Expressions of Mysticism
by Umm Hanie' Rebler
"Heaven and earth contain Me not, but the heart of My faithful servant contains Me".
My own leaning towards a contemplative form of devotion draws me to reflect on the lives of three women who, despite their diverse geographical, historical and religious backgrounds, share qualities of complete devotion, love and obedience towards their Creator: Rabi'a al 'Adawiyya, Hildegard of Bingen and St. Theresa of Avila.
Rabi'a al 'Adawiyya
Perhaps few people know that in Basra, Iraq, which has long been the subject of the most appalling, negative news during the Iraq war, one of the most famous women saints in Islam, Rabi'a al 'Adawiyya or Rabi'a Basri as she is often called, was born in 717 A.D. She died there in 801. Her tomb may still be there, although some reports say that it is in a small mosque bearing her name situated in Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives near the Church of the Ascension. She was the fourth daughter of an extremely poor family, hence her name, Rabi'a, the fourth. The story tells that she was orphaned at an early age and soon afterwards sold into slavery. She was bought by an exacting master who made her work very hard. Despite this, she fasted during the daytime and prayed all night. Her master soon noticed her extreme piety and exceptional spiritual gifts. One night he observed her deep in contemplation. A lamp of other-worldly quality like a halo was suspended in space above her head lighting up the whole house. This 'cloud of glory' or sekina is often mentioned in the biographies of Muslim saints. Upon seeing this sign of saintliness, her master freed her. She asked him if she could leave and, upon receiving permission, she then went into the desert.2 She lived in a hut as a hermit, refusing offers of marriage and the provision of houses and money, preferring to live in a simple dwelling in extreme asceticism. Although through her total absorption in God she had renounced the world Rabi'a soon attracted a group of holy people and theologians around her, who discussed matters of religion and Sufi doctrine. Uncompromising in her devotion to her Lord, she interacted with the learned men of her time, showing great wisdom and spiritual power.
She embodied the ascetic mystical tradition of earlier Sufis, following the path of asceticism and self-denial, but brought a new dimension to it, epitomising a burning love for love's sake or muhabbah (Divine love). Rabi'a's love for God consumed her totally. She lived a celibate life, turning her back on the world, keeping night vigils, spending her nights in prayer and fasting by day.
She had a very sharp wit and when some of the most famous Sufis and theologians of the time visited her, she always had a succinct expression that placed their current spiritual level and hal (condition or state) in a nutshell. Some of the anecdotes and legends about her miracles are most amusing and are well-known throughout the Muslim world. Legend has it that she was not very easy to be with because of her pithy comments. However, the quality of her outpourings of ecstasy, showing her absolute love of God and her devotion to Him, can only inspire us and fill us with amazement:
I love Thee with two loves, a love of passion and a love that is worthy of Thee,
As for the love of passion, my work consists of remembrance of Thee to the exclusion of everything else,
As for the love which is worthy of Thee, I do not see Creation without seeing Thee.
And praise is not due to me for this one or the other But to You is due the praise for this one and the other. The origin of both loves is in Thee, I count for nothing"
Once in the streets of Basra, she was asked why she was carrying a torch in one hand and a ewer in the other. She answered: "I want to throw fire into Paradise and pour water into Hell so that these two veils disappear, and it becomes clear who worships God out of love, not out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise". One of the best-known of her prayers is as follows:
Many of the stories attributed to Rabi'a are legendary. Here is a most charming one: Once in spring she was inside praying and praising her Creator. Her servant girl came in and said: "O, Mistress, come outside and behold the works of God", but Rabi'a replied, "You come inside so that you can behold their Maker". Contemplation of the Maker has turned me aside from contemplating what He has made."4
Hildegard of Bingen
The mystic Hildegard of Bingen is one of the most famous Christian women of the Middle Ages. She was born in 1098 near Bingen in Germany. She possessed a mystical vision that enabled her to comprehend the interconnectedness of all aspects of creation with the Creator Himself. At the same time, she was the abbess of a Benedictine Order of nuns. Mystical vision and church office combined in one person was uncommon at the time, especially in view of the Inquisition that was then in its early stages. As she says of herself:
Despite this so-called lack of formal education she was a visionary, a musician, and a poet, as well as being a theologian and an abbess. Due to her knowledge and divine inspiration her advice was sought by popes, kings and emperors, including St Bernard of Clairvaux and the Emperor Barbarossa. At the age of forty-three she began writing about the visions which she had experienced since the age of three. She had been constantly ill since her childhood until she was given permission to write down her visions onto paper. After this experience she was flooded with energy and led a very active life. Her most wellknown visionary work is called 'Scivias'. She also wrote about natural herbal medicine, flora and fauna. As well as writing letters to people who wrote to her seeking advice, she composed music in the form of liturgical songs and wrote about her life in 'Vita'.5
St Teresa of Avila
St Teresa, who was born in Avila, Spain in 1515, was one of the great Christian mystics. Even though she suffered from ill-health for much of her life, she travelled around Spain founding and reforming Carmelite convents and was a great spiritual leader. She also wrote prodigiously: books such as 'The Way of Perfection', 'The Interior Castle' and 'The Life of Saint Teresa of Jesus' in which she describes the life of prayer and contemplation as developing in successive stages or degrees. In this she compares mental or contemplative prayer to the tending of a garden:
"A beginner must look on himself as one setting out to make a garden for his Lord's pleasure, on most unfruitful soil which abounds in weeds. His Majesty roots up the weeds and will put in good plants instead. Let us reckon that this is already done when a soul decides to practise prayer and has begun to do so. We have then, as good gardeners, with God's help to make these plants grow and to water them carefully so that they do not die, but produce flowers which give out a good smell, to delight this Lord of ours. Then He will often come to take His pleasure in this garden and enjoy these virtues".6
She also wrote poems, one of the most famous of which is:
Let nothing startle you.
God never changes.
Patience wins all it seeks.
Whoever has God lacks nothing:
God alone is enough."7
(found in the breviary which Saint Teresa was using at the time of her death).
Saint Teresa, who managed to be hard-headed and practical, sagacious, effective and more often than not witty and amusing as well, lived according to her maxim:
"Sadness is the eighth deadly sin, for no good can come of it."
Even though these saintly women came from widely different backgrounds, their timeless message is in complete harmony: their uncompromising submission and humility in worshipping their Lord.
- Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Mystical Dimensions of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel
- Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and her fellow-Saints, p.7
- Margaret Smith, Rabi'a the Mystic and her fellow-Saints p.30.
- Ibid p. 62
- The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen, Barbara Lachman, p. ix
- Mysticism, A Study and an Anthology, f.C. Happold, p. 344.
- Todas las Poesias, Munster, 1854