An Ode to Almustafa
If memory serves — after all, it has been over 30 years — I was somewhere between New Orleans and Waycross, Georgia. It was late winter, but the southern air felt mild and the sun brightened the sky.
Hitchhiker’s weather, to be sure.
I was waiting at a rest stop with my thumb stuck out when a pickup towing a large camper lumbered to a halt in front of me. I climbed in and offered my heartfelt thanks.
The driver, wearing a red flannel coat in hunter’s plaid, surprised me by identifying himself as a pastor on vacation. He asked the usual questions — where was I headed, where was I from, why was I travelling this way — then launched into his story.
There are two ways hitchhikers pay for their rides. One is by talking, by entertaining a driver lonely from the road and weary of recorded music or talk radio. The other is by listening, by letting drivers unburden themselves without the cost of therapy, secure in the knowledge that their disclosures will vanish into the air the moment the passenger exits the vehicle … the comfort of strangers and all that.
Clergy have gotten a bad rap in recent years — much of it their own doing. Corruption is bad enough from politicians and business executives, but we have every right to expect more from our religious leaders. The entire edifice of theology suffers from every single act of spiritual infidelity.
Still, there remain many sincere men of the cloth, and my benefactor appeared faithful to the integrity of his office. He saw his mission not only to minister but to shepherd his flock toward pastures sown thick with the morality and ethics of scripture, to challenge them to challenge themselves and prod them to pay closer attention to the calling of their conscience.
And sadly, like spiritual leaders from Moses until today, he had found ample cause for disappointment.
Back to the Future
It was 1984, nearly a decade closer to the assassination of Martin Luther King than to the election of America’s first black president. I had already traveled enough to discover that my southern California upbringing had left me unprepared to confront the racism still permeating the deep south.
Apparently, the good pastor wasn’t quite prepared himself.
On one recent Sunday morning, he had stood at the pulpit and broached the topic of social responsibility, of reaching out to people who are different from ourselves, of taking steps to bridge the racial divide in true Christian spirit. After services, one prominent member of his congregation remarked, “Lovely sermon, Father.”
Then he added. “Don’t give it again.”
I sympathized with his lamentation. Never did it occur to me that one day I would be a member of the clergy myself, intimately acquainted with shepherding a flock of my own away from the comfortable pastures of complacency toward the foreboding fields of inner change and personal transformation.
Then again, perhaps I might have foreseen where I would end up. Why was I on the road, after all, if not to discover myself, if not to push myself into the unknown, if not to skirt the edge of the map to see if, indeed, heere there be monsters? And why did I care to delve into the hidden places of the soul if not to bring a cup from the ocean of wisdom so that others might drink with me and share what I had found?
And yet, for all that, I might have known I was on a fool’s errand. I had already tried and failed to share the insights of earlier travels with friends who couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see past the familiar landscapes of their own little lives, who shut themselves off from vistas that made their world seem frighteningly large or made themselves seem uncomfortably small.
Lost in Translation
I felt deflated and disillusioned, having so much to tell and finding no audience willing to pay the price of attention for admission into my circle of experience. I had barely scratched the surface of all the world had to offer, and even that was too deep and too imposing for those who had no desire to look beyond the nearest horizon.
It was only then that I fully understood the lamentation of Almustafa, finding myself as I did in the company of Kahlil Gibran’s tragic hero:
My soul is overflowing with her wine.
Who now will pour and drink and be cooled of the desert heat?
Would that I were a tree flowerless and fruitless,
For the pain of abundance is more bitter than barrenness,
And the sorrow of the rich from whom no one will take
Is greater than the grief of the beggar to whom none would give.
Would that I were a well, dry and parched , and men throwing stones into me;
For this were better and easier to be borne than to be a source of living water
When men pass by and will not drink.
Would that I were a reed trodden under foot,
For that were better than to be a lyre of silvery strings
In a house whose lord has no fingers
And whose children are deaf.*
Such is the fate of all who aspire to look beyond the limits of earthly perception, of all who strive to share their vision with a world content in its philosophic myopia.
Socrates was indicted as a heretic for exposing the logical contradictions of Greek morality, convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens, and sentenced to drink hemlock for his crimes. The fruitless search by Diogenes to find an honest man left him cynical and embittered. The Children of Israel preferred to imprison or kill the prophets who foretold divine retribution when repentance would have rendered those predictions null and void. Indeed, was anyone more painfully cursed than Cassandra, condemned to witness her dire prophecies ignored again and again and again?
But an authentic seeker of truth has no choice but to persevere. Socrates was correct: the unexamined life is not worth living. And anyone driven by natural temperament and by the callings of conscience to embark on that examination can no sooner stop than he can will himself not to breathe. If you know what I’m talking about, I don’t have to explain. If you don’t, then there’s nothing more I can say.
Part of me would like to know what became of the pastor after he let me off that winter morning. But he has his road to travel, as I have mine.
*From In the Garden of the Prophet
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