The Universal Worship and the Message
Prajapati O'Neill

July 15, 2000

    At the heart of the reflections that follow is the fundamental conviction that there is a new spiritual vision emerging in our time.  (Obviously this is not news to those reading this message.)  Ecotheologian Thomas Berry calls this the "New Story"; in intellectual circles it is sometimes referred to as "post-modernism"; popular spirituality often calls it "New Age"; I have coined the term "the new mystical poetics of God"; and Murshid called it the Message.  At first he actually called it the Sufi Message, but in his later writings the word "Sufi" often falls away and he refers simply to the Message.  Following Pir Vilayat, I prefer to call it the Message in Our Time.

    What originally attracted me to the Sufi Order was not so much Sufism (however one defines that elusive term), which I knew relatively little about at the time, but, rather, the vision of the Message in Our Time.  During the initial years I discovered the Message through Murshid and Pir Vilayat.  In effect, I attuned to them and they were attuned to the Message and, therefore, I received the flow of the Message through them as the intermediaries.  As my own inner path unfolded I made the shift from fana-fi-sheikh and fana-fi-rassul to fana-fi-Allah.  In other words, I came into direct connection with the same energy to which they were connected.  My own sense of the vision of the Message began to emerge.  I no longer need to look to Murshid to see reflected through him the vision of the Message; I now attune directly to the vision of the Message and see it reflected through him and through myself as well.  This process of coming to full spiritual independence, full individual sovereignty, and deep personal realization seems to me to be precisely the goal of the spiritual training process Murshid attempted to institute in the esoteric school.  I now have my own sense of the vision of the Message, deeply informed by, but not confined to, the vision of Murshid and Pir Vilayat. I'm sure this is also the experience of many of you.

    This process of spiritual maturation defines, in a basic way, the purpose and nature of the Esoteric School (the Sufi Order).  The Esoteric School is an initiatory institution, honoring and depending upon spiritual charisma, which provides a useful "container" for the process of spiritual growth.  One of its central notions is that a special and powerful spiritual energy (baraka) flows through its leader (the Pir-O-Murshid). The Pir-O-Murshid has access to a level and purity of this baraka that sets him/her apart from the body of mureeds who do not equal the Pir-O-Murshid in their ability to embody and transmit this energy.  This perspective makes the Pir-O-Murshid a kind of intermediary between the mureed and the Source, helping the mureed access a level of "being" they are not able to reach on their own. This ability to transmit baraka in an especially powerful way (although not as powerfully as the Pir-O-Murshid) is also recognized in certain other "senior teachers" who become rather like smaller suns emitting their own light while circling around a larger sun which illuminates the whole system (i.e., the murshids, sheikhs, and kalifs gathered around the Pir-O-Murshid). This structure, by its very nature, creates a kind of bhakti attunement in which devotion to the teacher is highly valued.  This kind of structure is almost universal in traditional esoteric schools, whether Sufi, Hindu, Buddhist, and even among Hasidic Jewish and Christian monastic groups.  This structural system plays a central role in defining the nature of the Sufi Order as an esoteric school and the function of the Pir-O-Murshid within that school.

    There is, however, another dimension of the inner process of our particular path which grows directly out of my sense of Inayat Khan's deepest vision of the process of spiritual development.  This is captured for me in several quotes from Murshid that I refer to often:

"[Each person] is really hir own teacher; in hirself is the secret of hir being.  The teacher's word is only to help hir to find hirself....Therefore, although in this path the teacher is necessary and hir help is valuable, self-help in the principal thing; and the one who is ready to realize hir own nature and to learn from hirself, is he/she who is the true initiate.  And it is from that initiation that he/she will go forward, step by step, finding the realization and conviction that he/she seeks; and all that comes to hir throughout hir life will but deepen that realization of truth."  (From The Mystery of Sleep)

"The Sufi master does not...assert that this doctrine is the truth or that speculation is the truth.  All he/she will say is: "Find out for yourself.  My work is only to tell you in what way the faculty will be awakened: you will then see for yourself.  And whatever you see for yourself, you will believe."  (From The Vision of God and Man, Discipleship)

"The work of the spiritual teacher is like the work of Cupid.  The work of Cupid is to bring two souls together; and so is the work of the spiritual teacher: to bring together the soul and God.  But what is taught to the one 
who seeks after truth?  Nothing is taught.  She/he is only shown how she/he should learn from God."  (From the Alchemy of Happiness, The Secret of Life)

    For me, the goal of the esoteric training is to bring students to the point of being fully individuated, "self-claiming", sovereign individuals †to be, in the terms of a modern advertising slogan, all they can be.  To the extent that an external person is continually required to help a person reach the deepest/highest levels of divine presence, the process of spiritual training and maturation is not complete.  When a seeker comes to experience a powerful sense of his/her own direct connection with the Source, and the vision that arises out of that connection informs his/her life, then the formal work of the esoteric school has been fulfilled.  At that point a person "graduates" as a full-fledged "authority" on the inner process and the teachings that underlie that process.  (Granted, this is a simplified and condensed version of what actually happens on the path.)

    Viewed in this way, the esoteric school has a specific function in assisting a person to attain full "spiritual liberty" and the teaching function within the school is a central part of that process.  The teaching function may well include a process of devotional attachment to the teacher, which can arouse many forms of projection and transference onto the teacher, and bring times of hoping the magic (baraka) of the teacher will somehow provide a short cut to the goal.  In this process it certainly seems appropriate to recognize, honor, discuss, and debate the historical connection of the Sufi Order to its traditional roots in Sufism, the Chisti Order, Islam, and whatever other esoteric streams (e.g., neo-Platonism, hermeticism, the mystery schools, etc.) flow into this river.  It is also appropriate to consider the methodology, curriculum, and spiritual "technology" used to attain the goals of the esoteric school.
    On the other hand, there is another aspect of experience which is central for many of us, and that is the experience of this new spiritual vision emerging †the vision of the Message in Our Time.  How does the process of the Sufi Order esoteric school, with its historical roots, its mandate to promote individual spiritual development, its own particular practices and teachings, and its structural dynamics in which the charismatic baraka of certain teachers plays an important role, relate to the experience of the Message in Our Time?
    As I have come into my own spiritual maturity I have come to a vision of how the pieces of the different aspects of the work for the Message fit together.  Remarkably enough (or, actually, not so remarkably) I find that my own vision is congruent with the structure established by Murshid in his final years of developing this Work.  I will attempt to sketch my vision of the larger whole in the discussion that follows.

    As Hamid and a number of others have mentioned so eloquently, we experience a strong call to the vision of the Message.  Three characteristics of this call stand out: 

  1. this vision seems to be an inborn, intuitive knowledge for many of us, 
  2.  it is widely shared by individuals both inside and outside the Sufi Order, and 
  3.  the connection with this vision is not mediated solely through the esoteric school (although the work in the esoteric school can certainly deepen the attunement).
 In this sense, the vision and work of the Message are distinct from the purpose and function of the Sufi Order esoteric school.  Developing a vehicle that could bring this more universal aspect of the vision of the Message in Our Time to the wider public was part of Murshid's inspiration behind the Universal Worship.  In this sense, the Universal Worship is an "activity" of the Message, not the Sufi Order (i.e., the esoteric school).  In order to translate this vision into an organizational form, Murshid created what was called the Sufi Movement (what I would prefer to call the Movement for the Message in Our Time) which was the overall container intended to hold all aspects of the work.  This container held within it the Universal Worship, Healing Order, Kinship, Ziraat, and the Sufi Order esoteric school.  Each activity has its own mandate and each is illuminated in a particular way by the overall light of the Message.

    For years I have struggled with the notion that the Universal Worship is an activity of the Sufi Order.  If by Sufi Order is meant the esoteric school, this is clearly not correct.  The two share a connection to a common founder (Murshid) and are both illumination by the Message, but they are distinct activities and have different mandates, methodologies, and functions.  If by "Sufi Order" is meant the overall container, then that container is, for me, misnamed.  When I welcome someone to the Universal Worship I do not feel I am welcoming them to a "Sufi" activity.  Many are drawn to the Universal Worship who have little knowledge of or interest in Sufism (whether traditional or universal), are not interested in pursuing Sufism, and are not looking for an esoteric school (the Sufi Order) to connect with, or else are already members of a tradition or esoteric school.  What draws many people to the UW is not Sufism or Murshid or Pir Vilayat, but the vision of the Message.  The very name Universal Worship, the Church of All and of All Churches, claims an identity that both embraces and transcends all traditions, schools, and isms.  I have sometimes experienced confusion among both participants in the UW and Cherags about whether the Universal Worship is intended to transmit Sufism (in our very broad understanding of the term) or whether it goes beyond its own roots in Sufism to transmit a vision of the Message that is without label and, in some sense, sui generis.  My own sense of this is quite clear and emphatic.  The deepest power of the Universal Worship comes not from its rooting in Sufism, but from its connection with the energy of the Message in Our Time.

    So how is it possible (or is it even possible) to have within the same container the Sufi Order esoteric school (which has its historical roots in Sufism, India, the Chistis, Islam, Inayat Khan and also has a hierarchic, 
teacher-oriented bhakti dimension, and a lineage succession), and the Universal Worship with its inclusive openness, lack of strong hierarchy, and connection to the Message rather than any particular tradition?  I think it is possible, but that container must be very broad in conception.  It must be able to hold within it the paradoxical condition of containing both a historically rooted, partially traditional esoteric school with its lineage succession and an open, non-aligned, recently inspired activity like the Universal Worship.  (I might add that for me the mystical path is precisely about holding paradoxes †and the more paradoxical, probably the closer to the truth †so that challenge does not concern me.  The whole Sufi Message work is a paradox of roots and innovation, tradition and beyond tradition, form and formlessness.)  Several years ago Pir Vilayat began articulating a vision of this overall container which he took to calling the Universel.  This process of articulation remains, in my view, incomplete and still somewhat unclear.  There still seems to be a tendency to want to see the Sufi Order as the overall container.  From the perspective of my sense of the Universal Worship (and from my understanding of Murshid's final organizational plan) this arrangement is not adequate.  It leads to an unclarity regarding the alignments of energy and definitions of identity.  To put this rather simplistically, the silsila of the Sufi Order is, in practice, the historical lineage we recite of a list of beings going back through Murshid to the various Pirs and Sheikhs of the Chisti order in India and beyond that to Arabia (although it also includes, in principle, the entire "spiritual hierarchy").  The silsila of the Universal Worship (and the Universel) is all the masters, saints, and prophets of all traditions (including those of the esoteric school) and also the spirit of the Message emerging in our time.

    If the Universal Worship is ever to develop the mandate given it by Murshid, which is to be a primary vehicle for carrying the vision of the Message to the wider world (and, as Murshid said, answering the religious need in our time), it will have to come to be seen by the world with its own clear and distinct identity.  If it is simply an "activity" of the Sufi Order and of Sufi Order centers, it will not have attained its own true spiritual maturity.  The first step in the process of "liberating" the energy of the UW seems to me to be to discover its fundamental roots in the mysterious, challenging, and powerful energy we call the Message in Our Time.  The UW is both its own sovereign work, but also part of a much larger akasha which includes the Sufi Order esoteric school and the other "activities" of the Message as established by Murshid and augmented since then (such as the Dances of Universal Peace). 

    This larger akashic container (the Universel or the Movement for the Message in Our Time) could also contain expressions of the vision of the Message which arise from the same stream (Murshid and the teachings) but which also take on forms distinct from the esoteric school and any of the other concentrations.  I have often wished to be able to have a sense of belonging to a larger container whose work would be to maintain an overview on the whole unfoldment of the Message, rather than merely looking at one or more of the parts. (And to be quite clear, by this container I am not speaking about the Federation of various Inayati Sufi groups.)  Having such a container would also open the possibility for the wider public to align with the energy of the Message in our particular form of it, without feeling subtly or overtly impelled to join the Sufi Order esoteric school or to accept the more hierarchical, charismatic aspects of the path that are appropriate to the esoteric school but may not apply in the same way to the larger container.

    In my view, what is now required for the work of the UW to truly develop (if it is destined to) is a group of Cherags and members who experience the UW as the central calling of their own life journey.  If the UW remains simply an activity of the Sufi Order esoteric school with services at local centers once a month or on special occasions, then it will never develop the support communities needed to grow into a more prominent place in the spiritual landscape of our time.  To echo Murshid, "I tremble at the sight of the task that has been given to me, and I feel confounded when I weigh my ideal with my limitations."  (Nirtan, Gamakas)  I find myself often bewildered when I compare the current state of the UW with what I sense is its true mandate.  How do we get from here to there?  It seems an overwhelming challenge.  And yet, the journey is made one step at a time.  And the first †and most important †step is to get the vision right, to see the blueprint according to which the structure is to be built.  In recent years I have written a number of articles in Heart and Wings regarding my sense of the UW.  It seems an especially critical discussion at this time of transition and new impulses.

What I have described is really just the tip of a large and deep iceberg, but I feel it is important to contribute these reflections at this time. It is useful for me to make my basic sense of things known to myself and others.  I hope it is also useful in your own contemplation of some of the current issues. 

   Yours in service,