Today’s post is to honour a remarkable woman who died ten years ago, aged nearly 90, having lived her life devoted to the Sufi Message of Love, Harmony and Beauty. Sitara Brutnell was a musician whose brilliant ear for pitch and rhythm extended to the fine-tuning of her personality. By enduring the dissonances life throws at us without dispensing blame, and reading people and situations deeper, she became receptive to the spirit of inner guidance.
Like her parents before her, she supported the work of the Sufi Movement and continued hosting its leaders after Hazrat Inayat Khan in her home, enjoying many musical soirées. One of Hazrat’s successors was his youngest brother, Musharaff Khan (1895-1967), who handed his role to the 26-year-old Fazal Inayat-Khan. So in 1968 the Sufi Movement was challenged by a dynamic and innovative Pir and custodian, a position Fazal eventually surrendered, giving credence to his own unique teaching approach, calling it The Way of Action, and later Sufi Way. Sitara stood by him for almost three decades, and after his untimely death in 1990, the leadership of Sufi Way fell to her.
She is remembered as a wonderful musician, and for her kindness, humour, sparkling mind, frequent expressions of gratitude and her warm hospitality.
The door to Sitara’s home was always opens to her many friends spanning the globe. There was hardly a time when she did not gracefully entertain guests who treasured Roughwood as a place to relax and be nurtured, like she lovingly nurtured her pot plants, no matter how straggly they lined up on her windowsill. The wild flowers in the secret nooks of her garden looked after themselves. Sheltered by high trees and bounded by fields, this magical place was only a few miles away from Four Winds, Fazal’s residence, and the then official spiritual home of Sufi Way, which was like a buzzing metropolis of the psyche compared to the sanctuary of Roughwood.
It is tremendously reassuring to come back to rooms where everything has over time claimed its place. Shelves packed with old books, well-worn furniture and carpets, paintings and prints on the walls, items on the mantelpiece, like the tiny carved gazelle, the Japanese ginger jar, red-veined serpentine stones from the Lizard – interspersed with rotating tokens of love – the photograph sent from a family in America, a child’s drawing, a postcard from South Africa … each object holding a story. And stories popped from shells with every question of where and what. We held garden working-parties, chasing away moles, poetry gatherings, celebrated birthdays …
Following Fazal’s death, his partner, Wendy Rose-Neil, a transpersonal therapist, put Four Winds on the map as a venue for London’s workshop facilitators, and Sitara, aged 76, though daunted by the task, embraced her spiritual leadership role with grace. Helped by the local and international community, she continued regular Sufi Way activities, and encouraged Sufi friends and professional therapists among us to run workshops. In this and many other ways Four Winds maintained itself financially for another decade and served a wide community.
This positive development ended abruptly after Sitara’s death. The new Pir, Elias Amidon, sold both Roughwood and Four Winds to raise money to achieve more flexibility for Sufi Way. I am still grieving the loss of the places and the multicultural network that was truly inclusive, beyond the brand of Sufism, which is not to say that the inclusive approach is not continued elsewhere. However, attempts of local people to buy Four Winds from the newly created charity failed. The two spiritual homes in England now only exist in the rich memory of companionships.
It was impressive how Sitara embraced the challenges of the next generation, how she joined the freedom of enquiry of the 70s and 80s. Over three decades, people from all walks of life and all corners of the earth gathered yearly for Summer, Winter and Spring schools at Four Winds, which was a vortex of creativity, with stimulating lectures and discussions, psychological war games and intense experiential meditative and contemplative practices that deepened lives and formed lasting friendships.
Though an unlikely team, Fazal and Sitara complemented each other. While Fazal, with the sincerity, contradiction of doubt and faith, intensity and humour of a Qalandar *, challenged the assumptions of his students and encouraged unlearning, Sitara was the blessing guardian, typed up hundreds of Fazal’s lectures and regaled us with piano recitals on her Grand, songs, esoteric readings, tea-time-treats of Battenberg cake, stories, and the consistency of her welcoming home. What they had in common, apart from disseminating the essence of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s message, was their love for music, keen curiosity in life and the playful deflation of any pretensions to grandiosity.
For one of the famed spontaneous Magic Theatre performances at Four Winds, Sitara offered a poem that gives a flavour of her delightful poise:
Lord thou knowest better than I know myself
that I am growing older and will someday be old.
Keep me from the fatal habit of thinking that I must say something
on every subject and on every occasion.
Release me lord from craving to straighten out everyone’s affairs.
Make me thoughtful not moody, helpful but not bossy.
With my vast store of wisdom it does seem a pity not to use it all …
but thou knowest lord that I want a few friends in the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details;
give me wings to get to the point;
seal my lips on my aches and pains …
they are increasing
and love of rehearsing them has become sweeter as the years go on.
I dare not ask lord, for grace enough to enjoy the tales of other pains,
but help me to endure them with patience.
Teach me that glorious lesson that, occasionally, I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet lord.
I do not want to be a saint …
some of them are so hard to live with,
but a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil.
Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places
and talents in unexpected people.
And give me oh lord the grace to tell them so.
(The author of this poem is anonymous, but Sitara wrote poems in the same vein)
* * *
* A Qalandar is traditionally a wandering dervish, a free spirit with a strong love for humankind. Fazal Inayat-Khan once wrote a breath-taking poem called ‘Qalandar’ at Roughwood. It can be found in this book: Heart of a Sufi – A Prism of Reflections, link: https://courseofmirrors.wordpress.com/2013/03/16/a-rare-book-now-on-line/
The present Sufi Way: http://sufiway.org/ And an article by Fazal Inayat-Khan that sheds light on the various branches that grew from the tree of the Sufi Movement: http://sufiway.org/about-us/our-lineage/12-about/33-western-sufism
If you’re inclined to explore the spiritual message of Hazrat Inayat Khan, you’ll find plenty of links and source material on these and many other sites, all free: https://wahiduddin.net/mv2/ http://www.cheraglibrary.org/
Thank you Sitara, thank you Fazal, and thanks to all the friends in this adventure. You are still enriching my life.