FEBRUARY 20, 2000

Jalaluddin Rumi was a 13th Century Islamic Sufi mystic. Though he was born in Afghanistan he spent most of his life in Konya, Turkey, having fled there with his father to escape the threat of invading Mongol tribes. His mystical poetry spoke to the heart and saw something of the divine at work in all persons and religious practices. He once said, "I go into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church and I see one altar." He said to his followers, "I am not from the East or the West….Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen—not any religion or cultural system. My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless. I belong to the beloved, have seen the two worlds as one and that one call to and know. This is the true religion… [love and union with the divine beloved]. All others are thrown-away bandages beside it." Rumi was an Islamic universalist before there ever was such a word.

When Rumi died in 1273 representatives of every major religion came to his funeral—Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all came to say farewell, and to express their respect and affection for this man who embraced universal humanity in his words and sentiments. Rumi spoke the language of the mystics, a language that transcends all religious and cultural systems and sees the quest for the divine at work in every spiritual tradition. The generosity, love and tolerance of the Sufi mystics are a part of Islam that we hear little to nothing about these days. Yet it is there, not only in the 13th century, but still alive and present at the threshold of the 21st century. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, a contemporary Sufi sheikh, said to Coleman Barks, translator of Rumi’s poetry, "Love is the religion, and the universe is the book." When asked by Barks if it was possible for him, a western poet, to see the universe through the eyes of a Sufi sheikh, the Bawa replied, "Not until the I becomes we."

"Not until the I becomes we." That is clearly the language of the mystics of all ages and traditions. It is a language that speaks of interconnections and unity of human beings with each other, with nature, and with God. It is a recognition, as Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, puts it, that "we inter-being are"—meaning that the illusion of our isolation and separateness from one another and from nature is just that, an illusion. We inter-being are, we are all connected, whether we know it or not.

It is interesting to note that in the late 19th century, Unitarian scholar, Francis Greenwood Peabody, was greeted at the University of Halle in Germany by the famous German Professor Tholuck, with the words, "Ah, you are an American Unitarian. They are the true mystics." Professor Tholuck, no doubt, was referring to the pervasive influence that Transcendentalist philosophy had upon Unitarian thought and leaders in America. Emerson advocated a kind of nature mysticism and talked about becoming "a transparent eyeball" to the currents of the Universal Being manifest in nature and in the human mind.

"Ah, you are a Unitarian. They are the true mystics." What would you think if someone said that to you today? Would you be comfortable owning the label of a true mystic? Can a Unitarian Universalist today be a mystic? Can a mystic be a Unitarian Universalist? I certainly hope so because I have considered myself a UU mystic throughout the more than 30 years of my ministry.

Mystical experience is often associated in the popular mind with the irrational or fanciful and not connected with the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mystical experience has to do with a sense of unity and connection with reality--with nature, with people, with the web of life, with the soul, and with God. Nothing could be more natural than the experience of oneness with all that is. Science tells us we are part and parcel of nature through an evolutionary process manifest in natural law. Mysticism tells us that we are one with the whole of being and that our separateness is a transitory illusion. Science uncovers the truth of our connection with the natural world through reason and analysis. Mysticism comes to the truth of our interconnectedness through intuition and experience. They are two sides of the one coin of reality--the outer and the inner. The mystical and the rational are one.

Mystics have often been the heretics and even revolutionaries of their respective religious traditions. Thomas Munzer the Protestant Reformer and mystic became a revolutionary to his time and society in that he advocated an "aristocracy of the Spirit" to replace the "aristocracy of blood and class" that was still characteristic of European social structures. He would have been much happier on American soil where his revolutionary mysticism would have been welcomed. The medieval mystic, Meister Eckhardt, walked a thin line between heresy and orthodoxy during his lifetime. He was called on the carpet and challenged for his views on more than one occasion. After his death his writings were declared heretical because he implied that the human soul and God at their core were one. The Islamic mystic, Al-Hallaj, was tried for heresy and executed because he said and wrote in a state of mystical ecstasy, that he and God were one. Did not Jesus say as much when he declared, "I and the Father are one."?

As classical heretics of our Protestant Christian tradition we Unitarian Universalists should pay close attention to anyone who has been labeled a heretic by someone else. We just might have something in common with them. Heresy means to choose for oneself and that has always been a hallmark of our religious tradition. There is a kind of universalism of the spirit that mystics both feel and seek to articulate. Aldous Huxley called this mystic impulse "the perennial philosophy." Mystics declare in one way or another that revelation is not sealed, that the discovery of truth and the encounter with ultimate reality is a continuing process. Walt Whitman, America’s poet of the soul, put it this way: "I do not say that Bibles and religions are not divine. I say they have all grown out of you, and may grow out of you still. It is not they who give the life. It is you who give the life."

Maybe it is time for us to own the "unities and universals" of our UU faith and heritage. Unitarianism says we are all one (because God is One and we are, as Emerson said, part and parcel of God), while Universalism says we are all linked to a universal reality from which we can never be separated (because God is Love and salvation and wholeness are forever and always available to all). Unitarian Universalism is grounded in a mystical sense of connection of each to all, and all to each. The old German Professor Tholuck was right. We are the true mystics. It is time for us to reclaim and own our Transcendentalist mystical heritage. It is both the source of our sense of connection to the whole of being, and of our social conscience that recognizes our connection to one another in justice and love, and our responsibility to the web of creation of which we are a part. Not until the I becomes we can we know who we truly are. For in truth we inter-being are.