I first encountered Rilke in seminary. His book, Letters to a Young Poet, was required reading for a class I took on the sabbath, though the connection between the book and the topic completely eludes me at this point. The introduction told of his bizarre childhood and how his mother, in her grief over the death of a daughter, dressed and raised him as a girl, calling him by his middle name, Maria, until the age of six. At ten Rilke’s father sent him off to attend a military academy for which his temperament was ill-suited and where he endured intense bullying and loneliness.
My copy of this little book is filled with underlining and dog-eared pages. At some point I loaned it to our friends (the some ones we used to share a TV with, but more on that in another post) and they kept it on a little shelf in their bathroom, almost as a decoration. One of my favorite quotes from that first book holds sage advice for the life of the spirit,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and
try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms
and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you
because you would not be able to live them. And the point is,
to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will
find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some
distant day into the answer.”
Later I was introduced to “Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God,” by a woman I was meeting with for spiritual direction. I’ll confess that I was impressed with the idea of the book and thought it lofty and impressive reading, so I ordered it quite quickly from amazon. I was disappointed when it arrived. First off, it had those annoyingly uneven edges that are meant to lend an air of artistry, I suppose, but otherwise make a book impossible to flip through. Also it failed to transform me into a more interesting or insightful person over night, though I did think that, with its rough cut edges and delicate silvery cover, it might be just the right kind of book to leave laying about for company to see (insert sly smile here).
I now keep it tucked away in my room on my bedside table or sometimes in the upstairs bathroom so it’s there waiting for me when I flee the tumult of life with four kids for a brief time out. The poems have grown on me over time and I’ve found bits and pieces that speak into whatever questions I find myself facing.
Just the other day I came across the poem below while hiding in the upstairs bathroom. It makes an nice followup to my previous post on the implications of God’s work in creation and leaves me with much to think about, so I thought I’d share it. This poem is from the middle of the book in the section titled “The Book of Pilgrimage.” It’s listed as poem II,16.
How surely gravity’s law,
strong as an ocean current,
takes hold of even the smallest thing
and pulls it toward the heart of the world.
Each thing –
each stone, blossom, child –
is held in place.
Only we, in our arrogance,
push out beyond what we each belong to
for some empty freedom.
If we surrendered
to earth’s intelligence
we could rise up rooted, like trees.
Instead we entangle ourselves
in knots of our own making
and struggle, lonely and confused.
So, like children, we begin again
to learn from the things,
because they are in God’s heart;
they have never left him.
This is what the things can teach us:
patiently to trust our heaviness.
Even a bird has to do that
before he can fly.