Book review: The Prophet by Khalil Gibran

The Prophet is another book I serendipitously stumbled upon, this time through a reference in another book I recently read. The book When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of a written by a man as he is dying of cancer. The author is a Catholic, and the book reflects at times upon his spiritual journey as well. Within the book, he mentions The Prophet several times. The first reference is a quote that his father quoted about his approach to raising children. Here is the quote in full:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

The Prophet is fascinating, and feels more like a religious text like the New Testament writing of Jesus or the text of the Quran. The author himself was a Lebanese-American from the Maronite Church, deeply influenced by other religions, including Islam and Sufism. A quick check on Wikipedia confirms his inter-faith approach:

Though born a Maronite, Gibran was influenced not only by his own religion but also by Islam, and especially by the mysticism of the Sufis. His knowledge of Lebanon’s bloody history, with its destructive factional struggles, strengthened his belief in the fundamental unity of religions, which his parents exemplified by welcoming people of various religions in their home. Connections and parallels have also been made to William Blake’s work, as well as the theological ideas of Walt Whitman and in Ralph Waldo Emerson such as reincarnation and the Over-soul. Themes of influence in his work were Islamic/Arabic art, European Classicism (particularly Leonardo Da Vinci) and Romanticism (Blake and Auguste Rodin), the pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, and more modern symbolism and surrealism.

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The prophet’s name is Almastufa. He is preparing to leave his home town, but he stops at the request of his people to give them a bit of wisdom (interesting, I found this in contrast to Christ who stated “Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his home country”). The format is in question and answer. Some questions include:

  • Speak to us of love.
  • And what of Marriage, master?
  • Speak to us of work.
  • Speak to us of clothes.

The book is a very quick read. I got the audiobook version, and I finished The Prophet proper in less than an hour while I was collecting images via microscope. The Prophet is actually The Prophet and Other Writings. There are a collection of additional parables and stories including The Seven Selves and The Two Cages. I will admit, that many I found beyond my comprehension or I just missed the point. Perhaps the text of The Prophet is worth more than a single read, also similar to the Bible. Two in particular though, I found quite profound. The Wise Dog goes:

One day there passed by a company of cats a wise dog.
And as he came near and saw that they were very intent and heeded
him not, he stopped.

Then there arose in the midst of the company a large, grave cat and
looked upon them and said, “Brethren, pray ye; and when ye have
prayed again and yet again, nothing doubting, verily then it shall
rain mice.”

And when the dog heard this he laughed in his heart and turned from
them saying, “O blind and foolish cats, has it not been written and
have I not known and my fathers before me, that that which raineth
for prayer and faith and supplication is not mice but bones.”

I thought it reflected how very tribal we can be when it comes to religion. We tend to pray for our own well-being, and elevate our own self-interests at the expense of others. It reminded me of the Zoramites approach to scripture in the Book of Mormon. And The Two Hermits is similarly profound:

Upon a lonely mountain, there lived two hermits who worshipped God
and loved one another.

Now these two hermits had one earthen bowl, and this was their only
possession.

One day an evil spirit entered into the heart of the older hermit
and he came to the younger and said, “It is long that we have
lived together. The time has come for us to part. Let us divide
our possessions.”

Then the younger hermit was saddened and he said, “It grieves
me, Brother, that thou shouldst leave me. But if thou must needs
go, so be it,” and he brought the earthen bowl and gave it to him
saying, “We cannot divide it, Brother, let it be thine.”

Then the older hermit said, “Charity I will not accept. I will
take nothing but mine own. It must be divided.”

And the younger one said, “If the bowl be broken, of what use would
it be to thee or to me? If it be thy pleasure let us rather cast
a lot.”

But the older hermit said again, “I will have but justice and mine
own, and I will not trust justice and mine own to vain chance. The
bowl must be divided.”

Then the younger hermit could reason no further and he said, “If
it be indeed thy will, and if even so thou wouldst have it let us
now break the bowl.”

But the face of the older hermit grew exceedingly dark, and he
cried, “O thou cursed coward, thou wouldst not fight.”

Do we not sometimes fight, not because of we believe we are in the right, but because we enjoy confrontation?

I enjoyed many of the thought-provoking stories and tales. It revives the parable as a literary form full of vitality. It is also a beautiful expression of faith, and one that challenges narrow interpretations of scripture. I’m also reading James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, and this one sounds more like Stage 4 through 6, when people “start seeing outside the box, and realizing that there are other ‘boxes'” and who “live their lives to the full in service of others without any real worries or doubts.”

A thought-provoking read.

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