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The Eternal Art of Pilgrimage: Finding Meaning from Mecca to the Louvre

Hajj certificate (detail). 17th–18th century AD. Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust) British Museum.

At the Mountain of 'Arafat, I came to know ('araftu) the One you desire, and I became impatient …

Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi

A story I had mentioned earlier, in the blog entry titled: “The Cemeteries Are Empty”, is one that I would like to begin with, once again, my journey with you here:

In 2010, I took a trip to Chicago to visit the Art Institute’s new section on Matisse, titled ‘Radical Invention’. While there, I stumbled upon a large biographical work on the early 20th century artist and his philosophy of art. Included therein was a dialogue between Matisse and one of his students.

The master and disciple seemed to disagree on the proper way to approach an object of painting, a fish. Matisse’s student wanted to render the fish according to his own creativity and artistic style. The teacher wanted his disciple to stand aloof as an observer and hearken for that moment when the fish reveals its true reality to the artist within his own self; he wanted him to be a listener, not a voice who speaks on behalf of life.

After a lengthy debate, Matisse sought to inculcate in his student a powerful message that circumvents their relationship as teacher and student. He informed his disciple of Cezanne’s recommendation to any beginning artist: that they should visit the Louvre and stand solemnly at each and every work of art and hearken respectfully until the deceased spirit of the artist speaks through the traces and accepts the desiring seeker as a student. Thenceforth, Cezanne states, the life of this beginning artist should be spent seeking to bring his newly found teacher’s vision to life.

This incident completely transformed my vision and appreciation for Art Museums, and the art works that lay there as shrines for their artists. Such a simple anecdote revealing a conversation between a painter and his student pierced through the entire beautiful forms of their artwork and dressed it in a garb of sanctity.

Across the rich cultures of Europe, where the Louvre stands as a Mecca of Art, there is another original Mecca in the center of Arabia. In the hearts and minds of those who congregate to it in millions, it is also a sun of importance in a galaxy of meaning. The reality of this Mecca is a spiritual museum of heavenly arts, in a galaxy of metaphysical meaning.

The rituals of the Muslim pilgrimage are designed to reassemble the visiting pilgrim as a work of divine art. The pure and naked simplicity of the white clothing that wraps the body of the pilgrim, which must contain no threads, is the initial and necessary stripping away of veils that stand between one’s essence and goal, the divine presence … the center of all beauty and art production.

Afterwards, the counter clockwise turning of the pilgrim around the Ka’ba, the cube at the center of the Mecca of spiritual Art, is akin to the unwinding of one’s suppositions regarding the reality of that heavenly beauty. It proceeds through seven rotations, each of which alludes to a deciphering of the self … of the secret residence where the sudden spontaneity of creativity gazes.

The pilgrims must also rest in brittle tents that float in the wind like waves of an ocean. They reminisce of the tender sensitivity needed by the artist as they hearken, in silence and stillness, for an inspiration from their surroundings. In order to perfect their taste of this experience, the pilgrims must spend both day and night, representing the outward and inward realities of existence, in these transparent abodes.

The pilgrims also participate in a symbolic stoning of the devil’s altar. With each allusive casting of a pebble, they are chiseling their egos into an ephemeral statue of marble. Likewise, their climb of the mountain of 'Arafat is a culmination of the most crucial portion of their pilgrimage. It is on this elevated place, on the day that is named after the mountain, that Ibn al-'Arabi 'arafa (came to know) the One that he desired, God … as he tells us in the poem above.

The final task that the pilgrims perform is to release themselves from their state of ihram (forbidden sanctity), by cutting their hair. It is at this stage that the pilgrims finalize the ritual of rebirth, after completing its various stages; much like the hero in Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, who must go through separation, ordeal and unification. Likewise, the pilgrim divorces the material world out of necessity and remarries the entire cosmos out of love and longing, after having deciphered its forms as a matrix of theophanies.

We are left now with a power analogy between this journey of the pilgrim-hero and Cezanne’s amateur artist at the Louvre. Both must empty themselves of the dress of suppositions and wear the simple dress of the ego’s death at the altar of divine love. They also whirl around the gallery of divine manifestations and listen for the specific appearance through which the divine will speak to them.

Then, upon finding that singular teacher, their personal artist, they must chisel their ego so that it learns to abide by the expectations of Art, because creative inspirations do not arrive when sought, but rather when they decide and desire to come, on its own terms. Once the pilgrim is able to focus their listening with the heavenly chisel, they are taken to the mountaintop of the divine presence and addressed by the divine artist Himself.

Returning as works of divine art, the pilgrims of the heavenly Louvre come back with the ma'rifa (knowledge) that brings out their inner artist … their inner and outer realities are completely immersed now in divine beauty, they become subconscious, constant guides for others to undertake this journey…

It is important to note that such experiences do not reside in the outward form, but in the inner sanctum of meaning … and perceiving the spiritual reality of a visit to an art museum is quintessential in actualizing the potential of that truth. Likewise, being aware of the heavenly root of the Ka’ba’s metaphor is necessary for culminating one’s pilgrimage in rebirth as divine art and artist for and within the divine.

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