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Persian with Rumi




Rant Number Fifteen 28 January 2002

There is a strange Sufi sect whose devotees make a point of behaving in socially outrageous and abhorrent ways. They call themselves Malamatiya, ‘the people of shame’. In Turkey I once met one of its members – at least, he claimed to be one. He was an outwardly very courteous, charming bookseller in Istanbul’s Sahatflar Charscisi. I will not disclose the precise manner in which he exercised his peculiar creed but it was, well, let us say, pretty enormous.

Good, well-meaning religious people will always find such behaviour by those who profess to be servants of God hard to take. Even Christians, whose faith is symbolized by what was once an infamous sign of shame – the Cross – would be scandalized by a priest who chose to join a gang of thieves. When Father Borrelli, a Neapolitan slum priest, did exactly that half a century ago (vide Morris West’s Children of the Sun), I doubt he had ever heard of the Malamatiya but the reactions he experienced must have closely mirrored those suffered by his Sufi counterparts.

This week-end I attended an international conference in London, organized by the Islamic Centre of England, on the Muslim mystic Celaluddin Rumi. A respected and respectable scholar in Konya, capital of the Sultanate of Rum, a married man and father of children, Rumi was a pillar of his community – until the day when a mysterious shaggy dervish appeared from nowhere. That man – Shams Tabrizi – changed Rumi’s life forever. Everything was turned upside down. Rumi’s ecstatic, extravagant friendship with Shams, was the equivalent of Father Borelli’s joining the Neapolitan young hoodlums: his own people began to look with deep embarrassment on the man who had, in their myopic eyes, put himself beyond the pale. I wonder though, whether Rumi, ecstasy or not, knew pretty well what he was doing…

Thanks to a paper by Mr Ali Hussain – and an apt question raised by a learned Bengali gentleman in the audience – I was put in mind of another case in point in the life of the writer Soeren Kierkegaard. Not only did Kierkegaard deliberately court social ostracism in breaking his engagement with his fiance’ Regina Olsen – he also turned himself into a laughing stock by deliberately goading the satirical magazine The Corsair – a sort of Private Eye of 19th Century’s Copenhagen – into attacking him and cruelling and regularly sending him up. The lofty, shy and hypersensitive philosopher had chosen to nail himself to the cross of universal mockery and vulgar bourgeois ridicule.

Dear Father Frank, what are you trying to say? What trouble are you stirring up now? Antinomianism – the deliberate flaunting of moral rules - sheer madness, showing off, silly eccentricity per se or what?

Dear reader, I know what you mean and fear. Forgive these ruminations. Perhaps they are self-indulgent. But perhaps, perhaps it is true mainstream, institutional religion has always been beset by the dead hand of compliance, convention and dreary conformity. The result, all too often, has been boredom, boredom and more boredom. As I examine the faces of the prospective candidates for the See of Canterbury staring at me from the newspaper, I see solidity, safety and respectability galore. I also detect buckets of deadly dullness, acres of crashing tedium. No, thanks.

When Bishop Trevor Huddlestone flaunted the apartheid rule in the old South Africa, he genuinely shocked many good churchgoers there. I wonder what a modern Huddlestone would have to do to excoriate the Church of England into drawing closer to her pain-wracked Lord hanging on the Cross. Refusing to play chaplain to the Queen? Condemning abortion outright? Joining the Mexican Zapatistas? Or Islamic fighters? Or what?

Naturally, the Malamatya path is an uncomfortable, dangerous one. No cushy jobs for the boys await those who, in their own, various ways, embark on it. Mansoor Al-Hallaj, the most famous Sufi martyr of all, ended up on a gibbet. St Benedict Joseph Labre’ suffered lifelong torment at the hands of the Roman riff-raff. Pious people were never quite convinced that Father Borrelli’s interest in his disreputable charges was wholly beyond reproach and whispered so audibly. Even as implausible a character as the late Pope Paul VI towards the end of his life had to bear a heavier cross because of what St Paul might have described as his ‘thorn in the flesh’. But, as St John says, ‘the wind blows where it wills; you hear the sound thereof but do not know whence it comes and whither it goes – so it is with everyone who is driven by the Spirit.’

I shall conclude with a prayer – my own.

‘Lord, give your Church – no, all humanity – saints. Saints to whom you have given the grace to become people of shame. Amen.’

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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Last updated: May 9, 2004