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Published: Mon Oct 1 2018
Spiritual Tourism: A Confession

The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less. . . .
_       _ —Annie Dillard

Despite being raised a cultural Muslim and only recently, in the last five years or so, finding myself deeply drawn to its mystical branch, Sufism, I also frequent churches with my dear wife, a practicing Catholic, from time to time. In fact, I frequently refer to a line from a homily I heard while visiting a church in Buenos Aires, and seek to apply it whenever I am stuck (in either life or literature):

El misterio necesita silencio y contemplación.
The Mystery requires silence and contemplation.

Yet, on account of a quirk in my temperament that I only partially understand, I am not a practicing anything (other than artist). I realize that Paths are also relationships and, to be meaningful, they require fidelity. I also know that it’s all very well being a spiritual tourist, keeping in mind that one cannot truly know a place until you live there. To put it slightly differently, the Sufis say that a person who tries to find water by digging a little here and there will die of thirst. Whereas the one who digs deeply in one spot will find water to drink and share with others.

Thus, I’ve come to regard unfortunate spiritual tourists or erratic diggers, such as myself, as being the playboys of religion, perpetually thirsty—with a glut of choices, overfed, yet undernourished. What I’m describing, of course, is not unique; it’s almost a modern predicament. So, despite finding great beauty, meaning and solace in different religious expression and traditions, to my regret, I find that I’m unable to fully commit to any one (and, in turn, reap the benefits of a sustaining discipline). Instead, I continue to pore over the lives of saints and mystics for guidance—Daoist, Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Muslim—longing for transformation as I continue to fashion my queer artist’s metaphysics.

Is there “resolution” in matters of the Spirit? All we can do is to share what we have. What I have, at this stage, is a profound and abiding appreciation of mystical literature as soul-transforming, and a calling. In turn, I attempt through my writing (poetry, aphorisms, even meditative prose pieces) to take readers There. Despite the personal impasse I find myself at, I’ve come to an understanding of my vocation. With humility and wonder, I view the artist as a kind of mystic, and art a form of prayer.

There is a quotation I find myself returning to, regularly, to better explain my literary-spiritual predicament:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.
―Frederick Buechner

Which is to say, not only are callings mysteries to the bewildered persons being summoned, but it’s also marvelous how our inner longings correspond with outer needs.

I would never have imagined, for example, as a reactionary Existentialist (in my teens and twenties) who turned my back on my culture’s oppressive religiosity—by throwing the luminous baby out with the sordid bath water—that I would one day find myself drawn to mysticism, specifically Sufism, or called to serve as a type of apologist for the  vilified faith of my Home: Islam.

Yet, such is where my deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger met. Strange to say but, recently, I’ve come to think of myself as something of an ex-writer, no longer enamored by art for art’s sake, or purely literary concerns. Instead, what I try to do, lately, as an immigrant and poet living in the divided states of America and our wounded world, is to share the beauty I find in Sufism in hopes this might bring about some peace and healing— encouraging readers to question received wisdom, move past the false idols of popular culture, and begin the difficult work of heart purification.

Much of my new book of 800 original aphorisms, Where Epics Fail, is composed under the influence of Sufi literature, which I increasingly turn to for sustenance and inspiration. Aphorisms are connected to a Sufi-informed world view in the sense that Rumi meant when he stated in his discourses, Fihi Ma Fihi (It Is What It Is): the best words are those that are few and to the point. So, aphorisms are connected to wisdom literature, in general and, Sufism in particular. Ibn Ata Illah, for examples, is an important Sufi saint and sage of 13th century Egypt who bequeathed us his treasured Kitab al Hikam (Book of Wisdom) composed of aphoristic writing.

I define aphorisms as “what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.” Which is to say that, out of the ongoing conversation I have with myself, occasionally I’ll overhear a line that I think is good enough to stand alone and represent the subject I’ve been musing on. My hope is that my spiritual aphorisms, found in my latest work, might serve as a form of peace offering and balm in these troubled times. Below, is a mixed bouquet from Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By:

The contemplative life is not a passive one.

Our most profound prayers hardly reach our lipsthey are made with our entire being.

The divided self is spiritually immature. Divine union begins with self unity.

Wings are, always, on loan.

Think of existence as a great love story: every shy creature or timid truth wants to be courted; every secret wants to be toldcultivate the art of listening.

Yahia Lababidi began writing aphorisms as a teenager in Egypt more than twenty years ago. Today, Lababidi is an internationally published aphorist, poet, and essayist, with work appearing in such publications as World Literature Today, Cimarron Review, AGNI, Rain Taxi, and Philosophy Now. He is the author of two collections of aphorisms, Where Epics Fail (Unbound, forthcoming 2017), featured on PBS NewsHour, and Signposts to Elsewhere (Jane Street Press, 2008), selected as a Book of the Year by The Independent (U.K.); three poetry collections, Balancing Acts: New & Selected Poems (1993–2015) (Press 53), Barely There (Wipf and Stock Publishers), and Fever Dreams (Crisis Chronicles Press); and an essay collection, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing. Another of his projects is a series of ecstatic literary dialogues in collaboration with Alex Stein, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi. Lababidi’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including the bestselling Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists. His writing has been translated into Arabic, Slovak, Dutch, Swedish, Turkish, Spanish, Hebrew, German, and Italian, and he was chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt Prize for International Literature. Lababidi is included in the first anthology of contemporary American aphorists, Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit (Schaffner Press). (updated 2/2016)

Read Alex Stein‘s “The Prayer of Attention: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi,” an AGNI Online interview excerpted in Harper’s Magazine’s “Links” for April 21, 2010.

A second interview appears in AGNI 74, Alex Stein‘s “The Exquisites: A Conversation with Yahia Lababidi.”

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