Beauty in a Flash of Light and Life

Saturday, January 7, 2017 - 5:30am

Beauty in a Flash of Light and Life

I was blessed to get to spend New Year’s with my children, my parents, and my siblings and their children. In some ways, it is a typical immigrant gathering: 15 people under one roof for a whole week. Amazing, fragrant food, conversations in multiple languages, almost constant laughter, children running around being loved and hugged by aunts and cousins, grandparents presiding over a home sharing great stories about ancestors and life advice. It’s kind of like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, with kinder gentler people.

It’s home. It’s family. It’s not a house we return to, but a home.

Like so many people’s, ours is also an immigrant family that has absorbed and adopted many American traditions. One of them is New Year’s. January 1 both is and is not our New Year. We have the Persian New Year (called “Nowruz,” literally “New Day”), which is the first day of the spring, March 21. Nowruz is celebrated in many cultures — in Iran, parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and South Asia. There is the Islamic New Year, which marks a new year in the religious calendar of Islam.

But there is also the American New Year, with its own rituals: staying up till midnight, predicting and then watching my father falling asleep around 9 and getting back up around 11. Watching the Apple come down. (Have a discussion about the mysterious origin of the Apple). We used to watch Dick Clark; now we have the substitute hosts. Watch musical acts we’ve never heard of, and a few from our younger years. Marvel at how good the world seems in these moments when everyone wishes goodness and peace towards all, no exceptions. And the highlight is always the joyous circle of hugging and loving and kissing of all 15 people under the roof at the first moments of the new year.

There has been a new ritual too, a particularly joyous one: sparklers. We go outside with simple, old-fashioned boxes of sparklers, and give a few sparklers to each child. How magical and otherworldly it is to watch their beautiful round faces lit up by these lights that sparkle for ten to 20 seconds before giving way to the darkness. Somehow, standing outside in this Florida climate that we call winter, with the hint of crispness, the sparklers ritual seemed to open up to something more than itself.

There is something in us that is drawn to infinity: infinite light, infinite love. The infinite has always been an echo of the Divinity for me. The light of the sun in her absoluteness. It’s easy to see why so many cultures have worshipped the sun. But there is also something beautiful, something humble, about the passing nature of beauty and light in this realm. Something terrestrial and finite, limited and passing. Like the sparklers. It comes on, fluttering, lighting up the face of the beholder and those around for a minute or two, and then gently gives in to the darkness.

What is it about this passing light that so fascinates us? Is it that it reminds us, echoes in us, something of our own finite nature? Are we like this too, coming out of the darkness of nothingness, and then for a moment or two having these brilliant, life-giving, light-giving moments?

The always-lovely Rumi talks about this scattering of light:

We come spinning out of nothingness,
scattering stars like dust.

So much of religious language is mythic and messianic: faith in light overcoming darkness, in love overwhelming hatred, in knowledge illuminating ignorance. Yes, in a cosmic sense I have faith in those, as I must. As I need to. In these days of chaos and madness all around, it is comforting to have faith in an eventual victory of beauty and justice, and know that we have to do our part to bend the arc of the moral universe towards the good.

Yes, the eternal and the infinite have their places. And yet there is also something quite lovely about the sensitivity of being attuned to beauty that is ephemeral and passing. To the sparklers that come out of darkness, give light, and then burn out.

It reminds me of the loveliness of the rainbow, here, and gone.

It reminds me of the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“It takes three things to attain a sense of significant being:
God
A Soul
And a Moment.
And the three are always here.”

This sense of the “moment” is easier to sit with, to breathe in, when we stand not in front of the eternity of the sun, but rather the finitude of sparklers. We have to slow down, breathe in, sit with the sparklers. Then, in those magical moments, God-ful moments, there is the soul, there is God, there is the moment, and there — as Heschel told us — is a sense of significant being.

In the moment of the sparkler, we are a being, significant.

And I recall the look of sheer awe on the faces of my children. All of them, the toddler, the single digit child, the teenager. Gone is the teenage angst, and in place of it is this pure sense of wonder and adoration.

How lovely this attentiveness to the passing beauty. And how they themselves become surpassing beauty in these moments.

Reminds me of the Qur’anic words:

Everything on Earth
Perishes
All that remains is
The Face of Your Loving Lord
Filled with Majesty
and Generosity.

And there was more: my mother stood in the middle of her grandchildren, loves of her life. Adore them, she does, oh how she does. She stood holding a candle. Like enchanted butterflies, the grandchildren circled around her, and one by one they lit their sparklers from her light. Here is this woman, loving and wise, tender and fierce all at once, giving light to her children’s children.

I saw again and again this transmission. So much of my life has been about tapping inward, and outward, and upward. But all of us are who we are because somebody loved us. Because somebody sacrificed for us. And because somebody gave us their light. I am who I am because Pouran Safi and Ali Safi loved me, sacrificed for me, and gave of me their light. And here was my mother, surrounded by her beloved ones, giving light again and again… yet own her light never diminished.

Maybe that’s the secret of keepers of the flame, those who have tapped into something divine: they can give and give without being diminished. The light seems to come not from them, not from something finite, but rather somewhere infinite.

The finite sparkle taps into something infinite.

The finite and infinite mingle.
The eternal the eternal Now mingle.
The human and divine mingle.
Light and darkness mingle.
The Hereafter and the right Here mingle.

And we become being, significant.

Happy New Year. May it be filled with moments that sparkle.

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Omid Safi

is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University's Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York Times, Newsweek, Washington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

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5Reflections

Reflections

Thank you so much for being the light bearer today. I was so awaiting your post, anticipating the calming and reassuring messages you would bring. And here they are. From the bottom of my heart--thank you.

Thank you,dear Omid Safi!
And a Happy New Year also to you and to all you love! Indeed may it be a year that will hold moments that sparkle!
Reading about the deep love you live with your family brought so much joy into my own heart !
It is such a great gift to read your column,filled with the longings that nurture us humans ,no matter what our own faith tradition is.
You spoke of Rabbi Heschel,the Poet Rumi,your own Faith Tradition Islam! I who was born into a family of the Christian Faith,
and my life has been deeply enriched by all .
With much gratitude for all.
Jutta

Thank you

Beautifully written. This reflection provided peace and hope on a restless night. Thank you for sharing the light.

Beautiful words. I can't help thinking of the Spanish words for to give birth, dar luz, which literally mean to give light.