FATHER FRANKS RANTS
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 Istanbuls 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 Wests 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 Rumis life forever. Everything was turned upside
down. Rumis ecstatic, extravagant friendship with Shams, was
the equivalent of Father Borellis 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 Centurys 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?
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 Borrellis 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.
Frank Julian Gelli
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