In the heap of objects strewn across the dining room floor, I spotted a sterling silver sugar bowl that was part of a four-piece tea set my mom bought about three decades ago to entertain guests. I picked up the bowl with one hand, while using the other to rummage through the pile of papers, cloth napkins, tupperware and cutlery scattered beneath my feet. I was curious whether the rest of the silverware was somewhere in the mess left by the burglars.
When I couldn’t find it there, I turned my head toward the tall oak buffet beside me, whose contents had mostly been dispersed onto the carpet. Nestled in the corner of one cabinet, the tea pot, tray and cream pitcher lay untouched.
The sight of them startled me. A thick layer of black film had formed on the surface of the silver, making it unrecognizable against the shimmering exterior in my memory. It was no wonder the burglars who ransacked our family home in Canada several weeks earlier had disregarded the ensemble as they hauled away several electronics, appliances and gadgets.
At that moment, a saying of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, crossed my mind. “There’s a polish for everything that takes away rust,” he said. “And the polish for the heart is the remembrance of God.”
That was perhaps the first time I’d considered this Hadith in a literal way. Acting on an impulse, I grabbed an old bottle of silver polish from the mess on the dining room floor and a soft sponge from under the kitchen sink, and started to vigorously rub the tea pot. I was determined to make it shine again like it did during my pre-teen years in Lethbridge and Calgary, when my mom would fill it with her favored Red Rose tea to serve to visitors alongside a slice of vanilla cake or syrup-drenched Egyptian basboosa.
Part of me was grateful for a distraction from the pangs of sadness I felt at seeing almost every corner of our four-bedroom family home turned upside down. After learning of the break in, my sister and I made the 10-hour plane journey from London to Vancouver to assess the damage. We found the contents and memorabilia contained in closets, cupboards and drawers sprawled over our maroon-colored carpets.
Yet I wasn’t mourning stolen possessions. The home I’d lived in as a student, and visited almost every year since moving away after university, just felt different. During those first few nights, each creak of the walls and squeak of the furnace would cause a stir inside me. I envisioned we were on the verge of another invasion of our privacy.
So as I hunched over the counter top removing years of residue from the silverware, part of me was nursing feelings of guilt for failing to safeguard our family sanctuary. We’d made it easy for the robbers, who shattered the window next to the front door and let themselves in when no one was in town.
There was another motivation, though, for my spontaneous urge to shine the silver. I was seeking reassurance that the polish would work when up against years of neglect visible on the surface.
It reminded me of my spiritual journey, which also involves a lot of polishing. Instead of grime on silver, Sufi polishing is about cleansing the habits of the lower self, or nafs, that prevent our hearts from reflecting Divine qualities. The polish I use is a mixture of prayer, conscious breathing while reciting God’s names, and careful introspection to take a hard look at my “poor me” impulses.
But I find it hard at times to know if I’m on the right track because the more I think honestly about my inner state, the more I notice habits formed from a young age that coat my heart not unlike the stubborn stains on the silver I was trying to clean. I’ve come face to face with emotions like fear, shame, envy and pride that I used to pretend weren’t there. Other layers of build-up are tendencies like seeking validation from outside myself, avoiding conflicts as a way of coping with life, or underestimating my self worth.
As I polished the silverware, marveling as the black marks rubbed off onto the sponge and my fingers, glimpses of my reflection started to appear on the surface. I realized I was about the age that my mom was when she used the tea set, yet the trajectory of my life seems so different from hers. Her friendship circles were severed as we moved from one North American city to another chasing my father’s jobs. Consequently, conversations over tea and cake occurred less frequently, before stopping almost entirely.
Eventually, when the silverware became unsightly, we concealed it in the oak buffet. Yet hiding something because it’s uncomfortable to look at doesn’t make it disappear. It somehow resurfaces at an unexpected time, in an unanticipated way, and requires cleaning anyways.
So as I diligently rubbed for almost two hours, it struck me that acknowledging the presence of blemishes is the first, and thus most important, step of the polishing process. That’s probably why Rumi says “if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished.”
While I couldn’t restore its original brilliance in one sitting, the silver tea set looked pretty good. Pleased, I set it aside and carried on with the many tasks my sister and I undertook in the following days to restore our family home. We had double-cylinder dead-bolt locks installed on all the doors, replaced the shattered window with new break-resistant laminate glass, and added steel security gates at the front and back entrances to act as barrier against future attacks. These buffers around our sanctuary provided me with a feeling of protection not unlike the sense of safety I get by reciting Ayat Al Kursi after every prayer.
I also found some surprisingly fitting spiritual advice while researching tips online for how to maintain silver. Tarnish, I learned, is impossible to avoid since it results from a chemical reaction that occurs naturally when silver comes into contact with air. So the best thing you can do is use those antique tea sets frequently. Unlike the rust on some metals, the black coating on silver doesn’t destroy the underlying surface. Since it’s a precious metal, stains can always be wiped away.
Days before we made our way back to London, my sister Mandy remembered a poem she once read in her Pocket Rumi. As we shared a cup of coffee, I read it aloud and we marveled at how Mevlana always seems to know what to say:
The Thief Will Enter
No matter what plans you make,
no matter what you acquire,
the thief will enter from the unguarded side.
Be occupied, then, with what you really value
and let the thief take something else.