We rise early in my Master's house, in that cool hour when the stars fade and gentle night is gathered into day. Do you know it? Silent is the house of the heart then. The tablet of the soul is washed clean.
In that hour I would sit by the window that overlooked the garden and down the hill to the fields and the city beyond. Ah, Jerusalem! It was midsummer, and the wind smelled of jasmine and the sea.
On that day I heard the familiar cry of a rooster crowing his greeting to the morning, but it was a dawn unlike any other in my life. Suddenly all the birds in creation seemed to join in the song; the trees of the garden were alive with larks and finches, canaries and turtledoves and a hundred others I could not name, each with its distinctive call; trill and chirp, caw and whistle.
I had never known them to gather so, nor to sing in such chorus; even nightingales were among them, which sing their songs only by the light of the stars. What instinct had brought them together I could not guess, but my solitude was broken. I retreated downstairs to heat water for the morning tea.
When kettle was set over flame, I opened the door facing the garden, thinking to end the serenade with an offering of breadcrumbs. There, to my surprise, was the Master, sitting on a small stone bench set among the trees.
I shook my head that he would choose to sit amid such a clamor and was about to ask if he would like a glass of tea, but at the sight of me he sighed and closed his eyes. Immediately the birds became silent, all of them at once, as if they had been singing for his ears alone.
I held my breath at the sudden stillness. Here was one of those small mysteries that are said to occur in the company of the Master. I had never been witness to one and the strange scene held me in awe.
How little I knew of such things then, or of the Master. My mind was filled with a hundred imaginings, but I could not explain the strange way of the birds. I did not know their song, nor understand their silence.
And there was no time to consider it further. The day had begun and the rest of the household soon appeared. I made no mention of the birds, and did not ask what the others might have seen or heard. The Master's ways are not to be discussed. Those in charge of the kitchen spread the sufreh , the long white tablecloth, over the Persian rugs covering the floor of the common room, then set out salt and bread, cheese and butter and jam for the morning meal. But I had little appetite for bread.
The Master did not come in to eat with us. When I looked into the garden sometime later he was nowhere to be seen, and the birds had vanished.
Not until early afternoon did the Master reappear. No one asked where he had been, of course, nor said a word when he decided to walk to the marketplace, something he never does, in search of a particular brand of coffee, which he never drank. All were surprised, but none questioned the will of the Master. I was chosen to accompany him, to carry whatever he purchased.
Ah! I remember how the exotic sights and smells of the marketplace filled my senses that morning. The small mystery of the birds was all but forgotten as we walked past the shops and open stalls. Many of the merchants recognized the Master, offering fruit and loaves of bread in exchange for his prayers on their behalf. He had me write each of their names in the small notebook I always carried and then told them to distribute their offerings to the poor instead.
"So that my prayers may be truly heard by the Great Provider," he said.
After making his few purchases the Master decided to stroll around the Old City. We walked in silence for some time, coming at last upon the dome of the Haram al-Sharif mosque, said to be built on the ruins of Solomon's Temple.
There, in the shadow of the great dome, I first noticed the ancient beggar. He was burnt brown as the coffee, naked but for white cotton shorts, worn sandals and a white knit cap, sitting on the stone steps and telling the fortunes of those who gave alms into his bowl. He was tall and very thin, all rib and sinew and lean muscle. He might have just stepped out of some biblical desert, save that his white hair and beard were clean and neatly combed, perhaps out of respect for the worshippers.
The Master stopped and looked at him for a moment. I had never seen the man before, yet there was something strangely familiar about him. I felt a sudden sympathy for him, and a quick stirring of pity for the hard life still left to his old bones.
"I wonder if his prayers are ever answered?" I mused aloud.
"You may be certain that they are," the Master said, turning to me, his dark eyes shining below eyebrows white and thick as clouds. "But of course he asks nothing for himself, so they are very light prayers indeed, rising to the heavens like mist from this ocean of life. He is a faqir , one who has attained the detachment of sakina , that tranquility of heart that comes only with submission to the will of Allah . So it is he who should pity you, young Ishaq. When you have learned to look with your heart, your eyes will not deceive you. Go! Toss your coins into his bowl. The less you are burdened by possessions, the lighter will be the anchor of your self-indulgent nafs ."
How wisely I nodded my head in agreement, and how little I understood. How little I understand even now, though I did indeed approach the old man to drop a few coins into his intricately carved kashkul , his beggar's gourd.
When he looked up I was so startled that the coins dropped from my hand. The old man was burnt nearly brown from the sun, the white hair and beard framing a leathery face lined with many deep wrinkles, like a map of Martian terrain, otherworldly and compelling. I wanted to look away, but his eyes caught mine and I could not move. They burned like coals within that ancient face, yet held so certain a serenity I felt ashamed of my small vanities.
He said: "You will go on a long journey!"
He lowered his eyes and did not speak again, and I could not, managing only to bow awkwardly and retreat behind my Master's robe like a child. I had barely heard the old man's words, yet I felt that this faqir, who had nothing but God, was the wealthy one, while I, dressed in finery and weighted with coins and pity, was the beggar.
My thoughts returned to the old man all that day. What deserts had etched that face, what hardships had bought such grim wisdom? And those black wells of eyes, what visions had they seen? I was certain I had never seen the man before, yet the sense of familiarity would not leave me. It made me restless and uneasy. I resolved to ask the Master about my state after the evening meal.
"The memory that has been stirred by the faqir ," he said, walking by my side in the garden, "is your soul's remembrance of its pure state before creation. His perfection of heart calls out to those on the path.
"And the unease," he continued, reading the uncertainty in my mind, "is your fear of him. You do not yet listen with the ear of acceptance, yet you have been led to the path of the heart, on which the gold of the world will not buy you even a grain of its dust. Your worldly self fears that the path will lead you into worldly poverty.
"O, Ishaq! The generous heart always has enough to give. It is the miserly in spirit who believe they never have enough to be generous. It is not lack of possessions that leads to spiritual poverty, nor prayer and fasting by themselves. It is in the abandonment of self-absorption, and in constant remembrance and reflection that the heart becomes detached. Then the hands gladly open their grasp on worldly things and cleave to God."
I did not say more, chastened by his words. He looked at me and sighed.
"Alas, like Moses, you are blind to the worth of true alms. Your thoughts are still so cluttered with yourself that there is no room for anything else to enter."
The Master then commanded that I sleep outside that night, to breathe the same air and feel the same earth as the faqir , and so aid the heart's memory.
Thus I brought my sleeping mat, blanket and pillow into the garden and lay down on one of the Persian rugs spread near the central fountain. The Master holds many meetings here in the summer and the energy is very strong. I nestled under the blanket with my hands behind my head and absorbed the night, letting the softly flowing water soothe me.
The moon had risen full and golden over the eastern desert, and now shone high and silver bright amid the innumerable stars above Jerusalem. It filled my heart with an inexpressible longing. I felt as if all the lights of heaven were burning. It was so immense and beautiful that it stilled my thoughts. My eyes closed, and in that first instant between sleep and dream I remembered the old tale. Or rather, it remembered me.
Moses walked alone into the desert and prayed, beseeching God. "O Lord, for many years I have been Thy faithful servant, yet Thou hast never entered my house, nor broken bread with me. Wilt Thou not come and sup in my house?"
And God was well pleased with the request, and answered him: "Yea, Verily! Truly thou hast been My faithful servant, and so I will come this very evening to thy dwelling and break bread with thee!"
Moses was delighted that he was to be granted this special grace, and made swiftly for home, ordering his household as to the preparations, and cooking with his own hands a great feast worthy of the Lord.
When all was in readiness and the supper hour drew near, Moses dressed in his finest robes and waited outside his house, pacing in his eagerness. Many of the people were about at this hour, returning home from their day's labors, and they bowed in greeting as they passed him.
He returned their greetings distractedly until an old man in the crowd, a beggar, came up to him and bowed low. He was clothed in rags and leaned heavily upon a staff of sandalwood. "Great sir," said the old man, " will thee not share some small portion of thy bounty with one of lesser fortune? By the adab , the tradition of courtesy, I ask it."
"Yea, yea..." answered Moses kindly, but impatiently. "You shall have your fill, and coins for your purse also. But you must come back later. I await an important guest now, and have no time for thee."
So the beggar walked on and Moses waited. Hour after hour all through the night he paced and waited, but the Lord did not come. Now Moses was greatly disconcerted. He wept exceedingly and slept not at all. The very thought that God had forgotten him struck him to the heart. At dawn he again walked into the desert. Weeping, he rent his garments and prostrated himself upon the ground.
"O Lord!" he cried, "How have I offended Thee, that Thou did not come to my house as Thou had promised?"
"O Moses," said the Lord, "I was the beggar who leaned upon his staff, whom thou bid depart. Know ye that I am in all My creation, and what thou apportion to the least of My servants, thou apportion to Me !"
When I awoke to sunlight, tears stained my cheeks. I wept at the immensity of my ignorance, and at the long journey of the heart I had yet to make. Abu 'l-Qasim al- Junayd, who was said to be the Qutb of his time, once exclaimed: "I will walk a thousand leagues in falsehood, that one step of the journey may be true." Surely, that was what the faqir had read in me. I thanked God for having led me to a Master of the Path, and for the wondrous gift of my life.
All else are nafs , vanities of the fearful and Commanding self.
Go to Chapter 2