a community of lovers
We are honoured to share some reflections from Shaikh David Bellak on his spiritual journey and a timely and inspiring letter received from Father Francis, a retired Catholic priest.
In the Spring of 1978 my journeys brought me once again from London to Claymont Court in rural West Virginia, USA, a 90-minute drive from Washington DC. Claymont, a school of inner work based upon the teachings of GI Gurdjieff and JG Bennett, was where, exactly two years earlier in 1976, I had accompanied my beloved sheikh and murshid of the Mevlevi Sufi order, Suleyman Hayati Dede from Konya, Turkey, following an invitation for him to visit Claymont during his European and North American travels introducing the teachings of the Master Jelalud’din Rumi.
In 1972, through a series of improbable meetings and journeys, I was found by Dede, taken home for lunch, and in due course became his murid when my heart would not leave me alone. Eventually, I entered into his service and his family, referred to by him as ‘my fifth son’ (‘I have four sons and a daughter; Davut is my fifth son’, he would say to startled Turkish visitors and to the amusement of Westerners for whom I became a link in conversations). During this time I was given different wazifahs as his secretary, interpreter and assistant as occasion required while living in Konya. It was only during his travels in 1976 ‘on the road’ with its intense 18-hour days, at times large audiences and exhausting schedules, that this became a full-time occupation.
However, life in general was not an easy time, but an endless circle of uncertainties and inner puzzlement. It was now six years since life had irrevocably changed, and I found myself, at the age of 36 with more uncertainties than ever. Any dreams of a ‘normal’ life seemed to have evaporated years before, when as a university student with countless others, I was called up for National Service during America’s grotesque debacle in Viet Nam. Four years as a commissioned Navy deck officer qualified for command at sea, and a specialist in military legal affairs aboard an ancient warship left me directionless and confused by the time of my release in 1968, not knowing how to move forward into ‘normal life’.
I completed a Master’s Degree in photographic arts in 1971, but there had been only haphazard work now and again and deeply disquieting inner turmoil, homelessness and doubt about life itself. There was such a yearning for stability, perhaps a rewarding career, a meaningful life, but these became more distant than ever. None of the equations which we are assured constitute ‘normality’ seemed to apply. Life had become erratic and uncertain. Some of it was travelling by wits from place to place, with periods spent in my native USA, London, Denmark, and most confusingly, in central Turkey where I found myself drawn into an unfamiliar world which seemed to be known as the spiritual path of Sufism. I seemed to be embarked upon a never-ending circle of uncertainties. Sitting quietly and patiently in the company of those who know seemed to be the rhythm of life during this time.
In late winter 1978 I returned for a time to Claymont. It was here that a sense of desperation, almost a fear, overtook me. I did not know where to turn. I was desperate for some perspective as I approached 37 years that would lend meaning to the vagaries of this semi-nomadic existence in which I was living. Out of this fog came the inspiration to write to a dear friend and mentor whom I had met during a visit to Assisi, Italy in 1974 while travelling from Rome towards Chamonix, France to attend the annual retreat camp of Pir Vilayat Khan of the Sufi Order high in the French Alps.
A retired Catholic priest named Francis Harpin, then 73 years of age, was living across the street from the Franciscan basilica in Assisi, Italy, having been retired there by his bishop owing to poor health. Francis befriended me and each morning I would hike the 2km from the camp high on the mountain where I was sleeping under the trees, to the basilica where Francis would engage tourists with stories about the art and history of this beautiful structure, and the holy monks who followed in the footsteps of the revered saint. Kind, gentle and patient with the love of the Divine emanating from him, Francis laid the groundwork in these few days for an unspoken bond which we shared thereafter, referring to me as his ‘little brother’. It was he to whom I turned for help at this painful time four years later.
A month after posting my letter asking his advice came his welcome reply which I have carried with me to this day with answers I sought and which provided an impetus for steps forward.
I now wish to share this letter with others who may also find inspiration in the simple words of this humble servant of God in their own journeys towards the Unseen.
Fr Francis passed away in 1985, may God be pleased with him. Amin.
David J Bellák
May 20th 1978
Just received your welcome letter, my dear David. I can see that you wrote it on May 12th, so it didn’t take long to come – some recent letters from the US have taken a month.
I hasten to reply to your query, as best I can by letter, but word of mouth is my medium. So don’t take anything amiss in my attempt to put into writing such an important matter – you know that I strive to communicate what I believe to be true by love, and words of love.
Firstly, we must accept our creaturely limitations; that is true humility, realising our utter dependence on the Creator, here and now. That is our basic launching-pad for future development. However, God is our Creator, and He is present in some mode in everything He creates, otherwise it would have no Being – and thus cease to be. His Abiding Presence is in every creature here, there and everywhere. So here and now we can begin to seek Him through the traces He leaves in His Creation.
Jesus came to us humans from the Father, the Source of life. He bent down to our poor, fragile human level, and identified with our condition and circumstances. He accepted the limitations of our human condition and within these limitations revealed our relationship with the Father. He taught us to think of God as our father, hence we are all brothers in one family. He lived our human life, claiming no privileges. He earned his living as a village carpenter using his hands as a workman showing us the value and essential dignity of earning our daily bread as a man amongst men.
Yet by the intrinsic quality of his daily life he demonstrated the presence of God amongst men accepting our problems and limitations. Knowledge, Truth and Wisdom became tangible and visible in the actual quality of his life. Truth was not a mere intellectual concept or notion but a reality: Truth personified; Love not as an idea, but as a reality. “How can you love God”, Jesus said, “Whom you have not seen, if you cannot love your brother whom you can see?”
Our loving acceptance of the brothers God places in our path is the measure of the love we actually have for the invisible God. All else is fantasy and sheer escapism – a drug inducing an illusion – a contraceptive! Knowledge without application in the terms of our human situation as creatures of God and brothers of each other is vain: a spiritual pride.
I might have the most beautiful picture in my imagination but unless I make the effort to learn how to externalise it by some medium, such as painting, writing (creative activity) which can be shared by and with my brothers, it would remain dead, sterile or still-born.
So we must begin with the basic acceptance of ourselves as individuals – persons having a sense of dignity and responsibility as creatures of God. We have three-dimensional relationships to consider: to myself, to my Creator and to my brothers. We innately possess the means to earn our living and to maintain and to develop the power to learn how to establish our relationship with God and with our brothers. It is not enough to think – but we must act, we must do here and now. Our life must become equated with Love at every level. We must develop our spiritual ‘muscles’ by actually exercising our power of loving – by actually demonstrating our capacity towards others. God is Merciful and Compassionate. Mere knowledge of these words is not enough. We must actually live, practice mercy and compassion to those about us. Integrity!
Then the words are not just repeated incantations pulsing through our brains until they induce a hypnotic or intoxicating state. The Merciful and the Compassionate find a reality in our lives by our mercy and compassion shown to others in whatever circumstance is called for. To feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, give alms to the destitute, to clothe the naked, minister to the sick and infirm, to give hospitality to the stranger, to visit the imprisoned and the abandoned, and so forth. We actually encounter God in our needy brothers to whom we show Mercy and Compassion. “Whatever you do to my little brother, you do to me” (Mathew 25:40 [var]).
However in order to have the means to express our generosity and love we must develop our talents. Jesus worked as a carpenter and so became a man with his feet firmly on the ground amongst his fellows. St Paul worked as a tent-maker throughout his missionary journeys so, as he put it, never becoming a charge for anyone as he preached the Gospel. St Francis in his practice of poverty worked as a farm labourer and a builder, earning just enough for each day’s needs for himself and for the lepers he served. He hated idleness – and those who lived off others he called ‘Brother Fly’.
So the query: how is one to put his feet firmly on the ground implies accepting one’s basic human dignity as God’s creature, and facing up to one’s responsibility to others.
• To earn one’s living in a worthwhile way
• To accept responsibility for one’s actions and behaviour
• To love God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength
• To love and respect one’s neighbour as one’s self
So let us begin with ourselves whether 37 years or 71. Consider one’s circumstances, condition and health, and such factors. Then ACT accordingly with one’s basic need of day-to-day personal living.
One must daily thank God for creating you and giving you the ability and power to sustain life and to grow in loving and sharing generously with others. We don’t know what inner resources we possess until we are face to face with a ‘cross’ and ‘casting experience’ which tests us and proves what sort of person we really are (and not what we thought we were).
David, as usual I feel that what I have written is very unsatisfactory, yet it is all I can do under the circumstances. Keep on keeping on in spite of everything. It’s never too late. Don’t be afraid to attempt new things – I was a painter, then a teacher, then at 50 I studied for the priesthood. At 65 I came out here alone (to Assisi, Italy) and began a new life.
God will never be outdone in generosity.
As a practicing Catholic I was struck by reading “A Letter from Father Francis”,by Shaikh David Bellak,by the similarity of the path of Sufism and that of Catholicism.Both have as their centre the love of God embodied in the active love of ones neighbour.
I was touched by the lasting friendship of Father Francis for Shaikh David and the wisdom of his advice on accepting our limitations and using the talents God has given us whilst loving Him through actively loving one another.
Shaikh Daoud, as we referred to him then, was a blessing to those of us then at Claymont who felt drawn to the Mevlevi tradition, and to the person of Sheikh Suleiman Hayati Loras, whom everyone called “Dede,” or uncle. For those of us who were struggling to learn Turkish with Vic Garbarini and Susan Berkowitz so that we could understand a bit of what Dede said, it soon became clear that the great efforts Vic and Susan were making to translate for Dede in sohbet left some of the subtleties behind. Daoud’s arrival meant that we were able to follow more of what he translated from Dede’s talks.
The questioning and turmoil that the Shaikh describes were not evident to those of us who attended Dede’s teachings. We thought that his composure and his clarity of presentation greatly benefited our understanding of his teacher. I still think that today. Although I saw Dede only a few times, I consider him one of my teachers, and I don’t think I could say that were it not for Daoud and his translations. Eventually, when Dede’s son came to Claymont to teach the sema, I became a semazen. (Probably I am one of the few Episcopal priests in the world who can say that! )
I still remember Daoud’s quiet voice translating for Dede: “At least keep your threshold clean.” I’m working on it, Dede. Thank you, Daoud, and thank you for another gift: this letter from Father Francis. Your sharing of your teachers is a gift to all of us.
I have just found this wonderful letter by chance. Father Francis was a teacher in my. School.I knew him for three wonderful years. He taught Art and was a major influence on my life. He left the school to be a parish priest. I wrote to him and he replied with a Christmas card of a photograph of himself by his altar displaying a mural he had painted. I have never forgotten this wonderful man and display his card every Christmas. I am 65 years of age now.
David, thank you for sharing..
Clarifying and pointing clearly toward a direction
I feel drawn toward in Life and ‘Work’.
a Semazen and Murid of Pierre Elliot