rights reserved. Notes © 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem, either alone or with the notes that accompany it, may be printed and distributed—in part or amalgamated with other works—as long as the copyright notice and the address,https://bookofpain.wordpress.com, are also clearly printed with it and there is no fee charged.

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And so bound

I bought a prayer rug in old Andalusia
but the years have not treated it well,
it lives now only to shame me.

Its pattern is faded, its edges are tattered
and its fibers are torn flesh from bone—
it breathes on, but only so to shame me.

I have wept on that rug, bled on that rug,
loved on that rug and died on that rug,
I have worn holes through it with my kneeling—
its suffering continues to shame me.

Woven of silk and darned with cotton
then fringed with sound and rhythm,
its warp is of hope but its weft is of weeping,
its beauty is perfect, never waning,
but still it lives on just to shame me.

So what am I?

I am ground, I am sky, I am ache, I am why
I am everything and all and nothing;
I am pride, I am breath, I am lift, I am heft
I am broken—because this simple, small rug,
so itself, so patient, taunts on
and continues so to shame me.

The idea of a Covenant, the process by which man relates to God, is an ancient religious idea within the Judeo-Christian-Moslem-Bahá’í tradition. In his masterful work, Wanderings: History of the Jews, Chaim Potok even describes an ancient Hittite idolatry covenant, showing how ubiquitous the concept was in the ancient world.

To me, the burning question is, “What exactly is the Covenant?” This is a question I still struggle with.

The reference to Andalusia refers to the portion of Spain that was once controlled by Islam during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance  and which was renowned in its day as a kingdom of tolerance, knowledge and enlightenment. Being a land where Islam was practiced, small prayer rugs would have been sold and found everywhere.

Thank you for reading And so bound. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

2012.12.06

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The irony of elemental questions

Water flows where bid, willingly;
fire warms all, indiscriminately;
stone endures, patiently;
but this is not me, consistently.
And you?

There it is again in force,
that despite all this, it is us ‘we’ they say
who are the worthiest of reflections.
Yet gifts beg choices, as well we know—
how does the old trope go?
What a piece of work are we?
Close enough.

This poem pairs five elements with five virtues but more importantly notes that the elements are more worthy of their nature because they remain true to it.

Intended as an homage to, and to explore the nature of one of my favorite quotes, The irony of elemental questions is really only a pale and poor imitation of that original quote which is, truthfully, far more perfect than anything I could ever write:

They should conduct themselves in such manner that the earth upon which they tread may never be allowed to address to them such words as these: “I am to be preferred above you. For witness, how patient I am in bearing the burden which the husbandman layeth upon me. I am the instrument that continually imparteth unto all beings the blessings with which He Who is the Source of all grace hath entrusted me. Notwithstanding the honor conferred upon me, and the unnumbered evidences of my wealth—a wealth that supplieth the needs of all creation—behold the measure of my humility, witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men….” —Bahá’u’lláh

Thank you for reading The irony of elemental questions. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

PS: forgive the mangled quote from Shakespeare. I really can’t help myself.

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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The first of forever

1) The Sacrifice

He, Abraham, the Father of all
stood first upon the Summit of Surrender.
There, with the knife of His heart raised,
the witness stones themselves cried out,
Father, forgive us!
We are nothing to You.
Every act from this Day hence
draws its breath from Yours!
Father, forgive us!

2) The Covenant

Then light was reborn in turmoil’s lament
as the Breath of God blew across His Servant’s brow.
His Will flashed down, His Voice thundered out
and His Patience billowed forth.
Thus did the storm of His Promise well up
to rage unabated, where it rages still,
deep in the hearts of His lovers.

3) The Lament of Ishmael

Father! cried Ishmael,
Why dost Thou stay Thy Hand?
Hast Thou no mercy left for me?
Then, falling upon the dust
he, eldest of all thereafter
proved worthy to the task.
Embracing the ground at his Father’s feet
he calmed himself to account,
stretched forth his neck,
and awaited the blow that would never, he now knew, come.
Father forgive me! he wept, I am nothing!

The story of the Sacrifice has occupied Judaic/Christian/Muslim religious thinkers since the time of the Patriarchs themselves.

Before I go into why I wrote this three poem collective, I should explain a particular point: Jews and Christians believe that the child of the Sacrifice was Isaac. Muslims believe that the child in question was Abraham’s first born, Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar and who was twelve years older than His brother. Isaac’s mother was Sarah, who bore Him when she was quite elderly and, so all believed, past her child bearing days. (In the Qur’án, Abraham is Ibrahim, Ishmael is Isma’il, and Ishaq is Isaac.) In religious history, all Jews believe that they are descended from Isaac, while all Arabic speaking peoples of the Arabian Peninsula—the first Muslims—believe they are descended from Ishmael.

Bahá’u’lláh—the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith—makes the point that the essential element of both versions remains the same: in the end, through the Will of God, an animal is sacrificed, not a son, and that the story is about the nature of the Sacrifice itself, not which child is named. To Jews (and Christians) it should be Isaac and to Muslims (and Bahá’ís) it should be Isma’il/Ishmael; the essential Truth of the Word of God remains unchallenged.

This story pops up everywhere. It is, for example, an essential plot element in the Hyperion series of science fiction books by Dan Simmons (highly recommended, by the way) and I recently listened to an NPR podcast from the RadioLab show that was specific to this story.

The point of the Sacrifice is to examine the nature of obedience to the Will of God and the meaning of sacrifice in His name. For centuries it has been the essential ethical and moral question pertaining to faith that many scholars and religious theorists have debated. The response is usually in the format of questions: “How can God ask this of Abraham?” and “How can Abraham accept that God…” or “How can Abraham even contemplate killing…” and “How can Ishmael not see that he…” My poem was written out of frustration with the interpretations I have studied on the story and to try and establish a different perspective on the nature of its meaning.

The universal failing, I believe, that people bring to the story is to bring it down to the level of their world experience and to cast the roles of the participants into their lives so that they can make the story relative to themselves. They do not try to cast themselves into the roles of the participants, or try to understand those roles, and so fail to grow into the understanding of what true faith is, as is exemplified by the actions and the roles of the participants.

Let me explain this by using an example from the author, Rúhíyyih Khanum, when she writes about understanding the nature of great spiritual effort. She noted that when an airplane is on the ground it obeys all the laws of physics that pertain to objects rolling around on the earth. However, when, with a great surge of power, that airplane leaps into the air, it comes under the influence of a completely different set of physical laws, ones that cannot truly be understood, but only imagined, by those who are earth bound.

The same goes for great spiritual heroes; how else can we, of lesser spiritual insight, understand the degree of sacrifice they are willing to make, and the degree of obedience they are willing to commit to? Because it is by these very acts that they enter a spiritual realm that we can only see and dimly be aware of. Their realm of action, while visible to ours, is not controlled by the same spiritual laws we follow.

And yet, paradoxically, their is on their large scale, a truth that also works on our small scale: that sacrifice, willingly and lovingly given, is the spiritual energy that empowers every other powerful act for good in this world. And if this is so for every human being and up to and including religious martyrs, then how much more so is it true for the Messengers of God Themselves?

We should not try and recast the story of the Sacrifice into something we can understand from our small world perspective. We must try and imagine the spiritual heights to which Abraham and Ishmael, in obedience to God, soar and from our limited ability to view and understand such holy, detached and obedient certitude, strive to bring those same qualities into our lives.

First of all, Abraham is the Forefather of four world religions: Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. As a Messenger of God, His sense of conviction, faith, certitude and obedience is the very definition of what these words mean. He is not to be questioned, not to be pulled down, not to be examined by our standards, but is the One Who creates and sets those standards; as such He is to be obeyed, instantly, completely and exactly. Such is the difference between a normal human being and a Messenger of God—One who is a perfect mirror to God.

This sense of obedience and humility that even the rocks of this planet do a better job at then we humans do, is the heart of man’s role in the eternal Covenant of God, the essential relationship that binds man to God. This is the theme dealt with in The Storm, the second poem of the trilogy.

The Lament of Ishmael is the essential point in the poetic trilogy. Most commentators raise the issue of how the Sacrifice deals with the sense of loss or betrayal that the story must have engendered in Ishmael. But this misses the point. Surely the history of religious discourse has shown that spiritual heroes are ready to lay down their lives for their faith. And not just to do it, but to do it unhesitatingly, with joy and love; this is the very essence of faith. I am certain that Ishmael would have been eager to shed his blood for his faith, and that not having the opportunity to do so would have been a great loss to Him.

Let me end with this: consider the story of Khálid ibn al-Walíd, the fearless, first great general of Islam, he who was designated by Muhammad as ‘The Drawn Sword of His Faith,’ On his death bed as an old man he lamented, “I’ve fought in so many battles seeking martyrdom that there is no spot on my body left without a scar or a wound made by a spear or sword. And yet here I am, dying on my bed like an old camel.”

What will each of us, I wonder, lament on our death beds?

Thank you for reading The first of forever. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. These poems and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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Once skiing

The chitter chat of ice will haunt me for years:
I spent a week up on that mountain
and never once did I get my edge back.

We do not, in our wisdom, think these things timely
and more fools for that are we.
It is—when we want itwhat we make it
and only then what we want it to be.
But listen:

It wasn’t the slope, it wasn’t my age,
and it wasn’t for lack of trying.
It was only what it ever is
and it only ever is me and the mountain
and that moment, that perfectly smooth
infinitely graceful, deliciously sweet moment
of surrender,
when I recall most well what being out there
on that edge is
and when I really get it back.

I love to ski. I am not particularly good at it, but what I lack in style and ability I make up for in enthusiasm and spending. So that week in Maine, when for some odd reason I could not get into the groove of it, really sat on my mind. The weather was much of the problem it is true. It rained and then turned very cold; the chitter chat of my skis sliding over ice patches was true enough.

But that wasn’t the whole story. The real issue was that during that trip, I wanted the skiing to feel a certain way and when it wasn’t feeling that way I was disappointed. What I should have been doing was let it feel the way it felt; then I should have just accepted it for what it was. Detachment—living in the moment and not trying to force an outcome—is never easy.

Thank you for reading Once skiing. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.

john

© 2012 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2012 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

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