The Reverend Dr. Katie Snipes Lancaster
My Neighbor’s Prayer: The Vocabulary of Blessing as Common Bond
Sana’i was born in Ghazna—a city southwest of what is today Kabul, Afghanistan. He came of age in the early twelfth century, long after the rise of Islam, and was a poet first, and then a theologian. He had his own moment of spiritual reckoning after a personal encounter with a man known as the town drunk—Lai Khur—but who may have actually been “God-intoxicated” and not drunk. Regardless this meeting with Lai Khur pushed him to rethink his vocation, and he undertook a spiritual pilgrimage of sorts, traveling for a long while before finally settling in Khorasan (current day Iran) where he found a spiritual master.
No surprise after this spiritual searching and awakening, Sana’i returned to the work of poetry, but this time with a spiritual bent. He was one of the first mystic Sufi poets to take the traditional Arabic poetic forms like masnavi (the epic poem), qasida (the ode), or ghazal (lyric poetry) and use those forms to extol the virtues of the Islamic spiritual path. Sufi poets take Adam (as in Adam and Eve) as their guide: Adam is considered the first Sufi poet, the one who named everything. They believe that from Hebrew or the “Adamic” alphabet all languages and therefore poetry was born.
Scholar Hazrat Inayat Khan says that “real poetry comes from the dancing of the soul… no soul can dance which is not alive.” To dance with Sana’i is to find your soul truly alive, awake to a new reality. In his last book called “The Walled Garden of Truth” he writes, “why should darkness grieve the heart? For night is pregnant with new day.” I hold this lightly, knowing that grief can lead to darkness, and yet, if we are to hope for a time beyond the darkest dark of grief, then maybe we need this kind of reorientation, the rhythms of life ebb and flow, cycle and recycle. Darkness does not have the last word, neither does light. We are certainly creatures of light. And yet metaphorical darkness—“the dark night of the soul” as St. John of the Cross might put it—is different from literal darkness. Maybe that is part of what Hakim Sana’i means when he says, “There is great joy in darkness. Deepen it.” I find great comfort in these words because he plays with our expectations: we expect joy to be found in the light. We expect darkness to be something to be avoided. But darkness paired with joy has a different kind of possibility, and Sana’i asks us to dwell there, to sit with that possibility and let it simmer.
My Neighbor’s Prayer
There is great joy in darkness.
Hakim Sanai (1080–1131)
Sufi Poet born in Ghazna, Afghanistan