all walls shall fall down
Exploring the Inner Journey of Kahlil Gibran
by Paul-Gordon Chandler
A hushed reflective silence filled the dark cinema as the world premiere of The Prophet finished its animated adaptation of Kahlil Gibran’s inspiring book of prose poetry. I had journeyed to the Toronto International Film Festival to experience the unveiling of Salma Hayek’s creative production firsthand and was not alone in feeling the power of Gibran’s words and images reaching across the decades, seemingly so apropos in our modern search for connection with “the other.” In speaking to Salma afterwards she explained her motivation in bringing Gibran’s work to life: “I thought it was crucial that we pay further tribute to this man who was an Arab who wrote a book of spiritual philosophy that unites all religions and all countries and all creeds, from many different generations . . .” In that brief comments, Salma captured the essence of Gibran’s inner journey: the deeper he went, the wider his embrace became.
Now more than ever there is a need to hear voices that call us to unity and respect; to be inspired to live deeply and generously in our thinking and actions toward the “other.” Kahlil Gibran is one such voice, offering our day much needed spiritual wisdom and guidance. His life and work touches on many of the critical spiritual issues of today: a bridging of creeds and cultures, care for the environment, gender equality, interest in spirituality as opposed to religion, an inclusive embrace of different faiths, and the importance of learning from the best in each tradition. As it was said about Ibn Al Arabi, the 13th century Arab Sufi mystic, poet, and scholar, Gibran is “a man for this time; for he has a foot in every camp.”
My own passion for Gibran came from living and working in the Middle East. I was struck by how enthusiastically he is loved both there and in much of the West. This intrigued me to look more deeply into his own inner journey of spiritual development. It took me all over the world, to museums, art galleries, churches and mosques, and through revolutions and counterrevolutions. I visited all the places Gibran lived, taking him with me through his writings – reading them in the order he wrote them in each place, during each respective phase of his life, resulting in my book, IN SEARCH OF A PROPHET: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran (Rowman and Littlefield, 2017).
A Universal Spirit
Gibran was born in 1883, high in the mountains of Lebanon, in the Qadisha Valley (“The Sacred Valley”), an area resounding with majestic natural beauty that served as the foundation of his spirituality and worldview for the rest of his life. His grandfather had been a Maronite priest and, thanks to his mother, he grew up learning the great biblical stories in ways that resonated with all the Abrahamic faiths and echoed throughout his future writing.
In contrast to these peaceful surroundings, Gibran was born into a period of political and interreligious strife during the latter part of a 400-year long Ottoman occupation. Much of his early writing addresses sectarian conflict, hypocrisy, and corruption, leading to his determination to question ideologies and tear down walls of injustice. Albeit an activist from early on, over time Gibran continued to deepen and mature and he often wrote of “growing into our greater selves.”
His life was lived toward a deeper dimension, and he wove this into the core of his writings and art. He powerfully wrote: “I believe in the Book that makes us all brothers equal before the sun. I believe in the teachings that free you and me from bondage and place us unfettered upon the earth, the stepping-place of the feet of God.” As Gibran plumbed the depths of his inner life, he was forever exploring life’s deepest questions and reaching across barriers, in harmony with the pulse of life that unites all humanity.
Arising from the internalized bridging of the Eastern and Western influences of his life, a faith emerged that transcended cultures and religions. Addressing his fellow Arabs in the Middle East, Gibran wrote: “Humans are divided into different clans and tribes, and belong to countries and towns. But I find myself a stranger to all communities and belong to no settlement. The universe is my country and the human family is my tribe. . . Thou are my brother because you are human, and we both are sons of one Holy Spirit; we are equal and made of the same earth.”
Gibran went beyond religion to the core of a universal spirituality. He said, “For I know in my heart that the Supreme Poet wrote but one poem.” And elsewhere, “Your neighbor is your other self dwelling behind a wall. In understanding, all walls shall fall down.” Gibran recognized the necessity of boundaries and nations, yet he strove toward a borderless citizenship that transcended geography: “Should you sit upon a cloud you would not see the boundary line between one country and another, nor the boundary stone between a farm and a farm. It is a pity you cannot sit upon a cloud.”
This desire to transcend boundaries extended to religion as well: “You are my brother [and sister] and I love you. I love you worshiping in your church, kneeling in your temple, and praying in your mosque. You and I are all children of one religion, for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the Supreme Being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive all.”
Finding a way to powerfully communicate a nonsectarian version of spirituality weighed heavily on Gibran, and consequently he felt that all the events of his life led him toward the creation of his most well-known book, The Prophet. He described writing it as, “the biggest challenge in my life. My entire being is in The Prophet. Everything I have ever done before ... was only a prelude to this.” He felt a sense of sacred responsibility in writing it, almost as if it was to be a holy book.
Repeatedly Gibran’s work focuses more on love for God than religion. When asked, “What is religion?” he responded, “What is it? I know only life. Life means the field, the vineyard and the loom. . . The Church is within you. You yourself are your priest.” As Gibran journeyed spiritually he sought to sift through his own religious upbringing and all the trappings and traditions that had accumulated around it over the millennia. In this deep search into his Christian tradition, he discovered its core essence by re-discovering the figure of Jesus. He came to see the person of Jesus extending far beyond Christianity; as a Universal Sage for all humanity.
In Jesus, Gibran saw an all-embracing figure. He wrote: “His life is the symbol of Humanity. He shall always be the supreme figure of all ages.” Gibran separated the Jesus of history from the Jesus of Christianity, a religion that grew up around him over the : “Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth meets Jesus the Christian in a garden among the hills of Lebanon. And they talk long; and each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away saying to Jesus the Christian. ‘My friend, I fear we shall never, never agree.’”
After observing the corruption and sectarian power plays of the Church as a young man, Gibran was drawn to the radical aspect of Jesus’s all-embracing love and the strength of his humility – the antithesis of the Church as he had experienced it. He considered Jesus to be the greatest of all artists and poets, writing that he is “The Master Poet…who makes poets of us all.” He worked on his longest English book, Jesus the Son of Man, for much of his adult life, seeking to return the Jesus he felt had been disfigured in the West back to his Middle Eastern origins. The book was published three years before he died, and some see it as a sort of “fifth gospel.”
Just after Easter in 1931, at age 48, Gibran slipped from this world into the realm he believed would be “an endless dawn, forever the first day.” The outpouring of appreciation for his life reaches across all religious and cultural divides. Gibran’s life journey is one of depth and breadth. His words continue to reverberate in hearts and souls, stirring the reader and hearer, to journey toward a deeper dimension: “For in one soul are contained the hopes and feelings of all Mankind.”
Header Photo: Illustration from The Prophet – Photo gibransprophetmovie.com