Mala of the Heart
108 Sacred Poems
By Ravi Nathwani, Kate Vogt
New World Library Copyright © 2010 Ravi Nathwani and Kate Vogt
All rights reserved.
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ANONYMOUS NAVAJO (19th–20th century, Navajo Nation)
AVICENNA (Abu Ali Sina, Ibn Sina) (980–1037, Persia [Uzbekistan]) was born into a middle-class family near Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. By age eighteen he had memorized the Qur'an and a great deal of Persian poetry, and he had achieved status as a physician. Avicenna is one the foremost Islamic philosophers and authored almost 450 books on philosophy, medicine, theology, geometry, astronomy, and the like. In the West, Avicenna is well known for fathering modern medicine and influencing Christian philosophers. His poems are written in Persian and Arabic and include one that describes the descent of the soul into the body from the Higher Sphere.
WILLIAM BLAKE (1757–1827, England) was born in London, where he spent most of his life. In his early years, Blake experienced visions of angels, the Virgin Mary, and historical figures. The memories of these visions are said to have influenced him throughout his life. Blake began writing poetry at the age of twelve, and he apprenticed as an engraver before setting out on his life as a poet, painter, visionary mystic, and engraver. Blake challenged the values and views of his time and was widely misunderstood. Some considered him a madman. After his death, critics came to regard Blake as a genius for his expressiveness and creativity and for the mystical undercurrents within his work.
BUNAN (Shido Bunan) (1603–1676, Japan) Zen Master.
ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA (1347–1380, Italy) was born the youngest of twenty or more children to a wool dyer. It is said that at age six she was transformed by a vision of Jesus and three of his apostles. In her teens Catherine resisted the pressure to marry and became a Dominican nun. She was an ardent mystic and great Catholic saint who dictated her ideas on spirituality and devotion in what became known as her Letters. Catherine selflessly served the poor and eased the suffering of those who sought her counsel. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed St. Catherine a "Doctor of the Church."
DANTE (Dante Alighieri) (1265–1321, Italy) was born into a prominent family in Florence. In 1290, after the death of the woman he loved, Dante plunged into intense study of classical philosophy and Provençal poetry. This woman is thought to have been Beatrice Portinari, Dante's acknowledged source of spiritual inspiration. Dante is best known as the author of the long poem Commedia (the adjective Divina was added in the 1600s). Unlike many of his contemporaries, Dante viewed man's twofold duty as realizing both earthly happiness and everlasting life. He considered the individual soul as part of a collective whole.
DIEU NHAN (Ly Ngoc Kieu) (1041–1113, Vietnam) was a daughter of a prince, a goddaughter of a king, and married to a district chief. After her husband passed away, she became a Buddhist and studied with a Zen master; she later became head of the seventeenth generation of the Vinitaruci school. Zen master Dieu Nhan served as director of the Huong Hai temple and was recognized as one of the two most distinguished woman poets of her time.
MEISTER ECKHART (Johannes Eckhart) (1260–1328, Germany) was born in Germany and entered the Dominican order as a young man. As an eminent public figure, he was popular for his powerful and beautiful style of expressing his contemplative experiences. Like other great mystics, Eckhart used metaphors to express what lies beyond words. His poetry often communicates the importance of silence. Eckhart's popularity protected him from accusations of heresy, but after his death many of his works were suppressed for several centuries. Since 1980, the Dominican order has taken steps to reveal Meister Eckhart as a great Christian mystic.
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI (1182–1226, Italy) was born into a wealthy merchant family. Experiences of illness and service in the military caused him to question the purpose of life. It is said that, one day when Francis was in church, God's voice awakened him to a spiritual path. Francis renounced his father's wealth and devoted himself to a life of poverty in service to the poor. He founded the Order of the Friars Minor, who take no property and express intense love for God through word and action. Francis was so passionately devoted to God that he would wildly sing and dance his praise. Known as the patron saint of the animals and the environment, Francis created hymns and teachings that proclaimed both the ability and duty to protect and enjoy nature.
HAFIZ (Khwaja ams ud-Din Muhammad Hafez-e irazi) (ca. 1320–1389, Persia [Iran]) was born in the garden city of Shiraz. It is said that after the early death of his father, Hafiz worked for a bakery, where he caught sight of Shakh-e Nabat, whose incredible beauty moved him to write and sing of his love for her. During a forty-night vigil to win this girl's love, Hafiz had a vision of an angel, whose beauty led Hafiz to realize that God was infinitely more beautiful than any human form. The angel revealed where Hafiz could find a spiritual master. Hafiz then met and became a disciple of Attar of Shiraz, who led Hafiz to union with God. Like other great Sufi poets, Hafiz employed imagery to express his longing and love for the divine.
HILDEGARD OF BLNGEN (1098–1179, Germany) was born the tenth child of a noble family, and as was customary with the tenth child, she was dedicated at birth to the church. From an early age, Hildegard had luminous visions, yet she kept this gift concealed from all except her teacher and secretary. When she was forty-two, a vision of God commanded her to write down everything she observed in her visions. Although Hildegard never doubted the origin of her visions, she successfully sought to have them sanctioned by the Catholic Church. Hildegard gained fame as a remarkable mystic throughout Europe for her theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as for her letters, music, and poems.
HWANG CHIN-I (1506–1544, Korea) lived in Songdo and was famous during the reign of King Chungjong. Though a certain mystique surrounds her life, Chin-i's poetic legacy of linking word and image has elevated her to cultural icon in Korea. Chin-i was a kisaeng-singer-poet. A few of her poems on love and freedom are celebrated even today. Whether or not the poems were intended solely as expressions of human desire, they capture the imagination of spiritual seekers.
ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS (1542–1591, Spain) was born Juan de Yepes y Alvarez; his family had been Jewish but were conversos ("forced Christians"). John worked in many trades and received his first formal education at a Jesuit school. At age twenty-one, he became a Carmelite friar. Four years later, he met Teresa of Avila, and their joint reform work led to his being imprisoned and tortured for nine months by his fellow priests. While in prison, John had a life-transforming realization of the veil that separates us from God. His axiom was that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God. After escaping from prison, he lived a life of joyful solitude.
KABIR (Kabir Das) (ca. 1440–1518, India) was raised by a Muslim family of weavers, though legend has it that his birth mother may have been a Brahmin widow. Kabir became a disciple of the Hindu bhakti saint Ramananda at an early age, and his name is often interpreted as "Guru's Grace." Though a great mystic and a contemplative, Kabir never abandoned worldly life. He sought to bridge the religious cultures yet was denounced by mainstream religious leaders during his lifetime. At Kabir's death, his body turned to flowers, and his Hindu and Muslim followers each took half to perform last rites. A saint in the bhakti and Sufi tradition, Kabir expressed through his poetry self-surrender, divine love, and inward worship of the beloved with the heart.
LALLA (Lal Diddi, Laleswari, Lal Ded) (est. 14th c.) was born in Kashmir in northern India. She was married at the age of twelve, and after years of harsh treatment at the hands of her mother-in-law and her husband, she left to live the life of a wandering devotee in the Shaivite tradition. Renouncing the world, Lalla expressed her joyful union with her beloved Lord through song and dance. The realizations of this great saint and mystic appeal to the hearts of people across cultural and religious barriers.
ANTONIO MACHADO (1875–1939, Spain) was born in Seville but emigrated to Paris, where he worked as a translator and met great French poets. At age thirty-four Machado married, although his beloved Leonor died after only a few years of marriage. Distraught over the loss of his wife, Machado manifested a sacred spiritual yearning in his work, echoing the divine experience of mystics several centuries earlier. Machado is considered one of Spain's most popular playwrights and poets.
MAHÂDÊVIYAKKA (Akka Mahadevi) (12th century, India) was born in the Indian village of Udatadi and initiated into the worship of Lord Shiva at age ten. Though a local ruler fell in love with her and they married, Mahâdêviyakka left him to live the life of a wandering Shiva devotee. She is known for her passionate devotional (bhakti) poetry, always written to the "Lord white as jasmine." It is said that Mahâdêviyakka died in her twenties, having reached oneness with her mystical husband Shiva at Srisaila, the Holy Mountain.
MAKEDA (queen of Sheba, Bilqis) (ca. 1000 BCE, Sheba [Ethiopia]). There are few verifiable details on Makeda's life, although she figures prominently in Judaic, Islamic, and Ethiopian traditions. There are many accounts of her journey to ancient Israel to meet King Solomon in search of wisdom. This legendary voyage has inspired centuries of speculation about her kingdom and influence in the ancient world. Makeda is said to have been renowned for her beauty, purity, and love for wisdom.
MECHTILD OF MAGDEBURG (ca. 1207–1282, Germany) was born into a wealthy family and at age twelve said that she saw "all things in God, and God in all things." In her early twenties, she entered the Beguines sisterhood and led a life of simplicity, service, and prayer. Over a fourteen-year period, she received ongoing mystical visions and the divine instruction to record these experiences. Mechtild's love poetry has been compared to that of the Sufi poets of the Middle East and the bhakti poets of India.
MIRABAI (Mira) (ca. 1498–1565, India) was born into a noble family in northern India. From an early age, she worshipped Krishna. During her marriage to a prominent crown prince, her husband's family actively sought to stop Mirabai's meditations and prayers to Krishna. Upon her husband's death, she refused to throw herself on his funeral pyre, proclaiming that she was wedded to Krishna. Mirabai became a wandering ascetic devoted to Giridhara, a manifestation of Krishna.
MUKTA BAI (13th century, India). It is said that Mukta Bai's father's guru instructed him to leave the life of an ascestic and return to his worldly duty as a householder. Mukta Bai's mother and father had four children together, and the family was spurned by the orthodox authorities because of the father's actions. Both her mother and father died when Mukta Bai was a young girl, and she had to beg to survive. It is said that these early experiences fostered a great spiritual depth in this poet-saint.
RABIA (Sufi Rabi'a, Rabia al Basri) (717–801, Persia [Iraq]) was born into poverty and is said to have been taken by robbers and sold into slavery after her parents died. She endured years of hard work and abuse and spent her nights in prayer and meditation. According to legend, her master freed her when he observed her shrouded in a divine light during her devotions. Once free, Rabia went to the desert, where she became an ascetic. Unlike with other great saints and mystics, her teacher was God himself rather than a master. Rabia introduced the concept that God should be loved for God's own sake, not out of fear.
RAINER MARIA RILKE (1875–1926, Bohemia [Czech Republic]) was born in Prague. Although poetically and artistically gifted, Rilke was sent to a military academy, which he eventually left to study philosophy, art history, and literature. His first poetry was published when he was nineteen, and he became one of the greatest German-language poets. Rilke's lyrical poetry reveals his belief in the coexistence of the material and spiritual realms.
RUMI (Jalaludin Muhammad Rumi) (1207–1273, Persia [Afghanistan]) was born in Balkh on the eastern edge of the Persian Empire and at age eight settled in Turkey with his family, where Rumi eventually succeeded his father as head of a dervish school. At age thirty-seven Rumi met the whirling dervish Shams-e Tabrizi, whose divine presence awakened Rumi's own love for the divine. Rumi thus abandoned his scholarly position and began writing poetry, using metaphors to express his experience of mystical union and his intense longing and search for the divine. Rumi reached across cultural and social boundaries, and it is said that his funeral was attended by Persians, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Greeks.
ANGELUS SILESIUS (Johannes Scheffler) (1624–1677, Bohemia [Poland]) was born into a Polish Lutheran family in Breslau. Due to the influence of the Hapsburgs, Silesius converted to Catholicism as a young adult and was later ordained a Catholic priest. He was drawn to the monastic life because of his own spiritual yearnings. Silesius maintained that God and man are essentially one and longed for union with the divine as Christ.
SUN BU-ER (Sun Pu-erb) (1124–ca. 1182, China) was married and had three children before devoting her life to Daoist practices around age fifty. Her husband had been studying with the Daoist master Wang Chongyang (Wang Ze) for years before Sun Bu-er too became his student. After also becoming a teacher, Sun Bu-er wrote her Daoist teachings in the form of verse for her followers. Full of vivid imagery, her writings impart her own visionary experiences, in which she received teachings from ancient Daoist masters. After Sun Bu-er's death, she was named one of a group of female Daoist masters collectively referred to as the "Seven Immortals."
ST. TERESA OF AVILA (1515–1582, Spain) was born into a noble family. Early in life, Teresa was drawn to prayer and caring for the poor. Her mother died when Teresa was young, and at age sixteen, she transferred to a convent school, where she decided to join the Carmelite order. During periods of severe physical pain caused by an illness, Teresa began to find serene inner peace and experience ecstatic visions. Initially encouraged to abandon these experiences because they were interpreted as demonic, Teresa later was encouraged by a priest to return to her prayers. As one of the great Christian mystics, she became completely absorbed in and devoted to God. At age forty-three, Teresa founded a new order on the vows of poverty and simplicity. She emphasized the importance of experiencing God's love. In 1622, St. Teresa was canonized by the Catholic Church.
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (1225–1274, Italy) was born into an aristocratic family, and at age five was sent to the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino. There he developed a reverent love for the scriptures, contemplation, solitude, and virtue. At age seventeen, Thomas entered the Dominican order. In his early thirties, he was appointed to teach at the University of Paris, where he studied the suppressed Aristotelian texts on metaphysics. Though known for his highly analytical and methodical works, Thomas also experienced periods of mystical ecstasy. He came to know all in creation as revelations of the infinite God.
TREE-LEAF WOMAN (est. 8th–11th century, India) was a practitioner of the Tantric Buddhist tradition in India. In this tradition, upon coming into a state of awakening the practitioner would speak or sing of his or her experience. The songs of Tree-Leaf Woman were recorded by other practitioners present at the time. Her songs express a pure understanding of the nature of the awakened mind and the source of the phenomenal world.
TUKARAM (1608–1649, India) was born in a small village in western India to a family that sold produce. When he was thirteen, both his parents died, leaving him responsible for supporting his remaining family. Years later, after losing his first wife and children to famine, Tukaram retreated within and began to receive visits from Krishna. In the dream state he also received instructions to write divine poetry. His writings led to persecution by Brahmin priests and pundits. Tukaram became increasingly God absorbed, retreating to caves in the hills near his village and singing and dancing in the streets. He is said to have walked off alone one day, never to be seen again.
UVAVNUK (19th–20th century, Inuit Nation) was a Netsilik Inuit shaman. She is said to have gained her shamanic power when struck by a ball of fire that fell from the sky. Knocked senseless, Uvavnuk found herself imbued with a great power when she revived, which she then dedicated to serving her people.
W. B. YEATS (William Butler Yeats) (1865–1939, Ireland) was born in Dublin and received his education in London and Dublin. He had a penchant for mysticism, occultism, and astrology and was influenced by the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and Hinduism. At the age of twenty-seven, Yeats wrote, "The mystical life is the center of all that I do and all that I think about and all that I write."
WU-MEN (Wu-men Hui-k'ai; Mumom) (1183–1260, China) was a head monk at the Lung-hsiang monastery in China. While at this monastery, Wu-Men assembled Gateless Gate, the classic collection of forty-eight koans, which are paradoxical utterances used in Zen meditation as a center of concentration. (Continues...)
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