Ernesto Cardenal and Sufism

By Dr. John Andrew Morrow

In Memory of My Friend, Father Ernesto Cardenal (20 January 1925- 1 March 2020)

Delivered on the Fall 2011 Semester at Sea Voyage and at Ivy Tech’s Inter-Faith Forum on March 22, 2011

Morrow y Cardenal

Dr. John Andrew Morrow and Father Ernesto Cardenal at the 2009 Chicago Poetry Festival

While much has been written about the influence of Christianity, Marxism, and Nativism in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal, little or nothing has been written regarding the Islamic influence in the works of the Nicaraguan poet. However, to the surprise of most scholars, the works of Ernesto Cardenal have been influenced directly and indirectly by Islamic ideas. In this paper, we propose to present the mystical manifestations of the Islamic presence in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal.

Although most scholars are aware that Cardenal (b. 1925) was a disciple of Thomas Merton, few scholars are aware that Thomas Merton had ties to Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998), also known as Shaykh ‘Isa Nureddin, the Swiss metaphysician and perennialist who founded the Maryamiyyah Sufi Order. Schuon himself had been the disciple of René Guénon (1886-1951), also known as Yahya ‘Abd al-Wahid, who was a shaykh of the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order, and another exponent of the Perennial School and the transcendental unity of all revealed religions. Guénon himself was initiated into Islam by Ivan Aguéli (1869-1917), also known as Shaykh Abdul-Hadi ‘Aqili, the wandering Swedish Sufi leader, painter, and author, who was the representative of the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order in Europe, headed by Shaykh Muhammad Ilaysh (1802-1888). Known by the epithet of Nur al-Shamal or “Light of the North,” ‘Abd al-Hadi was the first muqaddam or official representative of a Sufi Order to bring Sufism to Western Europe and Scandinavia.

The Sufi influence on Merton has been well-established and has been duly documented in such works as Merton and Sufism: The Untold Story (1999), edited by Rob Baker. As his letters reveal, Merton was introduced to Islamic mysticism by none other than Louis Massignon (1883-1962), the famous French Orientalist, with whom he corresponded from 1959-1968, resulting in 21 items containing 31 pages in total. He also communicated with Reza Arasteh (b. 1927), the Iranian psychiatrist and Sufi scholar, from 1965-1968, producing 28 items containing 37 pages. Most of all, Merton was especially influenced by Abdul Aziz (b. 1914), the Pakistani student of Sufism, as can be noted from their epistolary exchange which dates from 1959-1968, and which produced 59 items containing 139 pages.

As evidenced by his voluminous correspondence Merton was well-versed in the Qur’an, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, the thoughts of Sufi authors such as Rumi, Hakim Tirmidhi, Hallaj, al-Muhasibi, Kharraz, Junayd, Hujwiri, al-Kubra, Ibn al-‘Arabi, Muhammad Iqbal, ‘Ali Shah, Shah Waliullah, al-Qushayri, Syed Idrees Shah, Nasafi, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, Ibn Rushd, and Nasruddin. As Merton admits on several occasions, he yearned to learn Arabic and Persian in order to read Sufi books in their original languages. Besides his sound grounding in primary Islamic sources, he was also very familiar with the major secondary scholarly sources produced by Western Orientalists.

Merton was especially influenced by Sufi scholars such as René Guénon, also known as  Yahya Abd al-Wahid, Frithjof Schuon, who adopted the name ‘Isa Nureddin, Titus Burckhardt (1908-1984), whose Sufi name was Sidi Ibrahim, Martin Lings (1909-2005), also known as Abu Bakr Siraj Ad-Din, Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933), Henri Corbin (1903-1978), Abdul Aziz, Reza Arasteh (b. 1927), Sidi Abdesalam (c. 1900-1980), and Shaykh Ahmad al-‘Alawi (1869-1934). He was equally influenced by the works of non-Muslim scholars of Islam such Paul Nwyia (1925-1980), the Iraqi Jesuit, and, especially, Louis Massignon (1883–1962) who, although Catholic, devoted his scholarly life of the study of Sufism. Merton was also influenced by traditionalist authors like Marco Pallis (1895-1989) a close follower of Frithjof Schuon, along with Doña Luisa Coomaraswamy (1905-1970), and Lord Northbourne (1896-1982), who had connections to traditionalist ideas.

Although he explored many other spiritual during this life, Merton immersed himself in the study of Sufism from nearly ten years, from 1959-1968. Not only did he study Sufism, and correspond with scholars and shaykhs of Sufism, he received a personal visit from Sidi Abdesalam on October 1966. A Moroccan Sufi teacher from Tetouan, Sidi Abdesalam was the North African successor of Ahmad al-‘Alawi, the Algerian Sufi master who had brought Schuon and Lings into Sufi Islam. As Merton wrote in his journal on June 16, 1966, he was even invited to join Schuon’s Maryamiyyah Sufi Order, the European branch of the Shadhiliyyah Sufi Order.

Although Merton never had the opportunity to accept Schuon’s invitation before his untimely death in 1968, he wrote about his eagerness to be initiated into Sufi Islam. In a letter sent to Marco Pallis on May 28th, 1966, he wrote: “I do think it is important to enter into contact with a source of guidance like that of Shaikh Ahmad al-‘Alawi and this is possible through M. Schuon.”

By the time he delivered a series of six lectures on the topic, which took place from 1967-1968, Merton has acquired a sound knowledge of Sufism, through both study, and practice. Besides reading the Qur’an, Merton was also fond of dhikr, a type of Muslim mantra in which the names of God are repeated. Although a Catholic, he used to celebrate the fast of Ramadan, and perform special prayers during Laylat al-Qadr, the Night of Power — in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad — and produced a beautiful body of Sufi poetry. Throughout the six lectures he delivered on Sufism at the Abby at Gethsemani, which included “Introduction to Islam and the Sufi Mystic,” “The Mystical Knowledge of God,” “The Creative Love and Compassion of God,” “The Straight Way,” and “Sufism: The Desire of God” (Part I and II), Merton expounded on the various spiritual subjects like a veritable master.

If the Sufi influence on Merton has been well-established so has the Mertonian influence on Ernesto Cardenal who was a disciple of the Trappist monk from 1957 to 1968, visiting him on occasion, and keeping in constant communication via correspondence. If Merton introduced Cardenal to socially-committed Christianity, the indigenous world, and the union of religion and science, while he was at Gethsemani, he also introduced him to Sufism through the Perennialist School of René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, and the works of the great Muslim mystics after his left the Abby.

The Sufi presence in the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal is particularly prevalent in his Cosmic Canticle, the pinnacle of his poetic production, in which he expounds upon the subject of Divine Unity and the transcendental unity of all religions. Sharing the original source of his Sufi teachings, Cardenal writes that

In India Merton Heard the story of the Sufi who said:

“For me to say that I am God is not pride; it’s modesty.”

I understand him: I am God, but what a God, my God!

I am God, oh biologists.

All the mystics of the world have depicted themselves

says Schrodinger ‘as particles of an ideal gas.’

Although Cardenal does not identify the source of this famous Sufi citation, the quote comes from The Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din Rumi. In “Cantiga” the poet paraphrases the Qur’an, which mentions that everything in creation praises the Creator (59:24), and cites Rumi, the Persian poet and Sufi master, who says:

The hymns which the spheres sing in the skies

we attempt to reproduce with lutes,

with our throats.

And it’s because we once heard that song,

we still retain the memory of that song.

So sang Chelalu-D-Din Rumi.

“Suffice it to say here

that nature would appear to be forcing mysticism

into science.”

In “Cantiga 15,” he writes that: ‘That your Self may separate myself from us two’ / I don’t know whether between quotes ‘Self’ and ‘self’ in Arabic, / if they use quotes in Arabic.” In “Cantiga 42,” Cardenal describes the contemplation of a famous Muslim mystic who seeks the “Face” of God: “In the perfumed Baghdad night. / For want of His face Ibn-L-Farid / contents himself with the full moon. Cardenal, of course, is referring to ‘Umar ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Fārid (1181-1235), who is widely regarded as the greatest mystic poet in the Arabic language.

In “Cantiga 43,” “Each atom is his throne’ said that Sufi, / although now thrones and atoms are different.” Although Cardenal does not identify the Sufi in question, the Muslim mystic was alluding to the Qur’anic verse which says “Nor is hidden from thy Lord (so much as) the weight of an atom on the earth or in heaven” (10:61) as well as the famous “Ayat al-Kursi,” or “Verse of the Throne,” which says that “His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth” (2:255). As Qur’anic commentators have clarified, the Throne refers to Divine Sovereignty, Knowledge, Omnipotence, and Omnipresence. In “Cantiga 22,” Cardenal relates that:

The Persian sufí Al-Sufi gazed from the turret or minaret

into the pearl-sown sky

like a nebulous shock of camel hair

vaporous, blurred

more than 2 million light years away,

“tenuous like a night candle through a sullied glass”

thus Andromeda appeared in a telescope for the first time in 1611.

The al-Sufi cited by Cardenal is none other than ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), the Persian astronomer, who is known in the West as Azophi, for whom the lunar crater Azophi and planet 12621 are named. In his famous Book of Fixed Stars (964), al-Sufi described the stars, constellation by constellation, commenting on their positions, their magnitudes and their colors. Although a scientist, al-Sufi viewed astronomy as a means of knowing God, which is probably the reason for which Cardenal has quoted him.

In “Cantiga 34,” Cardenal advocates the transcendental unity of all revealed religions, paraphrasing the Persian poet Rumi:

Jalal al-Din Rumi (XIII century) said—to non-Muslims–:

There are many roads to Mecca.

For some it is the south if they’re in Persia.

For others the north if they’re in the Yemen.

For others the west if they’re in China.

This is what happens with religions, or non-religion.

A man never sees a camel on the top of a minaret.

How could he then see a thread of hair in the camel’s mouth?

Since he does not speak Persian, and Rumi was not available in Spanish until 1996, Cardenal’s text must be drawn from Arberry’s English translation of the poet’s Fihi ma Fihi, which he published under the title of Discourses.

In “Cantiga 42,” Cardenal reproduces, in his own words, the poetry of Mansur al-Hallaj (c. 858-922), the Persian mystic, revolutionary writer, and poet:

Gaze gazed upon.

Gaze gazing on gaze.

In Baghdad, or perhaps in Damascus

That: Oh you, who am I!

And also what al-Hallaj exclaims:

If you see Him, you see us both.

But at the same time that other voice:

Between You and I there is an “I am” that torments me.

Although Cardenal is not faithful to the voice and style of al-Hallaj, he conveys the content of his mystical poetry, which he most likely accessed in the works of Louis Massignon, including his translation of Kitab al-Tawasin or his biographical work Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, both of which were favorites of Thomas Merton. Cardenal’s information may also be derived in part from The Sufis by Idries Shah (1964), another favorite of his master Merton. If Cardenal is attracted to al-Hallaj, the reasons are evident. Like Cardenal, al-Hallaj was very much a Christ-like figure: pious, devout, and ascetic. Like Cardenal, who believed in bringing Catholicism to the common Christians, al-Hallaj sought to spread the secrets of Sufism to the Muslim masses. Due to the fact that they spoke the truth without fear, both Cardenal and al-Hallaj were persecuted by organized religion. Cardenal was suspended as a priest by Pope John Paul II while al-Hallaj was condemned to death as a heretic at the orders of al-Muqtadir (895-932), the Abbasid Caliph.

In “Cantiga 6,” Cardenal writes that “Which is why Shawn the dancer used to say, / he couldn’t image God without rhythm. / “…his infinite Rhythmic Being.” Although he does not provide his family name, the Shawn cited by Cardenal is Ted Shawn (1891-1972), who incorporated Rumi’s whirling into theatre and dance performances. Along with Ruth St. Denis (1879-1968), he founded the Denishawn Schools of dance in 1920. A feminist pioneer in the modern dance movement in America and Europe, Ruth St. Denis performed recitals inspired by the art and religion of Egypt, India, Turkey and Asia. In her later life, she became a devoted Sufi, as well as a friend and mentor to Samuel L. Lewis (1896-1971), an American Sufi master known by the Muslim name of “Murshid Sam,” who founded the Universal Dances of Peace, and the Sufi Islamia Ruhaniat Society. Although not a Muslim per se, Ted Shawn was responsible for spreading the spiritual dances of the whirling dervishes throughout the Western world.

As can be appreciated from this overview, Cardenal has been clearly influenced by Sufi Islam in general and the Maryamiyyah Sufi Order in particular. Cardenal had indirect contact with Muslim mystics via Thomas Merton who absorbed Sufi spirituality from Orientalists like Louis Massignon as well as Sufis such as Abdul Aziz, Reza Arasteh, and Sidi Abdesalam. He also had contact with the Maryamiyyah via Frithjof Schuon, and his traditionalist followers such as Marco Pallis, Doña Luisa Coomaraswamy, and Lord Northbourne. Cardenal has also been exposed to the traditionalist, Sufi-inspired, ideas of the Maryamiyyah via Luce Lopez-Baralt, who is a greater admirer of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the current leader of this secretive Sufi Order. While many scholars are aware of the Christian, Communist, and Indigenous themes in the works of Ernesto Cardenal, few are familiar with the Islamic elements in both his poetry and prose. As demonstrated in this study, Cardenal has been influenced by Sufi Islam. Theologically and mystically, works like the Cántico cósmico [Cosmic Canticle] draw from the teachings of Rumi, al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Farid, and al-Sufi, among other Muslim mystics, while drawing philosophically from the Perennialist School of Guénon, Schuon and Nasr.