To day the forgotten treasure that I want to speak about is the book “The Prophet” by Kahlil Gibran. I read this book many years ago but recently I re- read it with a new appreciation of its value. “The Prophet” is Gibran’s most famous work; it was published in 1923. It has been translated into more than forty languages and has been in continuous print since its publication. Gibran is the 3rd best selling poet of all times coming after Shakespeare and Lau Tzu. John Lennon used some lines of Gibran’s poetry in his song “Julia”.
Gibran was born in the Lebanon in 1883 his family emigrated to America in 1895 he was a writer, an artist and a poet. His childhood was lived in poverty under the shadow of ill health in the family; yet his artistic and literary talents were recognised and developed he died in 1931aged just 46. His outstanding talent was writing on spirituality yet he died of cirrhosis of the liver. Living in America his family felt that the young Kahlil was in danger of losing his culture, so as a young teenager Gibran was sent back to study in the Lebanon and later in Paris. He was deeply influenced by melting pot of cultures that is the Lebanon. He saw beyond distinctions of faith and political loyalties he wrote “Spare me political events and power struggles as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen”.
Referring to religion, he wrote “You are my brother and I love you. I love you when you prostrate yourself in your mosque and kneel in your church and pray in your synagogue. You and I are sons of one faith – The Spirit”. Religions and cultures can build barriers; people are united by the common spiritual search. Gibran saw all people as children of the Spirit.
Gibran completed about 700 works of art he was friends with and painted WB Yeats, Carl Jung and the sculptor Rodin. He was a very successful artist.
The book “The Prophet” is written in the form of a question and answer session between Almustafa referred to as “The Prophet” and the community he has lived among for twelve years. The Prophet is about to embark on a ship that will take him back to his native country; as the community gather to say goodbye it is as if they are attempting to extract every particle of wisdom from their Prophet before he leaves them.
Individuals question the Prophet about their area of concern. So a woman with a baby asks about children, the weaver asks about clothes the merchant questions him about buying and selling Etc… In all there are twenty six questions and responses. Unlike the Christian and other Scriptures this book is concerned with this life; not about theology or an afterlife. The book has an underlying assumption of the existence of God or a higher power and that human beings are souls inhabiting a physical body. The human soul is drawn to the Good or God but humans are easily distracted from their true destiny by the trivialities of this world. The book is advice about living spiritually. Each section begins with the request “And speak to us of”…
The subjects raised are the events that happen between birth and death. A few examples are Joy and Sorrow, Teaching, Friendship, Prayer, and Beauty. The advice is rock solid goof sense. The sections on Marriage and Children are often used at weddings and Baptisms in this Church; Gibran writing on these subjects is sublime; but the remainder of the book seldom if ever gets an airing and that is a pity. Gibran’s work contains nuggets of wisdom about all aspects of living. There is no indication whether or not the subjects are listed in any order of priority. The first ones are Love, Marriage Children … the last is death the second from last is Religion. I thought that for today I will pick a few headings and listen to what Gibran has to say concerning them.
The first one I have chosen is number six on Gibran’s list and the subject is Work. A ploughman asks the question; so the answer is set in agricultural terms. Gibran dismisses out of hand the idea in Genesis that work is a curse. Work is part of life but it is not life’s entirety. He says that when we work and rest we keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth. Working and resting; form a rhythm that resembles music. Gibran says that when you work that “you fulfil a part of earth’s furthest dream, assigned to you when that dream was formed”. So we are assigned our part to play in life. He makes no distinction between types of work all work is of equal value. The work of the shoemaker is of equal value to the artist or the merchant.
The ideal Gibran says is that we should always try to work with love. Working with love is different than loving our work. When we work with love we bring the best in ourselves to the task, we weave part of our soul into what we do. Obviously this view of work is a poetic one; sometimes we achieve the ideal; sometimes work is just work. But when we put love into our work we make our deeds sacred. Cutting the grass or doing housework is an act of love. Sweeping the floor, doing the washing up is practice in mindfullness. And of course work is never just a salary.
Gibran is at his finest when he speaks of idleness. What he says has relevance in our society today. He says to be idle is “to step out of life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the Infinite”. To be idle is “To step out of life’s procession”. All those people who are currently unemployed are forced “to step out of Life’s procession”. This is the reality of life for almost four hundred thousand Irish citizens; they are forced “out of life’s procession” assigned a role at the sidelines. They watch life marching past; they can not fully participate in their community. The current economic solution for those who still “march in life’s procession” is that they march quicker and for longer hours. Work is made the focus of existence; the rhythm of life as being work and rest and play is lost.
I have no solution for unemployment; but we can at least make ourselves aware of how we spend our money. Do we support the work of individuals within our community or do we buy the cheap mass produced items produced in oppressive conditions for workers? We can’t change the system; we can make a difference in individual cases and we do have a obligation to support to charities that support the unemployed.
We are all familiar with references made by Jesus in the Gospels concerning wealth. Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat or drink tomorrow because our Heavenly Father will take care of us. Then there is the story of the rich young man; Jesus tells him that in order to enter the Kingdom of God he must sell his goods, give to the poor and follow Jesus. These are among the most poetic stories in the Gospels. But we don’t really believe that we are to take them literally; we like to think of our lifestyle as that of a prudent individual. Not a mean person; a rightly sensible individual. This is our excuse for ignoring the teachings of Jesus.
Gibran writes of our need to own things; our desire for a life with comforts. He says that “comfort comes into our homes as a welcome guest, it quickly becomes a host and then our master”. Comforts tame our spirit, lull us to sleep, he says our desire for comfort “murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral procession” Isn’t that wonderful. “Our desire for comforts murders the passion of the soul and walks grinning at the funeral”. Most of us live with the knowledge that we take the safer option because of our attachment to our comforts. We allow our need for comfort to “murder our passions”. He says that that those who are really alive are alive because they are not content “to dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living”. Gibran pulls no punches; he has nothing to say about cute sparrows; he says wake up live before you die. Give to others that you can be the giver. If you give while you live you benefit, if you don’t give while you are alive you will give everything at death and your inheritors will have the benefit of giving.
In Gibran’s book it is the rich man who asks the question about Giving. The Prophet answers that when we hold on to possessions we are like “an over prudent dog burying bones in trackless sand”. He articulates different motivations for giving; we should give without being miserable and without seeking virtue. The right motivation for giving is that we know that we have received gifts from life. When we believe in life and in the bounty of life our coffers are never empty. When we act from the right motivation of giving because we also have received then he says “through our actions God speaks”.
An Old Priest asks the penultimate question. He says Speak to us of Religion. At this stage the Prophet has addressed twenty four subjects about life; he replied that everything he has spoken was about was religion. We cannot separate our faith from our actions; we live our faith in everything we do. We cannot divide our time so much for God the rest for myself. This is for my soul this is for my body. Religion is not like a window that we open and shut to suit our mood or our finances. Gibran says “Your daily life is your temple and your religion” Religion is not just for Sundays it is not just a nice a social habit. And religion is more than ethics; if we see religion as simply ethical living then we – “imprison the song of our soul. We are like a bird trying to soar on one wing”.
Of God Gibran says little but if we want to know God we will not make any progress by talking about God. He says that “God is not a riddle to be solved”. Trying to solve God as a riddle is close to Unitarian hearts. To know God Gibran says - play with children and observe nature. See God in Children, in the power of a thunder storm in the beauty of a flower in bloom.
Kahlil Gibran’s book “The Prophet” is probably languishing on the bottom shelf of your bookshelf. It will be well worth your while to give is another read; it really is a treasure.
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church. Dublin 14th October 2012.