Sense and Sensibilities

Maria-Àngels Roque

Editor-in-Chief of Quaderns de la Mediterrània

In this dossier we are not going to set out the respectable differences that exist in the religious orthodoxies, or the history of the divisions that constitute the diversity in each religion. Rather, we will outline those shared sensibilities and their artistic representations, the result of cultural mixing. Some forums on this subject are set up by religious leaders with the objective of considering reconciliations, while other forums, in this case secular, seek a methodology aimed at teaching tolerance. The reflection we present on spiritualities and representations is an option we believe necessary to achieve a shared imaginary, as our objective is to activate Euro-Mediterranean inter-religious dialogue. In issue 10 of Quaderns de la Mediterrània, focused on intercultural dialogue, writers and intellectuals put forward valuable personal and community arguments that, not without pain, recovered the different memories and the need to achieve a real dialogue which is not reached without an effort of understanding and willingness. The recommendations of the meeting held in Barcelona appear in this issue. Therefore, we believe that the artistic creation that flows from the mystical elements in a text, in the visual arts, in architecture, in sounds or in nature and its representations manages to better manifest this spiritual search of the human being open to transcendence.

The monotheist religions of the Mediterranean, in their different mystical contexts, Sufi or Hasidic, have provided great poets and thinkers in whose works transcendence and love flow, that universal link that we could call cosmological. Martin Buber insisted that religion means speaking to God, not about God, and therefore being open to signs and prepared to respond with our whole being. The wandering searching of the soul and the fusion of the self with God are sensitive elements that the great mystics of all time knew intuitively, and that they have transmitted to us with a vital strength which speaks and makes sense of our current sensibility. Sense in a world where, on the one hand, personal individualisation increases and, on the other, migrations and globalisation create the need for us to feel communally connected. This encourages us to seek cross-cultural bridges that bring us closer to that universe where we can see that the voices of the saints and of the artists in spiritual manifestations and representations shared by different religions and cultures are very similar.

The dossier we present contains studies by female and male poets, artists, semiologists, anthropologists, writers and musicians who tell us how the sublime souls respond to the signs and give them a spiritual meaning. Luce López-Baralt offers an intercultural vision of the love poetry of Saint John of the Cross and shows that the external appearance of the beloved is never described, as this would mean an element of separation in a poetry which aims, in fact, at the fusion of identities. The transforming love trance between the lovers therefore constitutes the supreme union with God. For this expert in comparative literatures, these traits are highly present in Sufi poetic tradition, which rescues the feminine figure from an ancient Bedouin legend, Layla, to describe the union of the lovers. Layla, which means “night”, anticipates Saint John’s beloved seeking her lover in the midst of darkness. Thus, Saint John’s “dark night” distances itself from the European neo-Platonism, which rejects carnal love, to continue with the erotic-mystical tradition of Sufism, much closer to the concept of love union as ascension to absolute knowledge. For the Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis, the ocular and oneiric visions of the human being shape a duality between the hidden and the present that forms the basis of Sufi aesthetics. This is how experience of revelation emerges, which imposes a discourse beyond rationality, founded on metaphor. This is, in effect, a form of clairvoyance that, just as in surrealism, goes beyond the limits of appearance to access real meaning. For Adonis, poetry is, therefore, a form of subjective and interior thought that helps the human being to reach the inner world of things. Thus, Sufi and surrealist writings, apparently so distanced from each other, are experiences of access to the absolute based on myth and symbol; in other words, on the profoundest and most unconscious part of the human being.

The Jewish Kabbalists, throughout history, have considered the path of astrology as access to symbolic knowledge, owing to its similarities with the Kabbalah. The writer Mario Satz offers us a simple explanation that links symbolism with life. The first similarity we could find between the Kabbalah and astrology comes from understanding that the thirty-two paths that come and flow together through the length and breadth of the Tree of Life, the four worlds (in fact, the four classical elements) and the three vertical axes, constitute an equivalent, in terms of the mystical game board, of the twelve signs, of their igneous or aerial correspondences, houses, oppositions and conjunctions. In the opinion of Satz, the most notable difference is that while Kabbalah is and endeavours to be transpersonal, astrology is fascinating precisely for its references to the personal. This means, of course, that astrologists and Kabbalists differ and that, in the traditional line of the prophet Daniel, they prefer to see themselves as interpreters rather than chart makers, or as readers of dreams and wonders rather than calculators of eclipses and movements. Kabbalah tends towards anonymity and, in short, towards freedom, even when explaining an event after recourse to a text.

On cosmological natural symbols, the anthropologist Maria-Àngels Roque revives the language of metamorphosis, already beloved by the Greco-Latin classics, through migratory birds as a philosophical-religious concept and shows how storks are metaphors of the soul, whether as carriers in the north or as pilgrims in process of spiritual initiation in the south. In the metamorphosis there is a certain belief in the fundamental unity of the being; sensitive appearances have only an illusory or fleeting value. There are theories which see metamorphoses as expression of desire, censorship, ideal or sanction, emerged from the depths of unconsciousness and which take shape in the creative imagination. In the Koran, as in Sufi poetry, the soul itself is a bird. A clear example of this is The Language of the Birds, a poetic work by the Persian mystic Farid al-Dîn Attar in the 12th century. In it, the birds decide to set out in search of the king-bird Simorg, symbol of God in Persian mystical tradition. After a journey full of dangers and having gone through the valleys of desire, knowledge, love, unity and ecstasy, the thirty survivors discover the final revelation: Simorg is their own essence, until then concealed deep within them.

Pilgrims are also those Jews who every year visit Saint Rabbi Amran ben Diwan de Ouazzane, in Morocco. The sociologist Emanuela Trevisan has seen in the religious cultural practices observed in 2006 and 2007 how the holy place has diverse meanings according to the actors. Thus, it becomes a place of family reunion and socialisation for a Moroccan Jewish Diaspora dispersed over several countries, a space of memory for the second generation emigrants and, lastly, a space that crosses religious frontiers because of the fact that this saint is also visited by Muslims.

An element linked to sensorial sensibility is the search for meaning in sound, not only in its musical version but also in relation to space, whether real or virtual. The video artist Bill Viola offers in his article some examples in which the properties of sound (vibrations, reverberations, resonances) have been studied in depth and developed when constructing edifices, creating living spaces, determining thought systems and defining spiritualities in each community. Sounds are especially striking when they clash with solid forms and produce ineffable or immortal phenomena, which are currently latent in the complex technological systems that characterise the media. In the interview conducted by the art critic Violant Porcel with Bill Viola on the role of the artist in religious dialogue, the American video artist reflects his great knowledge of and concern with capturing the spirituality of human beings and the communicative importance of interpretation. This vision is backed up by the musician Gerard Kurdjian, who shows us how the Mediterranean is a privileged meeting place for the so-called “world music”, given that the musical traditions of the peoples who inhabit it have always been in contact for historical reasons in which the role of the great monotheist religions has been fundamental. In this framework so prone to dialogue between civilisations, Fez Festival of World Sacred Music represents a unique meeting place in the Arab-Muslim world that, gradually, has opened to the great religious and spiritual currents of the world to welcome artists from very different traditions who can share and fuse styles, cultures and sensibilities to make the festival into a “laboratory” of experimentation of shared life.

Within spirituality and beyond the patriarchal orthodoxies of the three Mediterranean religions, women with a strong and free spirit can become important spiritual references of these religions, such as the Christian Saint Teresa of Avila and the Muslim Aicha el Manubiya, mystics but also women of action whose spiritual strength is still alive. The semiologist Julia Kristeva, author of a recent book on the figure of Saint Teresa of Avila, tells us how this woman, the main exponent of Catholic mysticism, was always despised or suspicious in the eyes of the Church. Her uncertain family origins, her experiences as founder of the order of the Discalced Carmelites and her ambiguous relationship with the Inquisition and the 16th century religious authorities have fascinated thinkers and scholars throughout history. Guided by an amorous idealisation of God Almighty sometimes taken to the most violent passion, Saint Teresa of Avila was an intelligent and sensitive woman, beyond her time and always ironic. According to Kristeva, this is the image provided by her works, given that writing represented for her a way of analysing and exploring herself and her union with God. In the same spirit, the psychologist Emna Ben Miled offers us a study on the personality of the great representative of Maghrebian Sufism, Aicha el Manubiya, by examining the socio-cultural system in which she developed. Aicha managed to intelligently negotiate her freedom of spirit not only through her strength of character but also thanks to the help of her Sufi companions and sympathisers who, according to Ben Miled, today we could call “militants”. Moreover, Aicha was able to develop her ideas thanks to the enlightenment of the Tunis school and the chain of mystic transmission which at that time included the Maghreb, al-Andalus, the Middle East, Persia and Afghanistan. According to Ben Miled, the African and Berber roots of the Sufi thinker, silenced in the traditional research on the Maghreb, also played a key role.

The dossier concludes with a sensorial approach to the colours, smells and landscape evoked by Francisco Ferrero, who reminds us that the Mediterranean is the sea in which Muslims, Christians, Jews, Calvinists, Lutherans, orthodox, heterodox, Maronites, Copts… women and men bathe. And he warns us that the love for the Mediterranean must continue and be enhanced and have as a reference what Khrisna Murti proposed to us: “Total freedom, essential challenge for man.” Because nobody possesses complete truth, or complete freedom, but rather the two things are principles which cannot be abandoned because they make dialogue between men possible. If someone believes himself to possess complete truth, he will judge others as mistaken, but if, in contrast, no-one claims to possess complete truth, everything can be discussed and they will speak with the other, who also possesses part of the truth.

After this thematic approach, we felt it appropriate to offer some strategic recommendations, with a view to the next Euro-Med Culture Ministerial Conference, made by civil society representatives so that, through their good practices, they have an effect on Euro-Mediterranean policies. These recommendations derive from meetings which, since 2008, have been taking place, thereby feeding intercultural dialogue between the two shores: in Barcelona (May 2008), in Bari (May 2008) and the latest organised by the Anna Lindh Foundation under the titles “Creativity, mobility and dialogue” (Rhodes, 2009) and “Challenges and Solutions for Inter-Religious Coexistence in the Euro-Mediterranean Region” (Tirana, 2009). All these meetings were attended by the intellectuals, writers, specialists and civil society stakeholders involved, such as the young artists of the Euro-Med network, who not only insist on the importance of education in the arts as the basis for dialogue between cultures, but also on the fact that networks must be transnational in order to strengthen contact, awareness and joint work in the region.

Finally, the specialist in religions Antoine Messara warns us that to educate people, and especially children and the young, in religious diversity there are several pedagogic alternatives which should be taken into account. Along with honestly and intellectually explaining the different religions, avoiding stereotypes, it is very important to consider the factor of transcendence. Indeed, religion is mainly the search for meaning. Moreover, the notion of diversity is highly important in learning about and approaching the other: it is an enriching element, a profound and superior unity which guarantees the harmony of religion as a whole.