Another year has run its course, and a new year, a new circuit around the sun, is upon us. 2016 is already a bygone age, its faded days now consigned to the vaults of memory. Ahead, 2017 looms large, bristling with hazards, brimming with opportunities, and wrapped in mystery. Do you feel the ground under your feet? This embodied moment is the threshold between the past and the future, the boundary between the known and the yet-to-be-known. This is what we are given. Here we take our stand.
What are we to make of the past? Should we shrug it off and keep shuffling along? Or, faced with the onslaught of an unwelcome future, are we justified in making a perfumed shrine of what once was, or seemed to be—a halcyon haven in which to retreat in a pique of defiant nostalgia?
We will all always do as we wish. But our wishes are best rewarded when guided by understanding, and understanding is the product of reflection. To penetratingly reflect on the past is to absorb its lessons in our bones.
Murshid says, “The Sufi learns not only by the study of books but by the study of life. The whole of life is like an open book to a Sufi and every experience is a step forward in one’s spiritual journey.”
In retrospect, the past year consists of a series of steps taken. Looking back, we may ask ourselves, which steps of ours were sure-footed, and which were maladroit? Which were the strides that sped us along the road to the Friend, and what sorts of stumbles sent us into the ditch? We can learn as much from our collapses as from our advances if our eyes are open.
Trial and error is part of the forward march of life. The real error is the error of repeating our errors time and again, refusing to learn. The sign of learning is repentance: having the humility to admit mistakes, having the insight to understand our mistakes, forming the resolution to make amends, and taking the initiative to ask God’s forgiveness. What is requested must be accepted when it is granted. We show that we have accepted God’s forgiveness when we move forward resolutely.
But it is not only in studying our own lives that we stand to gain understanding. Wisdom is the butter of life, and just as the child Krishna was known to steal butter whenever he could, we do well when we avail ourselves of the knowledge that is available from every person and every situation. The wise and the foolish may equally serve as our teachers. The virtues and vices of those we encounter day by day may prove equally illuminating as mirrors revealing the choices that are ours to make.
The past is a treasury of experience from which to learn. To learn well, however, we must also unlearn. This means shaking off the compulsive grip of all kinds of half-truths, complacent assumptions, and niggling fears—in short, the full sum of our unexamined prejudices about our selves, other people, the world, and reality in its totality. We’ve got to open our minds, expand our hearts, and look anew at the universe with fresh vision.
As Jesus said, only when the “planks” are removed from our eyes will we properly perceive the present moment. Otherwise, the here and now is merely the shadowy perpetuation of the then and there. The dross of the past endures and obscures the essence of the present. We see through a glass darkly.
In Arabic the heart is called qalb, which is related to the word qalab, meaning “mold.” The heart is a mold, a vessel that contains whatever fits within its contours. If the heart is narrow it will hold little; if it is wide it will hold more. If it is rigid it will accommodate only that which conforms to its predetermined shape. If it is malleable it will encompass whatever is bestowed.
Disclosures of God’s presence are constantly given to the world, but a disclosure is never repeated—each is unique, as God is unique. A narrow, brittle heart can contain little more than the flaking residue of an old disclosure. An expansive heart, by contrast, meets the vividness of each moment in its fullness. Such was the heart of Abraham, who prayed each morning, “O God, this is a new creation!”
Hence a Sufi is called a “child of the moment.” To be a child of the moment is to be born anew with each dawning instant of time. It is to witness everything perpetually dissolving into emptiness and reappearing, reanimated by the rhythmic pulse of the Divine fiat: “Be!”
This is what we are given. This moment, this now, this ground under our feet, this sky over our heads, this encounter with faces and forms, this awareness. Revealing the whole of what is shown is a light that is continuously renewed in our minds. That light, we may be sure, will never die.
The past has morphed into this moment, and the present will become the future. What our minds nurture will be grown in us; what we renounce will be composted. Good seeds and the elixir of well-churned decay are bound to produce a rich harvest if Providence is smiling.
There is nothing to be gained in brooding listlessly over dark dreads. Jesus said, “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.” Muhammad said, “Even if you expect the world’s end tomorrow, plant a tree today.”
Let beauty lead. It will lead to a more beautiful tomorrow if we follow it. Follow the trace of what-may-be, the track of the shimmering ideal. Travel in the footsteps of those who leave marks of wisdom and kindness in their wake. Their path will surely lead us to the Friend.
Look to the past, look to present, look to the future—wherever you turn, if your eyes are open, there is God’s Face. Past, present, and future are in essence no different from each other. All that is has always been, and will always be, in the One. It is only our perspective that alters, like a searchlight flashing across the sky. “Time is God,” says Murshid, “and God is eternal.”
May our perception widen, deepen, refine, extend, and partake more and more of the light of the One whose glance, encompassing and harmonizing all of the myriad angles of vision streaming through creation, is reality itself.
Let us pray:
O Thou who abidest in our hearts,
most Merciful and Compassionate God,
Lord of Heaven and Earth,
we forgive others their trespasses and ask Thy forgiveness of our shortcomings.
We begin the New Year with pure heart and clear conscience, with courage and hope.
Help us to fulfil the purpose of our lives under Thy divine guidance.