I knew very little about Jalaloddin Rumi before “Rumi Night on the Heights,” although I was aware of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s daughter, Rumi (impressive for someone so far removed from popular culture). So in imitation of any self-respecting academic, I decided to educate myself on the poet to better appreciate him at Rumi night: I listened to a podcast on Rumi and Sufism. That may have given me a little context to understand the poetry in, but I was still unprepared to encounter Rumi in such raw loveliness of his lyrical poetry.
This was the 8th annual “Rumi night on the Heights” and I sympathize if you missed it because nothing transports your spirit quite like mystical poetry does.
As Professor John McDargh, longtime organizer of Rumi night said, the increased attendance since the event’s beginning requires a “roomier Rumi night.” His comment was right in tune with the Islamic poet’s spirit. Rumi followed the Sufi movement, which seeks direct touch with the Divine truth and love through contemplation. Rumi’s sense of mysticism gives his poetry a trans-religious appeal.
Most religions have a strong mystical tradition. In the Catholic faith, we have St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross to look to. Why experience the mystical practices of religions other than our own? Mysticism reaches into a neglected part of the human soul through contemplation. This is a space where we can encounter one another with a shared appreciation of beauty and mystery rather than taking the usually irresistible path of opposition.
As the stringed instruments vibrated with a distinctly middle-eastern harmony accompanied by rhythmic drumming, Rumi expert Amir Vehab chanted the Persian poetry. A whirling dervish dancer stepped out and removed his black robe, a symbol of taking off the burdens of this world. He wore a white robe underneath, symbolizing his death to the world while still living, in order to begin a participation in the Divine life while on earth. His tall hat was symbolic of a tombstone. He whirled to the musical chant in an unreal, magnetic motion.
The first Rumi night held a Boston College was allegedly advertised saying: “Get drunk on the Heights Friday Night! (With the poetry of Jalaloddin Rumi)”, although I have not uncovered any posters to prove it. Whether or not it was advertised that way, it is an appropriate description of the experience of mystical poetry, music, and dance as the rich harmony they produce enters and inebriates you with an uninhibited spirit.
“You are hidden, and yet from East to West you have filled the world with Your radiance.
Your light is more magnificent than sunrise or sunset,
And you are the inmost ground of consciousness revealing the secrets we hold.”
(Mathnawi V: 3307-3319)
A devout Muslim, Rumi did not intend to propose that religion is purposeless. Rather, his poetry portrays the way that the human spirit, even outside of specific religions, shares enough commonality to gather into a space with room for everyone. We can ponder something beautiful and eternal together here. Rumi night offered a space, amid the twanging medieval middle-eastern instruments and the timeless chanted poetry, for a small but meaningful step to be taken toward a sense of unity among those of us who are so dedicated to contradiction.