Rumi was a masterful storyteller. Even by the lofty standard of Muslim mystics, he had a lovely way of talking about the most sublime of realities through everyday metaphors. Some of his favorite metaphors have to do with that most alchemical daily activity: cooking.
In many cultures, people obtain their protein not from meat, but from beans and legumes. So cooking hardened nuts till they are soft — for there is a grace in softness — was a matter of daily sustenance for many people worldwide.
Which brings us to the chickpea story, and Rumi’s retelling of the story.
A woman was standing over a fire, having poured a handful of dry, hardened chickpeas into water. As the water warmed up to the point of boiling, her mind began to wander. Then she heard a voice:
“I am burning!”
Startled out of her daydream, she looked to the right, to the left.
She didn’t see anyone, so she drifted back into the daydream.
Again, she heard:
“I am burning!”
This time she looked a bit more closely, and saw that the sound was coming from….inside the pot of boiling water. A chickpea within the boiling water, to be more precise. The little chickpea, twirling around the boiling water, began talking to the woman:
“I am burning….
Get me out of here!”
The woman glanced at the chickpea with compassion. Up it went, down it went in the boiling water. The fire was so hot it made water hot. What kind of fire is this, that makes water boil?
The chickpea pleaded with the woman again:
“Get me out of here!”
She reached over, and grabbed a ladle. She reached into the water.
And pushed the chickpea back into boiling water. The chickpea swam around the ladle, and rose to the surface again.
“Did you not hear me?
It’s boiling in here.
Get. Me. Out!”
The woman looked lovingly at the chickpea. She said: “My darling chickpea, I push you back in, because you’re not done cooking yet. You’re still hard. You need to be cooked before you’re worthy of being taken inside.”
As Rumi puts it:
If you should leave this place for one perfected
You’ll be a morsel and then resurrected.
All of us are like this, hardened hearts, in the process of becoming soft, getting cooked. The whole of life is like this: cooking in the fire of love, going from a state of hardness to softness, from rawness to being spiritually “cooked.” There is a transformation that each of us must undergo before we are “done.”
Rumi himself summarized his own life as this:
The whole of my life
is summed up in these three phrases:
I used to be raw
Then I was cooked
I am on fire.
Most of us would be content to simply go from being raw to cooked. For a select few, those who want not just salvation but sanctification, the goal is to actually be on fire. That way, anyone who comes into their orbit can move from being raw to being cooked.