An Entry Point to Opening My Heart (by Kelli Koning)

An Entry Point to Opening My Heart (by Kelli Koning)

Mary Lynn WhiteAn Entry Point to Opening My Heart (February 11, 2007)

» Kelli tells her story (mp3, 5:15)

Rumi came to me in a time of my life when I was questioning the connections to family, tradition, and religious matters altogether. I was a college student seeing a real dilemma all around me. I was seeing the rifts of class, race, and spiritual stagnancy tear the threads of connection and community, not only in my own town, but worldwide.

I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, where there is a church on virtually every corner, and most of those churches were of the denomination "Reformed" or "Christian Reformed." These two branches of Protestant Calvinism are very close in theology, and yet the history of our town implies families being torn and anger arising over interpretation of rule and tradition. Actually, Calvinism fits into a long and riveting history of the church over the centuries trying to come to grips with how Jesus' powerful and revolutionary ideas translate into realities of a growing church, extreme paradigm shift, culture wars, and thousands of years of interpretation. These rifts persist, and come from the hearts of those who say, within their tradition, they should be living as a body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

When I learned about my denomination's history during college, I learned that this confrontation and split gave birth to the religious faith and spiritual sentiment I grew up with. I remember feeling this split in my gut. Most poignantly, I have heard my grandfather say numerous times that he is baffled and very perturbed by the fact that Christians on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would kill each other even though they profess to be followers of Jesus. Even as a younger child, I remember understanding the answer to his question instinctively.

I think I am like many people that grew up internalizing this struggle of how spiritual law and faith plays out in our daily joys and struggles. My faith community as a child gave me safety, a place and a language to explore my spiritual identity. Sitting in the pews of the sanctuary of our church during Sunday school as a child, singing songs about Bible stories and Bible verses gave me true joy and peace, and I remember thinking that my voice and song were direct intercessions to God, and that I was heard. A communion was taking place, and I knew it in every note and song.

When I first read Rumi, this communion that I felt as a child came upon me with an expansive fresh newness. His ecstatic poetry gave me yet another language with which to open my heart. His ties between the sacred and the profane beckoned me. His insight into the Bible characters I loved as a child — Moses, Abraham, and Jesus — brought a mystical and universal perspective that children intuitively understand and I had forgotten. I was lured into Rumi's world and stumbled along my way.

I have learned from Rumi that the very things that bind us can also set us free. My mother was instrumental in my playing music. Growing up in a poor farming family, she always wanted to play the piano, but her mother and father couldn't afford to pay for lessons. She, therefore, insisted on my taking lessons, and for the first few years, I detested having to sit in front of this instrument, learning chords and practicing scales. I still remember the day it all finally made sense, and I learned I could make beautiful music with those little black notes on the page. After that, I dove into the music, practicing hours and hours at a time like no time had passed. Not only were connections happening in my brain and translating to notes on a keyboard, but my soul was expanding, from a little box in my chest to the whole instrument, which became my intimate companion, and instrument to express the longing Rumi so intimately speaks of.

I am now a few years older, live a thousand miles away from that little Midwest community, and don't play music nearly as much as I used to. I have fallen in love with Rumi like I fell in love with music, using his soul language as an instrument with which to play my everyday existence, learning everyday how to bring my heart and passion into my work and my community. It's not always easy, like practicing scales and translating notes from page to fingers. But then a door opens, and words on a page turn into the big, fluid, freedom Rumi talks about. Rumi's words are a guide from beyond, a finger pointing us to the mystical moon. They can be just words, or an instrument to lift us into a place where everything is music:

Love has taken away my practices and filled me with poetry.

I tried to keep quietly repeating, No strength but yours, but I couldn't.

I had to clap and sing. I used to be respectable and chaste and stable, but who can stand in this strong wind and remember those things?

A mountain keeps an echo deep inside itself. That's how I hold your voice.

I am scrap wood thrown in your fire, and quickly reduced to smoke.

I saw you and became empty. This emptiness, more beautiful than existence, it obliterates existence, and yet when it comes, existence thrives and creates more existence!

The sky is blue. The world is a blind man squatting on the road.

But whoever sees your emptiness sees beyond blue and beyond the blind man.

A great soul hides like Muhammed, or Jesus, moving through a crowd in a city where no one knows him.

To praise is to praise how one surrenders to the emptiness.

To praise the sun is to praise your own eyes. Praise, the ocean. What we say, a little ship.

So the sea-journey goes on, and who knows where! Just to be held by the ocean is the best luck we could have. It's a total waking up!

Why should we grieve that we've been sleeping? It doesn't matter how long we've been unconscious.

We're groggy, but let the guilt go. Feel the motions of tenderness around you, the buoyancy.

—"Buoyancy," from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks

Discovering Rumi has allowed me to open the door to my true home.

Kelli Koning
Carolina Beach, NC (Listens to On Being OnDemand)

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is professor of Persian & Comparative Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, and the author of several books, including Reading Mystical Lyric: The Case of Jalal aI-Din Rumi.