retreat with relics
Any ordinary family house in the city suburbs that it is presided over by a Spiritual Master takes on a new quietness, a holy stillness, a synthetic sacredness. It must become an exclusive and open channel for Her or His Holiness.
It is no longer a domestic niche for family and status: door lentils for measuring growth, carpets for wearing out, furniture for rearranging, beds to replace cots or wallpaper to be replaced to match recent trends. And it is not for her or his disciples to put down roots there as was intended, for their roots are already set in the Beloved who resides in paradise. They are pilgrims you see, and their residence, wherever it is, is a tent. They barely graze its structure.
It is not safe now for precious Masters to be outside the crowded tower blocks and urban sprawl. Gone are the days when they could retreat for years into dark caves or dusty desert palaces with their exquisite mosaics and cool inner courtyards. In fact, recently the drought has been so severe that they might combust at any time if they did! It is the Beloved’s will that we respond to his anger expressed in the world with only a deepening of our prayers and a cherishing of our Master here in the broken city.
Sunrise among the cement and glass towers and the spaces between them takes some getting used to after such baked palaces and gädam, shrines. The Beloved One is testing us more and more radically so that the severity of our environment becomes irrelevant to our devotion to Him. The storms and hurricanes, the torrential rain and flooding, the fierce forest fires and earthquakes, the drought and air pollution are staged exactly to make us stronger in our trust in Him.
We must retreat from this daily declining world in order to purify and to climb higher and higher to make the perfect union with Him possible. But after our morning prayers and drawing of the first water before dawn, we cannot resist running to peep round the lace at his His exquisite light pouring between the tower blocks so that it may shine on us and He will notice us.
It was sad when the present cataclysmic conditions of this human world forced us to leave our own desert shrine built around all Almu’s, our Master’s, ancestors’ graves for the last time. The pilgrim caravan at the height of Ramadan was the perfect test! Ah, how wise our Almu is and how wide open is her channel to The Beloved One.
I must continue forever to vividly see the white minarets and flat roofs of that small community shimmering on the swaying horizon. It was like a beautiful date confectionary carefully wrapped in trembling palm arms above the oasis. This vision is and should always be an important part of my devotions: going back again and again to such miraculous luminous moments in my mind which surely can only be brought about by the King, the absolute perfection of the Beloved One. Such a paradise could only be made possible from His goodness!
The complex procedures and rituals for de-enshrining the relics and ancient treasures took time and the entire dedication of all our small isolated community there. Then packing them on the camel troop needed expert and ancient desert techniques. But when we were all ready, swathed in our black hijab revealing only our eyes to the sky, then came the real test. How could we equally swathe our tiny Master, Almu, extract her and lift her inside the tented seat available only to those who are already in a paradise capsule here in this low existence? But she was so strong, bidding a prophet’s farewell to her family and devotees.
‘’arak fi aljana! See you in paradise!’
It would be the last time in this suffering life to see them because of His anger at the proliferation of evil in the world.
Then thanks be to God, we completed the 3-day crossing to the city boundary, eating little except dried figs and palm nuts and sipping at perfumed leather water flasks after sunset. We dared not stop, the swaying creatures below us somehow knowing the great significance of their mission. And we……..well, we moved between the slit-mirages of heaven and earth with a longing to be held in Your strong arms again and again, O Beloved.
Now, there is no more time to spare for these devotions of a lowly mortal! The Master must be fed and I must go on typing her sacred words into letters and scriptures to leave behind to guide all remaining beings to paradise.
Today, I have given instructions for everyone to cover their noses and mouths with white masks even inside our rooms because of the dust driven into the city by violent sandstorms from the east. But this is no real hardship as our mouths are covered anyway, covered for You Beloved. And in these troubled days, the monastic rules are bent exceptionally to allow us to use a little money to buy cheap sunglasses to shield our eyes. So, we must work even harder to keep His Divine light bright! Ingenious tests, if we pass them, are surely leading us closer and closer to Heaven.
We sit in prayer. We stand in prayer. We breathe prayers. We eat and drink prayers. We whirl round and round in prayer.
Each prayer is at once a tear and a wide smile. White on white, we dazzle each other with our garments of natural fibres and finger traces until we are unsure if there is any flesh inside them at all! This is a women’s house and every day we repeat the prayer recited by the men which declares, ‘I thank my blessed god that I was not born a woman.’ Our tests are much more difficult than the men’s tests Almu always tells us, and lately, she has had definite intimations that it will be women will inherit the Earth, not men.
Some people ask us what prayer is as it is our way of life. Without hesitation, I can say that it is begging, entreating from the humblest position imaginable. It is requesting help and positive support without pride from the Ultimate, from the perfection of the Beloved. It is complete acceptance that I am nothing and no-one without His help. I must accept that I need His guidance, His exquisite signals, in every moment of my life. And this blessed and sacred witnessing of my spiritual development is my absolute joy. I must reserve nothing, hedge no bets whatsoever so that I can eventually become an open channel like my Master.
The boy children before Almu was born were diseased and no more arrived after her, so her Master, her father, took God’s hint. He prepared her and she proved to be as strong as the strongest son, if not stronger, which was fortunate as the line was to end with her. A bridge must, therefore, be made in the Order and a new line started, which has surely lifted the hearts of all females beneath their veils.
We ask Almu when she first started to whirl in prayer. She says that her mother could feel her whirling in her womb. This makes us hanker to go back to our own womb homes to wait to feel it for ourselves. It is so wonderful to be able to talk to a Master who has a womb like we do. Perhaps it is that seeds are so plentiful that The Beloved needs wombs to keep them safe in at this time of the Earth’s disintegration. Then suddenly, Almu shimmers her eyelids and we know it is a sign that she will teach us. We know the signs well and anticipate them all the time in our daily life, promptly kneeling around her and breathing more deeply in preparation to receive the wisdom.
‘Know your nafs, your desires, intimately like the many wines, each one a different composition, a different ratio of grape-skin pulp, of juice, of sugar.
Know them like the different colours and textures of your sister’s whirling skirts as the sky circles in them. For shining your light on them and reflecting them in a million mirrors will reveal your original being. Your original face will appear and you will never misplace it again.
But you will realize they, your nafs, do not belong to you. You will realize that spinning planets do not need covers and anything put on them will be burned away by the Sun. Spin and spin every single desire away for you are a mere match stick rolled backward and forwards in the Beloved’s palms. Rolled until the silsila, the chain of order reaches the Beloved.
Your sikke, your conical hat of red camel hair, is the tombstone of your nafs, your desires, and your wide skirt represents their shroud. So, the whirling is the funeral of all your desires and worldly dreams. Your soft-strong pivot is the left foot: the right foot will make the full turn around your heart, on and on, pushing round and round until you can push no longer and He takes over.
Our Rumi declares that,
“All loves are a bridge to Divine love. Yet, those who have not had a taste of it do not know!”’
We are never certain if Almu’s words are actually symbols to lead us to understand or tears. Whatever they are, they comb out the longing held like a closed concertina in our frizzy or curly hair, so that we can cross that bridge to the Divine.
Almu starts naturally to whirl to lead us as if she is watering the plants or brushing her teeth, neither of which she is allowed to do. To begin with, her arms are crossed in front of her chest and then with each turn, as her prayer deepens, as her few nafs visibly dissolve, her arms move, effortlessly, one upwards to the Beloved, the other down to the Earth, her channel luminous between them. Her wrists and fingers are long and elegant, completely surrendered to Him. They are no longer those of a human.
She mumbles once more before she evaporates into planet whirling.
‘……..Balance is our striving…….. only when we are completely balanced can we go to Him……… can we be perfect like Him. We…. must….. surrender….. everything……’
The novices begin in their own space, unsteadily and un-surrendered, but gradually they let go, becoming unconscious of any techniques or critiques. I watch their reflections in the shiny parquet blocks of the ground floor prayer room, winding myself in with each of their souls which I have come to know so well. Their wrists become limp once they are in steady circulation, their arms hanging limp, their fingers long, their eyelids flickering. They resemble young flowers in the rains, their arms rising and breathing, their narrow channels flickering intermittently.
Once their social attributes are starting to dissolve, it is my signal to join them. Almu has collected them safely now so I can push gently round my own pivot, feeling the draft of warm air beneath the sail of my orange skirt where my legs are strong but supple masts. The wooden ocean is calm beneath my slippered feet.
As I spin, first, almost immediately, the relief comes, the relief to be away from the suffering and fear of human life, to be dancing on Your ground under Your sky without distraction. I am certain to be smiling and sighing with relief. Next, the melting, all worries and concerns and coverings floating off into deep space. ‘Surrender.’ ‘Surrender.’ To give oneself up. This word is for me a giant tear trickling in between each complete spin especially in these chaotic and terrifying times. I have no hesitation in giving everything to you Beloved. It is easy compared with the earthly tests you set us.
Next and finally for the conscious mind and for the crudity of words, the intellectual skin is pierced and there is another huge release. No more abstract thoughts or words! Everything in this layer is concrete. Earthly flawed Pamela, entangled in a haze of mumbo-jumbo is shattered and falls away. In her place, Planet Pamela spins freely and silently in Your garden.
I don’t remember when I stopped breathing my own breaths. Perhaps I never once breathed by myself. Certainly, a person not devoted to the Beloved who has not made themselves a bridge to the divine, cannot breathe fully and so cannot pray properly. Certainly, a person not devoted to the Beloved cannot know the glories and the tragedies of the world He created. Now, I must use every breath to obey Him, to ensure that each of His wishes is fulfilled.
He tells me to make sure I ‘survive’ in these times of destruction so that I can protect and lead my nuns. Each breath my body uses, each heartbeat is for them from Him as I too work at becoming a wide-open channel using Master Almu as my perfect model.
Today is Water Day. Once a week we must change the water supplies we have conserved in plastic bottles. The water conveyed through the pipes and taps is becoming more unreliable each day: sometimes it is dirty, sometimes it spurts and then disappears to a trickle, sometimes it has been changed into foul air belching out. So, my nuns keep watch, running around from bathroom to kitchen to outside tap, reporting if and when the water flows naturally.
They giggle as they pelt around, becoming quite unruly with the activity, and so I must discipline them, sitting them around me and reminding them of their devotions, of their constant inner prayer which they have lost in the dashing and turning of squeaky dry taps. Their faces are like shining medallions resting in white sand as they listen, their regret at their animal behavior in such a Holy House keen like citrus.
I remind them, ‘As Almu constantly tells us and shows us through every pore of her skin, we are each a beautiful channel through which the Beloved flows in every drip and drop of liquid be it water or sweat or tears or warm rain from His heaven. Remember that channels are always open and hushed and still, my girls!’ They are movingly contrite after that.
We have collected many bottles with screw tops over the months and we empty and fill them mindfully once a week. They are brightly coloured and adorned with labels which we do not understand. But we must respect them with their cheap advertising and profane messages. We must respect that they can contain Him.
We store the full bottles inside nooks and crannies: under the stairs, in our closets, outside in the yard, on top of the fridge, especially in Almu’s quarters, wedged between her glass display cases containing the precious relics of her ancestors moved here from the Desert shrine. They are incongruous particularly in her inner sanctum, but we must be able to access our survival materials at all times so that we can run or hide and survive.
We constantly keep an eye on the bottles, an eye on our liquid Beloved tucked into our lives. And when emptying and refilling these feather-lite plastic receptacles, produced in the massive factories jogging along in never-ending lines, fitted out with their screw tops, tightened and then adorned with labels by the lurching robot arms, and so on………we must remember that they are made by the hands of Him.! This is simultaneously joyful and sad. But if I am honest, how I long for the pulling up of Water from the Oasis wells, the buckets made from camel stomachs, the ropes of newly plaited palm hemp, the splash and splutter of Him coming out of the Earth in handmade receptacles.
My nuns valiantly pass the glistening bottles along in a chain from the filling station in the kitchen to their destination, full and full again. I have taught them to receive each bottle gracefully remembering who is inside when they are full, and who is waiting to be inside when they are empty. We do this as a prayer that we may get closer and closer to Him, and that He may grant us good health and strength so we may go to His side soon.
One appointed nun fills from the tap, her white robes covered in a plastic apron, wearing rubber gloves. There is a fine line of His salty liquid along her top lip as the temperatures rise and the fires taunt the city limits. Her prayer is for steadiness as the water enters the bottleneck so as not to waste a drop. Then another nun is the keeper of the screw tops. Her prayer is to pick up the tops with lightness and precision. Then with flexible wrists to screw them in place quickly and accurately. Yet another uses her rag to wipe Him from the outsides of the closed bottles and to tighten the tops so that He cannot trickle away. Her prayer is to absorb Him into her cloth and to pass the perfectly filled vessel of Him to the beginning of the chain of bottle passers.
Emptying requires slightly different prayers and levels of concentration. Passing gracefully along the line is gratitude for the use of Him stored away in the beautiful vessels made by his hands. The emptiers stand at the aging back door with its heat blisters and scorched paint from the proximity of the fires; its 4 cracked glass panes damaged by the tornados and its door furniture rusted by the floods and torrents as rivers frequently break their banks. They wash away the red dust from the steps and yard walkway, wearing white rubber boots, pouring Him into the corroded drains, sluicing the toilets and washing basins, and filling the washing machines with Him. Nothing must be wasted. Not one drop or drip of Him.
We focus and pray. But then and there, our precious bottles drop from our hands, the full ones splattering everywhere, drenching our robes and head veils. The empty ones jump around and roll about squeaking. And we also drop to the wet floor in the kitchen and along the dark corridor, down on the back step and walkway. Prayer must be seamless!
The brick house is quaking downwards, dropping like a ship down the side of a massive wave. It feels like 10 metres but it is in fact only millimetres, and in split seconds we become the shivering prayer to simply survive this time so that we may serve Him here on the shuddering earth.
The quaking stops but we wait for the aftershocks which can be worse. We crawl with tiny hand and knee steps in the pools of Him, our white robes grey and heavy with the wet of Him, towards a table or a shelf, the staircase cupboard, or a closet, and we wait for His anger to stop.
I must go to her for she is the closest to you, Beloved. I must keep her channel wide open.
I dodge lumps of aging plaster and stone falling from above and the creak of door posts splitting, my heavy wet robes making me slow, far from heaven. Holding hands over my ears because the sound of the Earth crying out and the flashing cracks on the horizon are deafening, I try the staircase up to her room which is still dropping down violently with the aftershocks. And once at the top, I drop down with the next shock and the sponge burden of my sacred robes, wondering if the roof will fall in or the staircase crumbles to powder.
But as I crouch there in the dark shifting mass of the Master’s Holy house, her shrine, I smile ecstatic. There is no fear. There is no accountability. In Your anger, You may take me to your paradise. Perhaps I have served you enough here on Earth.
In my heart, I cry out, ‘Take me! Take me!’
When I arrive finally at Almu’s rooms on the third floor nearest to Him and the shaking is less, I knock and announce myself in the way I have been taught, but I cannot open the door. The door frame has buckled and jammed it and even with my extra watery weight I cannot force it to open. I press my ear to it but there is silence inside. Then I remember the connecting door to her sleeping room from the bathroom. It opens easily into the dark tiled area and its dull reflections and I push through to knock on her bedroom door, announcing myself more urgently, but still, there are no sounds inside.
I slowly creep inside but battle against a strong gust of air and light which makes it quite difficult to enter the ample sitting room. Then, as I peep round, narrowing my eyes at the assault of light and wind, I realize that the roof has indeed fallen in. The frayed edges of the timber and lath and plaster are still trembling with aftershocks and there is a layer of detritus over all the fine silks and cushions, leather-bound books and sheaths of paper. It is miraculous that the five tall glass display cases housing Master’s treasures are undamaged except for one of them which has been badly cracked by a falling beam. Everywhere else in the room is transformed by rubble and dust and Almu is nowhere visible.
I call her name many times, reverentially, trembling that she may have been taken by Him, immediately worrying about who can provide the channel to the Beloved if she has. I search, pulling aside what I can to look underneath, looking behind bookcases torn from the wall, under the piles of her fine robes hanging from a high rail which has fallen. I waddle through the rubble to check the small prayer room which is intact except for a few documents shifted and writing equipment shuffled, and her bedroom with its high bed strung up with redundant mosquito nets.
I rush to the bed through the jungle, dodging shards of glass as the window has blown in under the strain on the downward quake, but she is not in the bed. I climb up and look down the far side of the mattress, then climb down to check under the bed. Nowhere!
She is nowhere to be found! I struggle back into the main sitting room and the fear sets in. How can we get to our Beloved if we have no Master? How can we grow and develop our spiritual steps if her knowledge and insight are not imparted to us? I let my own fear grip me even though I teach my charges to deepen their Love, to lie down on the bridge to Him, to surrender totally.
Then, drenched in my fear, weighted down with it mixed in with my soaked robes, I hear a strange sound like laughing or giggling, and I immediately attribute it to one of the young nuns. I look through the dust fretting the sharp shaft of light forcing into the long closed-in room. And once again, I hear it, like a devil, and I freeze. Then it gets louder and the fear grips me again. I have completely been seized by the thought of the Devil, iiblis!
‘I have lost my prayer, lost my connection with You beloved!’
I say these devastating words out loud making sure You know my honesty and my weakness.
…only in Paradise
The cackling sound gets closer here inside the room with me and I frantically look amongst the chaos for its producer, terrified! Then, Almu clearly calls my name from above, ‘Pamela. Pamela,’ from the hole in the roof! I peer dumbfounded up through the buffeting dust, calling her back, ‘Almu, Almu!’ Then, like a sudden apple fall, her medallion face framed in the ornate saffron veil of a Master peers down, smiling and completely uninjured. I panic! I must get her down! But I’m not sure how amidst the continuing aftershocks which knock the knees out of me with their invisible cosh-like side-blows.
‘Hold tight, Master! I am coming!’
I drag a table under the gaping hole, scraping the floor which causes its legs to shiver and jar. Then I hear hysterical voices of nuns desperate to know where I am who have also lost their prayer. I call to them and they push in through the bathroom door.
‘Is everyone safe?’
They look glum, shaking their heads.
‘Sister Mia is badly injured. It’s her head which was bleeding badly! We stopped the bleeding, but now she seems to be unconscious. We need you to………….’
‘Why did no-one stay with her? Because she was unconscious?!’ I lash out at them and Sister Ria runs out despite how scared I know she is. The others stop their story and their pleading when they see me looking up through the huge hole in the roof. They panic as they watch me start to climb up on the table.
‘What’s happened? Almu? Almu? Where is she?’
They run to support me, then they hear her calm unmistakable voice greeting them from the roof. They are silent as a result of this apparition, not quite sure whether they are dead or alive!
I urge, ‘Come! Help me to get Master down.’
They climb up on the table silenced by shock, but even the tallest of us cannot reach high enough to catch her. We all look around frantic for something to get us even higher.
Then, one of them has the answer.
‘The bed! Drag it here and she can jump down onto the mattress.’
So, we drag the heavy bed, white wet robes attempting stampede then slumping, more knee side-blows at first, and then a clear patch for running in. Kicking away rubble and wincing with cuts and dust coughs, we succeed in dragging the old bed, first testing the mattress for its springiness, under the huge hole nearest to our Master.
‘Almu? Master? Can you let yourself down on to the bed?’
We make a ring around the edges to prevent her from bouncing off. And she cheerfully pokes her bed-socked legs down first, then unhooks her robes, and gradually lowers her body downwards. The edges of the huge hole crack and splinter with her movements so she pauses until a strong beam is revealed which she shifts her grip to. She dangles there and then, praying vociferously in a muttering style, drops down on the bed and promptly sits up eyes as wide as teacups, smiling.
‘Almu, Almu. What happened?’ We cry and scream with delight that our precious Master is saved. Though pale and covered in dust, her unprotected eyes bloodshot from all the fire smoke outside, she is smiling, which we remark is remarkable but not rare for a Holy being in a serious situation.
‘What happened, my Holiness Almu?’ The others quieten down.
She is smiling but hesitating to put something into words, and we are impatient, shocked, in some way glad to have survived again, and that she has not been taken off to Him.
‘Are you injured in any way? Please tell us quickly so we can tend you!’
She begins, looking straight ahead, the pure air of her channel fragrant among all the dust and detritus that powders her veil and robes.
‘It’s His doing, of course, as is everything. But it is a miracle, a true miracle my disciples. Yes yes! I’m unharmed as far as I know. But that is of no consequence……’
She pauses, seeming as if she is communicating with someone invisible, blinking continuously, her palms pressed together at her heart but quite calm.
‘In truth dear ones, I have no idea how I got up onto the roof. I was resting in bed when the shaking started. It jolted me awake, but I was calm, always calm cradled in His Divine light…….’
She pauses again. We wait perfectly patiently, immune to the continuing aftershocks, the cracking and splintering of wood, the distant alarms and bicycle ambulance sirens. She blinks again many times, trying to understand His actions and to obey His instructions in the telling.
‘I could hear the roof cracking and squeaking loudly. It lunged with the quakes downwards and almost came in a few times and I knew I could not escape. I began to think that it was my time to go to Him. But then when a really strong quake came and I winced and closed my eyes tightly because it was certain it would come in, I was lifted quite gently by something or someone, like a wave or rising water. I remember wobbling a little as I rose and was convinced he was taking me to Him.’
‘And then? And what then?!’
We are so eager to know.
‘Then, I opened my eyes very gingerly, and I remember that I was still smiling. And suddenly I could see the horizon, all around. I could see the fires and the mountain snowy tops and the swaying tower blocks in the city-centre. And I was sitting on what was left of the roof but could also see down into my room!’
‘It’s a miracle. It’s a miracle!’ we all chorus loudly, smiling tearfully, but not bothering to understand!
We were all safe which was in itself another miracle, except for Sister Mia. I suddenly remember her and rushed out to try to reach the basement.
waiting to go to Him
I work my way through the rubble, the shocks having subsided now replaced by a strong smell of burning, praying for another miracle for Sister Mia to be saved. Then I see her lying so still, Sister Ria sitting touching her shoulder and weeping. Of all of my charges, Mia is the kindest and most devoted, a young angel, and it seems that it is her nature to serve and to treat everyone equally lovingly.
She is submerged under rubble, her legs badly squeezed by a fallen beam which I cannot lift on my own. There is a deep gash on one side of her head near the temple where she has been hit by a falling electricity conduit. The novices have successfully stopped the bleeding, but she is lifeless and so pale.
‘I think she has gone, Priestess. She has not moved or breathed for all the time I have sat here.’ Ria is distraught, shaken.
I bend my ear to her chest and try to take her wrist to test her pulse, but it is tangled in robe and plaster chunks. There is no heartbeat and no pulse. But it is curious that there is no expression of pain or fear either on her sweet face.
I suddenly realize that Almu has been saved instead of Mia, and that, in fact, Mia’s greatest dream has come true. She had gone to Him. Some would say she was too good and pure for this tainted world.
I tidy up her robe and wipe away some of the blood stains with my wet robe sleeve. Then I take out a large white handkerchief from my under-robe and put it gently over her face. There is no need to close her eyes as they are closed in perfect repose. Now I am certain she has gone to Him. Her body is so soft and still, her skin so smooth and pale but perfect.
Sister Ria goes to help the others and I sit with her for a while in prayer. The rest of the house is quiet, the others absorbing the significance of Almu’s miraculous rescue and tending to her physical needs, making the occasional sound from the top floor. I must wait with Mia, appreciate her and prepare her for burial. We, the sisters, are legally responsible for those of our community who die in the city since the breakdown in public services. We must deal with the disposal of the body after the spirit has gone to Him because all public services for the deceased have been suspended due to the chaos and dangers of the time. Islamic Law says that we must wash and wrap her carefully, never damaging her, filling her shroud with sandalwood pellets and jasmine petals. Then in her shroud, we will bury her under the floor of this cellar: this must be our cemetery now for there are no others.
I think many thoughts as I sit in the half-light with her, the high narrow window letting in some grey from the smoky sky. Mia is the first of us to die here in the city-shrine. But then, unexpectedly like another quake, my conditioned and disciplined thoughts are pushed aside by an electric charge of sheer guilt: lanced by horror and regret! It is as if a dark figure strides into my mind brandishing a hatchet. I continue to speak to Mia and so to Him in whispers while simultaneously listening for any footsteps approaching the cellar, trying to make the shadow disappear!
Then such words come from where I will never know. ‘Beloved, I Pamela, am still not ready to come to you! After all this time and all this utter devotion to you, doing your wishes and bidding at every turn, you still do not take me to you, take me from this struggling existence. Why do you choose this innocent child over me? Why?’
Then I feel bitter tears welling up and stinging my cheeks. Forbidden tears of frustration and even anger grip me, barging in and bullying me, an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and failure.
‘I simply am not good enough. Not as good as angelic pure Mia. I am tainted, Beloved. You may never want me by your side leaving me marooned in this suffering life on this dying dirty planet!’
I watch from sunrise to sunset for Your coming. Waiting is sometimes agony, waiting for enlightenment with no control. Squeezing more and more prayers between the fingers of the clock, striving to make them deeper with each second. You ask me to live full, being fully acquainted with death and awakening to eternity, but where are You? I cannot ‘live fully’ without knowing you are there. Please, please Beloved, give me a sign!’
I sob. The others come and sob with me for Mia, but they do not know the truth of my tears and I dare not tell them.
evil is close
It is the burial day. The suffocating smoke in the air is particularly bad today so we must place masks under our veil and press the sunglasses closer to our eyes. It is difficult to see for the tears and to bear the sweating and cloying of our skin as the fires outside burn high, fanned by gusting winds.
We break the hard rubble floor of the cellar with pickaxes, unable to lift them very high. Then we clear away the rubble until we reach the brick foundations of our house and lay her body carefully in its cotton shroud tied at top and bottom with a blessed chord.
Almu attends, sitting on her portable throne as she would do at a public burial. She gives her blessings and then makes the signal for us each to drizzle three handfuls of dirt gently onto Mia’s shroud, reminding us that nothing should damage her body. It should remain in the identical condition it was at the moment of her death. I go first, focusing on her and her goodness, but again, the dark villain suddenly appears in my mind, and I feel the jealousy and envy arising like bile into my heart, and I am so shocked in front of the whole community! I desperately ask, ‘Am I losing you, my Beloved. Or are you abandoning me, tired of waiting for me to be fully awake like Mia obviously was?’
I hesitate to let the grains of earth trickle onto her, holding my movements back, and at the same time holding back a tide of regret and waste. Almu gently encourages me and force myself to make this public show, wondering if the others also wonder why He chose to take Mia and not me. My spiritual rank is the highest and yet I will never be more than a servant! I struggle inside asking for You to send me a sign of how I can be more adequate, how I can please You more.
The ceremony is over and we enter the quiet room to have a period of silence to offer to Mia. Almu sits with us, swaying in her ecstasy far beyond the prosaicness of words and thoughts, savouring her sign from Him in the form of her personal miracle. And again, the villain enters me and I wonder if this is the devil come to give me the ultimate of all tests of my faith in You. I cannot sit still, fidgeting like a novice, and Almu knows there is something troubling me as she looks and listens deep inside me. I must at all costs be a perfect model for the young nuns and novices.
The silence blows like trumpets of war in my ears. My arms and legs are rigid like rods, the soles of my feet and palms are burning; my prayer has vanished and left me like a mad woman. I call out to you Beloved but you will not answer me and I want to run but have no idea how to run or where to run to. My eyes are open when they should be gently closed. I try to force them to close but they will not budge. I realize that I must leave the room, but the villain has grabbed me by the throat and will not allow me to. I desperately want to call out to Almu but she will not allow the ecstasy to be interrupted by such crude animal weakness.
Then the silence is broken but not by me. One of the novices is sobbing. Without opening her eyes Almu harshly whispers ‘tahkum fi nafsik,’ ‘control yourself!’ But the sobbing continues and becomes louder and more desperate. I am grateful for the distraction of aiding her. Almu signals to me with one open eye to take her out and comfort her.
I put my arm around her and shepherd her out of the dark prayer room. We creep upstairs so as not to disturb the ecstasy of the others into my room so that we can talk. She, Mariam, is still sobbing, burying her face in the edge of her veil.
‘I cannot stop Mother. I cannot turn off the tears of disgust.’
‘But what is it that makes you cry? It must be Mia’s death. Death is always hard when you are young, I know!’
‘No! No! It is not that!’
‘What then my child?’
She sobs more, her breathing shallow, her pain worsening!
‘Are you ill?’
I feel her head to check her temperature, looking deeply into her eyes.
‘No! No!’ She hesitates, unable to meet my eyes! ‘I am not fit to be here. I am the lowest devil. Please, I want you to kick me out into the street. Kick me into the fires! I deserve to die in the greatest agony for what I have done can never be forgiven, not even by The Beloved!’
I cannot imagine what her sin is or if it can possibly be worse than mine. I must allow her to take her time telling me. As she summons the strength, I review her spiritual progress and her contribution to our community. Still, she cannot say the words which she is impaling herself upon, cutting her skin with.
‘You are a good Nun. Your progress is a little slow in your spiritual lessons, but you work hard to help your sisters and me, and Almu is pleased with you too! Of course, it may take you many years to control your earthly desires and really give yourself to Him, to make yourself into a living prayer which burns every second you inhabit this innocent body of yours.’
She suddenly looks at me with venom in her heart, tearlessly.
‘What do you mean? Yes, you are young and pure and so innocent of worldly evils!’
Then she commences sobbing again and hiding her eyes from me.
‘How are you not innocent Mariam? Tell me what you have done? Whatever it is, He will forgive you. But you must let it out into words so I can know, so I can help you!’
Again, she hesitates, muffling her sobbing, wanting to scream out but aware that the others will be disturbed if she does. I grab her hands in mine and beg her to tell me finally, and she agrees. But the words come so slowly as if they are coated in syrup, giving many opportunities to allow my own impurity to creep in, my own lack of innocence to sting me like opportunist wasps.
‘I have feelings. Is that so wrong?’
‘No, of course not. We, all humans, have feelings. And feelings are natural as long as we do not become attached to them. As Almu teaches us, we must experience our feelings and then let them dissolve because they take up precious space which the Beloved could fill. They arise and immediately subside having no other meaning or depth than a bubble in a stream.’
Now she cries again harder than ever. I beg her to tell me what her feelings are and that she must not hide them from her teachers or from Almu. I reassure her that it takes supreme courage to be completely honest with oneself and so with spiritual superiors, knowing full well that I do not have such courage and that my own weakness conveyed in words would devastate everyone, each syllable a stick of dynamite. She begins again. I hold her hands tightly.
‘I have feelings, deep wonderful feelings that I have never known before, but I can’t possibly let go of them, ever!’
I am a little shocked but ask why.
‘Because they are my real feelings. They are my truth. They are not imaginary and I cannot prevent them from coming to me or staying with me!’
‘But I cannot imagine what can be a stronger feeling than those we have for the Beloved! What is their source?’
Now she cries again and cannot get the words out. I try to guess.
‘Feelings for yourself?’ She shakes her head.
‘Feelings for someone else?’ She nods.
‘Who warrants such incredible feelings? Is it someone from your past?’ She shakes.
Is it someone now, in this Holy house?’ She nods.
Then the banks break and she shouts out the words.
‘They are for Anu. I love her with all my heart and I want to lie with her forever.’
She looks at me with utter horror and disbelief at her utterance. Gathering courage, she elaborates.
‘My feelings for her are greater than for the Beloved! I have betrayed Him. No matter what I do I cannot stop my feelings for her….the beating of my heart like a tight drum….the lightness in my head….the ecstatic smile…..and worse!’
I pull away from her, telling her that she must be mistaken; she could be mistaken. And yet, she must be totally honest with herself to make as much space as possible for the Beloved to enter.
‘Does she know how you feel? Have you told her?’
‘No! I dare not for it will ruin her practice. I don’t know what to do. I have to do something or else I will go mad. I have thought of taking my life, of making myself utterly separate from the Beloved and from Master Almu, and from you. That’s the only thing I can do.’
remove all obstacles
The Holy House is in chaos. We were beginning to recover from Almu’s miracle and Mia’s tragic death and burial, but then Mariamhas confessed her feelings. I talk with Almu immediately afterward and she is calm, philosophical.
‘It’s not the first time this has happened, and it won’t be the last! But we must take this evil away from here, remove all obstacles so that the channels are not contaminated. It sullies and soils them and us, and you Pamela, must deal with this. It is your acid test. Can you put aside your human feelings for this misguided child who no matter how much we cultivate her faith and lead her closer and closer to Him, is not satisfied with His Divine Love? She has to resort to so-called animal ‘love’ with all its conditions and limitations. Dear precious Pamela, can you let even more of the Beloved fill you so that you can do what has to be done according to the Law?’
‘Yes, Master. Of course. It is easier now that we are in the city and can take her to the Mosque. I will disrobe her and collect her things, then take her to the Mosque by the evening!’
As I turn to do her bidding, I turn away from my own disturbing feelings, pushing them deeply away for it is my duty to deal with this serious matter on behalf of Almu and our Holy House. My duty in order to keep our channels clean and undefiled.
‘But wait! You have talked to her at length and I have heard her sickening idolatry of poor unsuspecting Anu with my own ears, but do we need to talk with her more do you think? Is she really beyond our help? Is she really beyond our prayers?’
We try once more, smuggling her out of my room and into Almu’s rooms without the others, who are preparing dinner, seeing her. We must also decide what to tell them as they have a right to know.
‘How long have you had such feelings girl?’
Almu is not gentle with her at all for this is the cardinal sin of all sins, that of loving someone of one’s own sex and igniting the burning fires of worldly passion which once lit are impossible to dampen.
‘For almost a year now. I have struggled to turn them away, distracting myself in any manner of ways. But especially in silence time, it is impossible. My dreams are stuffed full of our shared closeness, our shared tears, and laughter. When I see her if she has been absent, or when we have supposedly been asleep though I am incapable, and greet each other before early-morning prayers, the door to my heart opens wide to her leaving so little space for the Beloved to climb into.’
Her eyes drop with the shame of it, the shame of being totally honest!
‘Girl! Do you really know what you are saying? If we were at the palace shrine now, there would be no question of what would happen to you! You know, don’t you?’
‘No Master. I’m not sure. I have never needed to know this before, so I have never asked.’
‘We, the Holy Ones, believe that you have a disease which is incurable! There are only two ways to deal with it. The first is the most brutal – you must be locked in a single solitary cell and given no food or water until you expire. The second, we will ask our physician to take away the parts of you that are opening up these feelings to you and replace them with the more appropriate for it is usually only men who suffer from the sin of lust.
Once this has been completed and you have recovered from surgery and adjusted to your new sex, then you will be dismissed from the Order and forbidden to enter any mosque on any continent. To enforce that requirement, we will mark your forehead with a secret marking which all the most evolved of our teachers know. Therefore, you will be an outcast from the Love of the Beloved and never again allowed to even imagine it.’
Mariam almost faints when she hears these dictums, Priestess Pamela catching her before she falls.
‘This is your last chance girl before I contact the Imam at the mosque and hand you over to him! I demand that you make your choice here and now.’
There is a silence, a momentary gap to allow the said feelings to arise or not.
‘Mariam, novice of this Holy House, who is the Beloved in your heart of hearts? Anu or the rightful Beloved?’
There is no hesitation at all.
‘Anu is my Beloved. She fills every space in the filigree of my soul. I would willingly die for her because I know I cannot live for her.’
The House is so still after Mariam leaves. Almu goes into retreat to investigate this strange occurrence in her House, insisting that she is not disturbed until she emerges and determined to survive on a few dried dates and water. She announces that she must pray for us all, but I know she feels a failure for not having detected such feelings of lust among those close to her. She feels guilt also for what will happen to the poor novice as she has chosen to be locked away rather than undergo surgery.
The other novices are disturbed. We have told them that Mariam was unhappy and unsure that she would be able to devote herself to the Beloved totally, so she has left the Order. They are shocked, their own faith rocked. And so, the dark doubts besiege our community, some expressed, some unexpressed. Meanwhile, the earthquakes tear at the House and the droughts escalate so that some days we are forced to use our liquid supplies of the Beloved, those for our ablutions and those to slake our thirst.
Anu is especially shaken and helpless. She comes to me privately wanting to know more.
‘I had no idea that she was feeling this way. We were close. We talked intimately often before sleep. She told me that she had no doubts about the Beloved, that he filled her and filled me, and that we would always be together and go to him together! I am so sad. What can I do? Would Almu allow me to contact her, Priestess?’
‘No, I’m afraid not. That would distract you and the others too much from your focus and preparation to take your vows. Part of your training is to accept, just accept, that this is what your spiritual superiors require of you. This is what the Beloved wants of you, too. So, you just have to let go of whatever feelings you had and refocus on Him and on serving Him with every pore of your skin.’
She cries and I embrace her to give her courage. Then again, as I hold her young body, the dark villain strides in and demands that I tell this pure girl the truth, tell her of Mariam’s adoration, of the courageous sacrifice she willingly makes for her feelings. The truth? Are we not spending every single second of our existence striving for the Truth? And yet, we lie constantly.
We are constantly taught that lying comes from greed, from the strong desire to keep the best for ourselves and to command respect from others. And Almu has asked me to make sure of Anu’s feelings, to ensure that she is not also hiding some secret lust. A faint bird-like voice mentions my own feelings, my own truth, and in some strange way, I envy the innocence and passion of these two young women. They are bound together perhaps in their devoutness to Him, but perhaps as human beings too, and is that so wrong?
‘And Anu, I have to ask you even though you are so upset at Mariam’s sudden departure.’
‘Yes?’ Her eyes leave behind her personal sadness and walk back into the full light of godliness.
‘I will, I must be blunt. We have to be absolutely certain……..’
‘Yes, priestess, anything? You are my beloved teacher and mother. I have no secrets from you.’
As I try to string this question together like threading miniature beads on fish gut, I wonder why saying words out loud to another can be so painful, so uncomfortable, and in the hesitation, I remember the teaching that it is better not to speak than risk wounding or maiming someone’s mind, especially that of a young devotee.
‘Is the Beloved with you now at this moment? Can you feel His Divine Love? Are you living each moment as a flame of pure prayer?’
‘Yes, of course. He softens the distress in my eyes and dries my tears. Yes! He is always here in my heart. And He will always be in Mariam’s too, won’t He?’
Almu whirls with us, our skirts revolving in the sky. We become prayers pivoting around each of our human hearts and tiny planets spinning around the major planet of Him. Overcoming the dizziness is the most difficult and next the calming of the breath, His breath. We spin close to each other in One Heart entering Almu’s wide channel leading to Him.
And we spin to salve our human wounds, to heal our suffering minds. All doubts, all bags of thoughts and worries, are emptied into his pure light. If only we could keep spinning forever. It is only when we stop that the human weaknesses creep in, the dark villains, the shadows and lies manifest.
‘Even when you wind down slowly and eventually come to a natural halt, you can continue on in your heart forever, unstoppably. Let the whirling within you show in the light of your eyes, the delicacy of your touch, but most of all in the sounds you make with your mouth. Know that once you have emitted those sounds it is impossible to take them back. If you are careless and not mindful, you stand to hurt someone, or even to damage them seriously.’
But we must stop and be still and parade the love that we have learned from Him in our daily existence. He watches our every movement, witnesses each of the gossamer threads created by our words and smiles and tears. Then, once we have crawled along them to where we want to be, He watches while we snap them and feel the satisfaction of the goodness and sincerity we have brought into the world of humans.
We will receive important empowerments today from Almu and so assemble in the inner sanctuary wearing our best robes and veils, having scrubbed and polished ourselves until we are pristine and pure. We must sit still for long periods and so take time to adjust our voluminous robes and to sit in total balance before the Master enters. We hear her coming by the ringing of a tiny sweet bell rung by her novice attendant especially chosen from among the community. She enters in her finest robes of vermillion inherited from her father and his father before, and back along the line of the Divine. She arranges herself and starts.
‘Today, we must prepare ourselves for a most serious event. This is the reason I wish to empower you so that you will be able to deal with it well, graciously. Remember, you must go on whirling with the Beloved always in your heart no matter what is happening in this human world of suffering.
The Earth, His choice for our placement and our spiritual growth, is in dire straits. We are getting through each day only by the skin of our teeth and by the strength of our faith. But this is His ultimate test. The fires get a little closer every day and soon we will have to flee to the safety of the high mountains and leave this Holy House. But instead of fear of burning in them, we can use them to burn away all our worldly delusions, to burn away the feelings, both good and bad, both legal and illegal, that gnaw at us in daily life.
The floods rise until bridges are washed away and people made to disappear, but the waters are purifying. His water will wash away the sins, the ignorance, and meanness. The winds gust so high that whole roofs are lifted and people in the streets blown down like dry withered trees because they are not filled with Him. But these ferocious winds are His Holy breath for us, His chosen ones, to fight against, to make us strong and determined.
And His quaking is nothing to be afraid of. He is waking us enthusiastically from the dullness of our low minds, from our tremendous ignorance. And we can be assured, that once we are fully awakened we will be taken, as Mia was, to His paradise.’
She pauses for our contemplation and remembrance of Him and His forces, opening the channel a little wider to make more room for acceptance, for deepening our total commitment to Him, the King of Love.
‘It is the Beloved’s dearest wish that we now enter the final phase of His Divine plan. From today onwards, until further notice, all our places of worship, our sacred masjid, our beautiful mosques, will be closed up and guarded by the military. We will not be able to enter them any longer to meet with our chosen community and mingle our prayers with theirs. This is very sad but absolutely necessary because we must first prove that our Beloved is necessary to the survival of this planet before we can continue to worship Him publicly. Of course, nothing can or must stop our private worship.’
We women are all shocked by this news, losing our composure easily. It seems so sudden, so illogical, and we each have a million questions, a million sudden solutions to solve the earth’s problems.
‘Hush. Hush. Remember. Accept. Accept this earthly announcement, scattering it into the spinning in your heart. Accept as He accepts. We have nothing to fear for we know that paradise is at hand and He is waiting for us eternally. There are no questions to ask or solutions to offer. It is His will and we will follow it.’
‘Finally, this Holy House will from now on be our mosque, our masjid. It is His will that we stay safe here so that He can call us when it is time to walk up the mountainside to get even closer to Him.’
We immerse ourselves in the news, emptying the bags of thoughts and worries one by one while trying to allow the spinning to continue uninterrupted.
This is an extract from my latest novel ‘Custodian’ which will hopefully be published later this year.
In brief, the Earth has reached its limit of damage and will explode imminently. The last resort to save it is to enlist the wisdom of the tireless custodians of the Earth, indigenous peoples who have cared for it for thousands of years. All religions and synthetic stimulants are outlawed until they can be proved to help the Earth’s recovery in some way. Priestess Pamela must later choose between the Earth and Her Beloved; between reality and fiction.