Long ago, in a forgotten sultanate of the east, there was a group of young men who used to hang out in the suq, in the open market near the gates of the palace. These were young men who hadn’t yet found their way—some of them not even sure that they wanted to find a way—so they hung out in the suq, gambling and joking around with each other, and when necessary, getting an odd job to earn enough to buy a little food and gamble with later that night.
One day, as they were sitting near the gates of the palace, a little bored with the usual fare, and with each other, one of them who was most bored, noticed a sedan chair—the kind used for carrying the women of the court through the marketplace—approaching the gates. He got up to see if he could get a better look. Then he saw a sight such as he had never seen before. It was a young woman, but not like the young women he knew. She was not like the ordinary girls of the suq. She seemed to him a rare pearl, smooth and radiant, almost not of this world, at least not of the squalid world he knew.
Obviously, it was the princess. She stepped down from the sedan with the greatest elegance and quickly entered the gate. But not before the young man had gotten a good look at her beautiful countenance and gentle form. Utterly captivated, he was chained to the spot on which he was standing, looking at the closed gate, still seeing the image of her in his mind’s eye. Moments later, he was awakened from his reverie by the laughter of his friends. Realizing they were laughing at him, he spoke up in the crude terms they were used to, saying, “What I wouldn’t give for two hours alone with her!” His friends laughed again, but this time with him. For that was how they thought of women. And the truth was, he wasn’t much different. But even as they walked away, laughing, he found himself looking back over his shoulder.
That night, he lay awake thinking of her. And yes, in the way young men usually do; but there was also something else, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The next day, instead of going to hang out with his friends, as he had always done, he made a different choice and went back to the gates of the palace alone. He hoped again to catch a glimpse of the beautiful princess. But she didn’t come. He was disappointed. And yet, so strong was his desire to see her that he continued to loiter at the gate.
As the days passed, he occasionally thought of other things he might be doing—all the things he used to do with his friends—but they just didn’t seem to have the same allure for him anymore. He couldn’t conceive of hanging out and gambling if it meant missing the opportunity of seeing the princess again. The old pleasures paled before the possibility of encountering her beauty. Over time, even food began to lose its flavor, and soon, he became somewhat melancholy and wondered what was wrong with him. Maybe, he thought, I should try to rid myself of her image? So, as he had in the past, he went out with his friends, drinking and gambling (though the Qur’an al-Karim wisely warns about the danger of these activities). Clearly, he was hoping to quench his desires with them. He even pursued other young women, far easier to catch than the princess. But nothing worked. Nothing sated his desire for the princess. So, again, he took himself back to the gate, and every day waited near the entrance, hoping to catch a glimpse of the rare and beautiful young woman. He only wanted to see her again and proclaim his love. He was a simple young man, after all, and thoughtless of the almost insurmountable obstacles involved with loving a princess.
After weeks of waiting—what seemed an eternity—he again caught sight of the same sedan chair coming toward the gate. She must have come out at some point while he was sleeping, or trying to lose himself in other pursuits. But here she was again, finally. Overwhelmed by his great passion, he did the unthinkable, or at least something very unwise . . . Before the guards could stop him, he leapt toward the sedan as the princess was stepping out, and just in time, reached her, throwing himself at her feet, kissing the hem of her dress and saying, “My princess, my love, when can we be together?!”
The princess, of course, was taken aback. But maintaining her royal cool, she took one look at the brash young man, dressed in his rags, and said with polite disdain, “In the cemetery.” Meaning, of course—‘Not in this lifetime, buddy!’ She then pulled away and entered the gate as the guards grabbed the young man and threw him aside roughly.
Nevertheless, the young man was ecstatic! You see, for him, there was only his love and the object of his love. He thought, All that is necessary is to proclaim my love ! He could not even conceive that she might not share it. He assumed that the depth of his desire implied her own. Poor, simple young man that he was, with no experience of the subtleties of the educated, he took her seriously and headed straight for the cemetery.
“Yes!” He said to himself, “No one will see us there! We can be alone! The dead have no eyes! My beloved is smart as well as beautiful!”
On the outskirts of the city, he entered the cemetery and began to look around for the best place for their ‘encounter.’ I mean, the most romantic and advantageous spot in the cemetery for love-making! But no sooner did he find one than he gave it up in favor of another. Nothing seemed quite good enough. Finally, by every measure he could conceive, he found the most ideal spot and sat down to wait for her.
As the hours passed, he thought, Well, I suppose it's not so easy for a princess to get away from the palace. The sultan probably watches her like a hawk. And didn’t I have to wait weeks to see her again at the gate? It may be that’ll I’ll have to wait as long here. But it will be worth it! Here at least we can be together, alone!
So he waited, imaging the beautiful face of his beloved and their reunion.
As the days passed, he got by doing a little begging, and sometimes spent his days walking around, looking at the gravestones. He saw that this man lived to be very old, while this woman died very young. This woman was rich, and this man was poor. This man died in an accident, while this woman died of old age. Naturally, he started to ponder these matters, wondering what it was all about. And these thoughts sometimes joined with the thoughts of his beloved and her beauty (to which he always returned, so he wouldn't forget why he was there in the first place).
Weeks and months passed. People came to the cemetery to bury their loved ones, to visit graves, and he sees them crying and hears things like, “She was so pretty when she was young,” or “He was such a handsome man,” and he begins to think about such comments.
One day he asks himself, “What is it that I have fallen in love with in the princess? Is it is her physical beauty? That is wonderful, but it will change? She will get old and her beauty will fade, and finally, she will end up here . . . just bones. But many people come and bury their loved ones who are no longer beautiful, and their love remains. Will I continue to love the princess when she is no longer beautiful?” So he began to think about the nature of beauty. Eventually, he realizes that beauty comes in many forms, not all of them physical, and he wonders aloud, “Is there a beauty that does not change, that one may love forever? Indeed, what is the source of beauty?”
In time, he realizes that the source of beauty must be God. Then he starts thinking how beautiful God must be, and all the visions of beauty he can conceive pass before his mind’s eye until they create a vision of the totality of being, the beautiful unity of all being, and he passes out in utter bliss.
Now, for a long time, people had noticed that this young man was always in the cemetery. At first, they thought he must being doing some sort of penance, and so they offered him a little food. But later, when they saw he never left the cemetery and seemed more and more absorbed in his meditation, they thought, “This must be a holy man, a saint.” So they began to bring him food on a regular basis, and even to ask him for advice and blessings. Though, for all he knew, he was just waiting for the princess and puzzling over a question.
But by now, he had become a thoughtful person, a contemplative person. So when someone asked his advice, he would tell them what he thought or say, “I'll think about it. Come back and we’ll talk later.” And when people asked him for blessings, and he looked at their sorrow and their needs, he would simply speak the wish of his heart, “May there be help for you.” And the blessing seemed to work.
Many years passed this way, and the princess did what princesses do. She married a prince in a marriage of diplomacy. It was a happy enough marriage for her, except for one thing. She didn’t become pregnant. Or when she did, she didn’t carry to term. And this was the great pain of her life. She tried every doctor, every herb, every charm from every local healer, but nothing worked. Finally, one of her servants said: “Mistress, I know it is not my place to suggest anything, but when the people of this city need help, they go to the holy man in the cemetery for a blessing. Perhaps you could visit him and ask a blessing for children.” Without any other hope, the princess borrows the clothes of her servant and goes disguised to the cemetery in the late hours when no one else is about.
Seeing the saint, she speaks to him, saying, “Mawla,” master.
Though many years have passed, the saint of the cemetery looks up from his meditation and recognizes the princess immediately. “Princess,” the saint says in response, “after these many years, you have kept your promise to me.”
Taken aback, the princess says, “How could you possibly know who I am?”
“Because I was the young man at the gate; the one you said you would meet ‘in the cemetery.’ All this time, your face has been before me, and I want to thank you. It was your beauty and your guidance that sent me here, where I have gotten to know many great things, and have discovered the source of beauty and the source of my love. So, thank you. But, princess, no one comes to me in joy. They all come in sorrow. Tell me, what is your sorrow?”
The princess then unburdened herself to the saint, and asked for a blessing that she might have children.
“If there is any merit in anything I have done in this lifetime,” the saint declared, “I want that merit to be transformed into a child for you.” And this is how he blessed her. He then turned inward again, to gaze upon the source of beauty.
Sometime later, people noticed that he was deeper in meditation than usual and didn’t disturb him. But when a few days had passed, and still he didn't come out of his meditation, and his food had not been touched and had begun to rot, they became concerned. They checked and found that he was no longer breathing. He had died in the cemetery, gazing at the source of beauty.
Nevertheless, his final blessing had worked. The princess became pregnant, and the pregnancy held. After the baby was safely delivered, she took the child to see the saint. But she found that he had since died, and she mourned him sincerely. Years later, when her son was old enough to understand, she brought him the grave of the saint, and taught him about the love that had made his birth possible.
* The original of this story is found in the classic Jewish mystical text, Reishit Hokhmah, though it is obviously a Sufi story. This version is based on that of my own teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, and that of his wife, Eve Ilsen. It was written up for a talk given to participants in the “Season of the Rose” Sufi camp at the Abode of the Message in July of 2015.