My joy —
My Hunger —
My Shelter —
My Friend —
My Food for the journey —
My journey’s End —
You are my breath,
My abundant wealth.
Without You — my Life, my Love —
I would never have wandered across these endless countries.
You have poured out so much grace for me,
Done me so many favors, given me so many gifts —
I look everywhere for Your love —
Then suddenly I am filled with it.
O Captain of my Heart
Radiant Eye of Yearning in my breast,
I will never be free from You
As long as I live.
Be satisfied with me, Love,
And I am satisfied.
–Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya, 7th Century Sufi Saint
“With you in love,” that’s how she always signed her letters, to me, at least. And every year, she would send out a group Valentine’s Day letter, because she couldn’t seem to get around to doing Christmas cards. She even had a little “heart” stamp, the heart being her favorite symbol, and Valentine’s Day being her favorite holiday.
“She” was Rabia. Several great souls have left these environs lately, and all of them have been dear to some, many to all. Now one of my oldest and dearest friends, Rabia, has departed, yet the legacy she left behind her is one of such breadth of feeling and love that it is self-evident that she is one of the great ones who made so much love while she was here that she will never truly leave. She was a person and she was a saint, and the reason I know she was a saint is because if she knew she had been called that, she would have gotten a good laugh out of it and said something to the effect of “let’s get on with it; what do we need to do next?”
Rabia and I were brought together because of the Sufi order we both gave our lives to, a phrase that sounds too dramatic, but is in fact true. She was, in fact, my very first Sufi friend. I met her when I was about 20 years old, because I had been searching for Sufism since I was about 16 and first saw my teacher, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, on a televised interview. At that time, I had not the slightest idea what a “guru” was, what meditation was, or not much at all about Sufism, although I had read Gibran and done such research as I was able to in rural West Virginia. But I saw this man dressed in these terribly impressive wool robes, youngish then, and with short hair, clean-shaven (that changed shortly), and I thought “I belong to that man.” I didn’t know what that meant, either, but that is what I thought. I think the word “disciple” flashed through my mind…that did mean something to me, so I must have had some innate idea. However, it was not until I left home and moved to Cleveland, Ohio, that I began to search earnestly for the Sufis, with this man’s image in the back of my mind. One day, it happened: I saw a newspaper article about a seminar at the local Unity church that this man was giving, and I saw that I could at least attend a public lecture at the end of it. So I went to that, and was blown away, still not quite understanding what was happening to me.
Months later, Pir Vilayat came through again for a seminar, and I attempted to register for it, but for some reason, there was “no room” for me on one of the days, but there was on the first. So I went, and I started asking people about the Sufis, because it was the Theosophical Society that was sponsoring the seminar. People kept telling me “Talk to Mary Jeanne!” And someone pointed her out. She was still pretty young then, and she was a “looker.” Fashionable, beautiful, rather intimidating to this then-hippie of limited wardrobe. I approached her, though, and got my first explosion of the light she radiated:
We were both headed toward the ladies’ room at that time, and I told her what I was looking for. She wasn’t quite sure where to point me, and we went into our respective stalls and while we peed, she told me about both the Sufis and the local Theosophical Society. She said “you’ll have to decide which you want,” and I immediately said, heart in mouth, “Oh, I want to be a Sufi!” We were emerging from our stalls by then, and I will never forget her swooping down on me like some splendid archangel, because she HEARD me. From that time, she took me under her wing, and from that time, we were into and out of each other’s lives with fair regularity. She took me to my first Universal Worship and it was there that I met my first initiator, Ann Nicholas, one of the other great souls who came into my life before I was old enough to appreciate them. Rabia also made sure I met Shamcher Bryn Beorse, one of my two life’s teachers. I met him in Rabia’s backyard, where Shamcher–possibly to teach me a good lesson–gave me a mind-blowing initiation that put me through astonishing “trips” for years. But that’s a story for another time. The point is that Rabia was my fairy godmother, always, although she would have snorted at that idea.
I stayed at her house when I later left that area but would come back to visit, we wrote letters, we often met up at what we euphemestically called “Sufi Camps” in those days, retreats in nature that took place all over the world. I have done retreats in the French Alps, in New Mexico, in California in the desert, in the upper loft of an abandoned carriage house in Boston . . . But most of the ones I (and she) attended were at the Abode of the Message, in its old Shaker Village setting in upper New York state.
What I remember about Rabia (the “Sufi” name she eventually received, I assume from Pir Vilayat, who gave me my name, Amidha) is that she was always busy. She never had time for gossip or backbiting or politics (at least in my experience), and she never had time to criticize anyone. At the same time, she wanted to know everything about everyone, and when we met, we would exchange everything we knew about everyone we knew. Marriages, divorces, births, all were fair game, and more, but I never once heard her to be unkind about anyone. Once, when we had known each other for well over ten years by then, we both showed up at a Sufi leader’s retreat in Ocate, New Mexico. Rabia had married a wonderful man named Nick Longworth, and I think he was rather puzzled by these peculiar Sufis, because it was not his thing. But Rabia WAS his thing, and if she wanted to take their RV to the mountains and park it and go on retreat, then that was what they were going to do.
Now, an alchemical retreat, the way most of us do it in this order, is generally taken in silence, in the wilderness. This was quite a historic retreat, for many reasons, and ordinarily I would have observed silence, but Rabia and Nick were parked on the outside of the camp area (most people brought tents), and I’m not entirely sure what they did during the days of the retreat, but I imagine she tried to divide her time between him and his reasonable desire for sightseeing, and the retreat. I just knew that Rabia, extrovert that she was, would want to talk, and so I observed silence during the hours of the retreat, and in the evenings, I would walk over to where they were camping and talk to Rabia. I remember her expressing guilt that I was breaking silence for her, but I said that it was a privilege, so she let it go, and we chatted happily. I remember that, toward the time of my departure back to Tennessee, where I lived then, I realized that I was running out of money. I was a single mother, and I lived pretty close to the bone. I went to Rabia and guiltily asked her if I could borrow $100 from her, and she gave it to me, and I paid it back eventually. I remember another time, during those lean years, when I was flat broke, and out of the blue, she sent me some cash, saying “I just have a feeling I owe you some money, let me know if this isn’t enough.” I doubt that she owed me one thin dime, but golly! I needed those few bucks, and they came exactly when I needed them.
Rabia and I often lost touch with each other, because we were both gypsies, but we
always found each other again: “Darn it, where are you?” a letter to some address would be forwarded, asking. Then came my “lost years,” at least lost to the Sufi Order, because it was at that Ocate camp that I began to realize that I had climbed the mountain of God leaving all my baggage at its foot, and was going to have to go back and fetch it and decide what to do with it. I withdrew from the Sufi Order International for a good ten or so years, during which I went to college and grad school and went to live in Alaska. During that time, Nick having died, Rabia went to live at the Abode of the Message, which I suspect she had always wanted to do. She never could get enough of those Sufis, our Rabia! She and one of our other “elders” (or fairy godmothers), Aftab, lived at the top of one of those Shaker buildings, four stories up, as I recall, and neither of them was a spring chicken at that time, but they were the dames de grandes of the Abode. I sometimes felt anger that the Abode couldn’t get her down to a ground floor (and Aftab, as well), but I also heard that she wouldn’t stand for it. It was in the days of the Abode when no one had their own bathroom, although Rabia managed one; I never saw it, because the one time I had arranged to go and stay with her, physical problems intervened, and it didn’t happen.
Rabia and I, during that time, shared a similar “knee debacle;” both of us, as it happened, had knee surgery at the same time, but mine was bilateral, hers just one, and it went well for her. But that is another sweet memory, because elsewhere here are several accounts of the rather disastrous time I went through severe infection and ultimately multiple surgeries. What I remember most about that time is that at least once a week, Rabia would call to chat, and always had some beautiful and inspiring passage from some book ready to read to me to encourage and strengthen me.
All these memories span some 40 years of friendship, and they are not necessarily in order, but come as they come. I cannot say exactly when they took place, but this is what I remember. And our Rabia was quite the extrovert, and I suspect that these memories of mine will not at all rival the memories of any of her ten thousand friends, because I don’t believe she ever met anyone in her life who was not a friend.
In her last years at the Abode, tragedy struck: walking down the road one d
ay, Rabia turned a corner and was hit by a large truck. I was in North Carolina by that time, so all I know is that she sustained a head injury and nearly died… but didn’t. Not ready yet, our Rabia. But from that time on, she had increasingly bad memory problems, and what I remember so poignantly is that she didn’t waste her time on self-pity, but she was terribly embarrassed by her inability to remember simple things: faces, names, events… yet other things were never forgotten. After a time, her daughter Julie and family came to the Abode and brought her back to Kentucky, where Julie lived.
Rabia’s family placed her in an assisted-living facility initially, and I think it was hard for her. Even though she was in her late 80s by then, she was used to freedom and independence, and she really needed to have Sufis around. There didn’t seem to be too many of those in the city where she was, and even though her family supported her tenderly, it was not her world. During those early months, I wrote to her, making sure to put lots of pictures and names on my letters, so that she could see who was who. We would talk on the phone at least twice a week, and on some days, she would feel so lonely that she would call over and over, because my name–Amidha–was at the top of her phone list. We always answered, and she was always embarrassed, because she thought she was calling her daughter. I tried to tell her how grateful we were to be able to be there for her, but she didn’t quite “get” that. Other old friends offered support and visits, but it seemed that things went from bad to worse. Eventually, it became possible to move Rabia into a house across the street from her family, and round-the-clock care was arranged, including the care of her Sufi friend Mirabai, which was incredibly fortunate for her, and an amazingly loving thing for Mirabai to do. Toward the end (or beginning), Rabia was moved across the street into her family’s home, and that is where she ended her days.
The last real time I had with Rabia was when her daughter attended an event near our area, and she brought Rabia to spend the weekend with us. She was initially a trifle alarmed, I think, because she couldn’t remember who I was, but I smiled and said “but I know who you are, so who cares?” and she began to relax. But it was a telling moment, because she was, always, so completely herself that she knew painfully when she could not do “her” work. I think she didn’t realize that she was still doing it, and that was hard for her.
We had a simply wonderful weekend. Rabia loved our big barn of a log home, and my daughter told me that at night, when she was supposed to be sleeping under the wonderful duvet she said she loved (I passed her doorway in late afternoon to find her luxuriating in it, saying it was too good to leave), she wandered around, looking at the pictures on our walls, enjoying the space. She was difficult, in some ways, to entertain, because she was always so “on,” but when I asked her if she was enjoying herself, she said “Oh, I think this is just the highlight of my life!” And given the life she had lived, I’m sure that was not true, but it was such a typical remark for her to make. In the mornings, we sat on the porch and read Thomas Merton, and as we read, nodded sagely and exchanged looks of understanding. It was a communion of heart and soul. The first afternoon, we took her to the Nasher Art Museum, and had lunch and saw the exhibits. She was appalled at the price of her lunch, and grumbled about it for the rest of the afternoon, but she also enjoyed herself thoroughly (as I recall, we spent about $10 on her; we tried to hide the check–really!–but she managed to find out). Rabia loved to eat, but there were limits!
The best part of that halcyon weekend was when we went to a dramatic recitation of Rumi’s poetry, held in a big, historic church in Greensboro. That was when the true Rabia, the one I’d always known, came out: We sat in the pews and she held my hand–if Rabia sat next to you, she was going to hold your hand–and recited the poems by heart, this woman with such memory problems. She didn’t miss a line. Perhaps the reality was that Rabia managed to remember the important stuff. After the performance, we watched Rabia “work the room,” becoming friends with everyone there, affirming her world of friendship. I remember ecstatic greetings between her and another woman I knew slightly, who remembered her from the Abode. Afterwards, I asked her, “Did you know who that was?” She answered, “I never saw her in my life.” That was our Rabia: never met anyone who wasn’t a friend.
I have had a recurring dream throughout my life, of a valley where I live with many of the souls I’ve met here, souls I have somehow always known. On that last morning on our back porch I remembered that Rabia and I came from the same “soul village”… we hadn’t just shared our residency on earth, but in the heavens, in that green, green valley somewhere in the planes.
“I’ll always remember our mornings on the back porch,” and on that particular morning, we went into the early afternoon together, enjoying the sharing of wisdom, while my patient husband waited for us.
When Rabia returned to that village in her version of that valley this past week, Facebook, mailing lists, social media in general exploded with stories of those who adored her. Everyone had a memory to share, and everyone mourned. Yet we all knew that our lives had been better for her presence, and were grateful for that.
To my knowledge, she never wrote a book. She never presented herself as a teacher: “They know I’m not too good at this; that’s why they give me the beginners.” “Ha!” I thought. “They give you the beginners because they know that once they’ve hung out with you, they’re hooked for life!”
She once told me that when Pir Vilayat asked her what her last initiation had been, she said “Oh, I don’t know; just being with you is an initiation.” Stories about Rabia abound. She was a true Sufi. She worked hard and she never made any claims for herself. She never worried about achieving perfection, she just did the best she could.
I feel her radiance so clearly now. It was in the planes of light that our beloved Pir Vilayat told us he could be found after his passing, and so it has been. I feel that this is the case with Rabia, too: she was all light.
You are love.
You come from love.
You are made of love.
You cannot cease to love. – Inayat Khan
This story has no ending, and I may well be remembering little vignettes for some time and adding them in here, because from the time I started my blog, I saw it as a place to put things I didn’t want to lose.
Immortality is to be found in the love with which we create each other. She would have scoffed at being anyone’s teacher, but she taught a lot of lessons in love.
Death takes away the weariness of life, and the soul begins anew. – Inayat Khan