The co-founder of the Threshold Society, an educational foundation rooted in the Mevlevi tradition of Sufism, author and translator Camille Helminski’s books include The Book of Nature, The Light of Dawn, and The Rumi Collection. Spirituality & Health columnist Rabbi Rami Shapiro spoke with her about her work.
Your life is steeped in the wisdom of Sufism, the mystical teachings of Islam. How would you define Sufism for people who are not familiar with it?
One could say that Sufism is a way of purity, safa, of cleansing the heart of whatever blocks one from experiencing the divine presence in every moment—and in this way becoming a conduit of blessing. This practice is informed by the beautiful and powerful transmission of the Koran and the example of the Prophet Mohammed and all the prophets and messengers of the divine.
What drew you to Sufism?
Having already encountered the ideas of Sufism, it was meeting our sheik, Suleyman Dede, and recognizing a true human being that made me feel as though I had come home. He was a living example of the unification of body, mind, heart, and spirit that is at the core of Sufi practice, a master of love. I appreciated the acknowledgement that the possibility of this unity is inherent within every human being, each of us nourished by the loving generosity of the divine power beyond all names and attributes.
I imagine that most of our readers who hear the word “Sufi” think of the 13th-century poet Rumi, and I know he plays a major role in your life.
Rumi, Mevlana, “Our Master,” is so dear that I cannot imagine my life without his friendship and that of his beloved mentor and friend Shams of Tabriz. Their words and spirit continually offer wisdom, guidance, support, and encouragement. Through their example, and that of elders in the tradition, I came to know love as the most basic fact and ground of being. As Rumi writes, “With every breath, the sound of love surrounds us . . . we are bound for the source of splendor.”
You talk a lot about love and the experience of love, and your book Women of Sufism explores the lives of many female Sufi lovers of God. Can you tell a bit about two women who speak to you most powerfully?
Just two? Well, Rabia al-Adawiyya is the one who first referred to the divine as “the beloved.” She immersed herself in that love. I’m reminded of the story of her walking through the streets with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked why, she replied, “With the torch I will set fire to paradise and with the water put out the flames of hell so that these veils might disappear and the truth of the real goal might be revealed.”
Another who comes to heart just now is Fahrunnisa, a dear friend and disciple of [Rumi] who lived near him and was a powerful teacher in her own right. Her name means “pride of women.” She was such a beautiful light. In Konya (Turkey), there is a small mosque that includes her tomb on “Tea Garden” street where she continues to welcome visitors.
In addition to translating Rumi, you have published translations of verses from the Koran as well. Can you share a passage with us?
There are so many beautiful passages . . . in this moment the one that comes to heart is: “We will show them our signs on the farthest horizons and within their own selves until it becomes manifest to them that this is the truth.” [41:53].
The divine reality, Allah, God, permeates all existence.
Yes, all of creation from the farthest horizons to our deepest innermost self is teaching us—revealing to us—the manifest presence of the divine. The way of the Sufi, the way of Mevlana Rumi, the way of these great women saints is the way of witnessing the divine within everything and everyone—encompassing all.
Last February I heard you teach, and you mentioned that humankind is at a turning point.
Yes, it seems to me that humanity is approaching another defining moment. Our increased capacity to alter the earth and all life challenges us to achieve a level of spiritual humility and awakening beyond any we have known.
Are you optimistic that we can do this?
I find comfort and hope in the stories of the prophets and saints who faced great challenges and yet through deep listening to spirit were able to discover what was needed in the moment. Moment by moment the divine is calling all of us, inviting all of us into greater awareness that we might see everywhere a revelation, a witnessing of the unseen. Rather than getting caught up in defending illusory boundaries between ourselves and others we will see the unity of self and other with the divine.
How can we participate in the unfolding of this witness?
Spiritual practice helps us to overcome these illusions of separateness.
Can you recommend a practice with which we can all engage?
Let me offer two. One gateway to this witnessing is the breath. When you recognize that the air that flows through you also flows through me, inshallah [God willing], we might delight more in the flowing, breathing out the tensions and opening to the new life that is continually breathing us, moment by moment.
Another is prayer. Prayer opens us to the beloved’s guidance. If we are coarse, our experience is coarse; but we have the inherent possibility of a beautiful refinement. Prayer can help with this. As Rumi teaches, “First I was raw, then I was cooked, then I was burning” . . . vibrating with the light of love. We can all learn to vibrate with the light of love, and doing so is the way of the Sufi.