This evening marks the beginning of the Triduum, the three days that honor Jesus’ passage from life unto death. From the last supper he ate with his disciples to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, Christians try to honor the suffering, not just of Jesus during this time, but of his disciples, family and friends. They lost their beloved, their rabbi, the center of their lives, and in some essential way, the Ground of their Being, with no thoughts of getting him back. He was gone and with him, all their hopes and dreams for a different world, based on the love and compassion he embodied. The old orders of church and state had prevailed after all.  Even for those of us who know how the story ends, it can be difficult to believe in a different outcome.

So in honor of Maundy, or Holy Thursday, I offer you Rilke’s poem about the Last Supper.  

“Das Abendmahl”

They are assembled around him, troubled and confused.
He seems withdrawn,
as if, strangely, he were flowing past
those to whom he had belonged.
The old aloneness comes over him.
It had prepared him for his deep work.
Now once again he will go out to the olive groves.
Now those who love him will flee from him.

He had bid them come to this last meal.
Their hands on the bread
tremble now at the words he speaks,
tremble in sudden silence
as a forest does when a gun is fired.
They long to leave, and they will.
But they will find him everywhere.

 

Rilke wrote this poem after seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the event, but this translation moves me beyond the painting; it captures the energy of the event. When faced with a momentous change, we often withdraw from our loved ones and our lives as we have lived them. Painful, isolating, and disorienting as it must be, it is the only way we find the inner resources to master ourselves and move forward alone. Jesus can be our model for these times, speaking truth and blessing, before departing.

1

 

 

This is one of my favorite Rilke poems, in part because he writes of a woman.

“Wer sens Lebens viele Widersinne”

She who reconciles the ill-matched threads

of her life, and weaves them gratefully

into a single cloth –

it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall

and clears it for a different celebration

 

where the one guest is you.

In the softness of the evening

it’s you she receives.

 

You are the partner of her loneliness,

the unspeaking center of her monologues.

With each disclosure you encompass more

and she stretches beyond what limits her,

to hold you.

 

When I first read this poem, it felt autobiographical, as if Rilke had been privy to my life.

When my kids were small, my life resembled nothing so much as a hall full of “loudmouths,” all of which I had given birth to, married, or simply allowed to take up space in my mind. I had little time to start mindfulness practices, but I began anyway. Rising in the dark to journal, walk, meditate, or pray were my attempts to create a silent space, a private place, for God to enter my world and partner with me. To this day, we are still weaving the “single cloth” of my life together, because the “ill-matched threads” never stop coming. Change is constant, inevitable and rarely what we have planned, yet what can we do? We can hold on tight, drop the threads, tie ourselves  up in knots, or at best, if we follow the warp and weft of Love, we can make something beautiful.

At the mid-point of Holy Week, this poem also reminds me of Mary Magdalene, the often demonized, sometimes revered, “Apostle to the Apostles.” Though rarely mentioned in church services this week, her face was one of the last Jesus gazed on before his death and the first he saw on the morning of his Resurrection. Surely she was with him today and each step of the way this week.

I only need to read the last stanza of this poem again. When you are gifted a transformative Love like that, where else would you be?

IMG_4200
This is my copy of The Book of Hours, where this page is dog-eared, and yellowed. An early #signoflove rests in its pages.

Many of Rilke’s poems carry a passionate, active tone – as if the poet is ready to go striding out, full of energy and assurance that there is work to be done, but there are also poems of great tenderness that reflect the gelassenheit of the Divine presence. In the words of one of my favorite teachers, we need to be centered in “action and contemplation.”

“ich liebe dich, du sanftestes Gesetz”

I love you, gentlest of Ways,

Who ripened in us as we wrestled with you.

 

You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,

you, the forest that always surrounds us.

 

you, the song we sang in every silence,

you the dark net threading through us,

 

on the day you made us you created yourself,

and we grew sturdy in your sunlight…

 

Let your hand rest on the rim of heaven now

and mutely bear the darkness we bring over you.

 

For me, this poem is a reminder of the gentle presence of God in every thing and in every one of us – not in the showy conversions, or the dramatic actions – but in our humble existence. God is in the death and Resurrection, but  also in our silent longings, whispered murmurings, and quiet aging. God is in the light we shine and the darkness we bring. Maybe we don’t need a burning bush, or an empty tomb to be converted. Maybe it is enough for us to breath in a forest, to sing in silence, to sit in the sunshine and let things be as God does. Maybe that is doing the work of God too.

forest with sunlight
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Ich glaube an Alles noch nie Gesagte”

I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.

I want to free what waits within me

so that what no one has dared to wish for may for

 

once spring clear

without my contriving.

 

If this is arrogant, God, forgive me,

but this is what I need to say.

May what I do flow from me like a river,

no forcing and no holding back,

the way it is with children.

 

Then in these swelling and ebbing currents,

these deepening tides moving out, returning,

I will sing to you as no one ever has,

 

Streaming through widening channels

into the open sea.

 

It will be difficult for me to chose only a handful of Rilke’s poems to share this week. He was a prolific writer, poet and journal-keeper, so as I pore over the hundreds of page of his work, I find hours passing and my wish-list increasing. I’m not sure where I will land each day, but today I wanted to build on the claim I made yesterday – that Jesus walked the same human journey we do. He was not born omniscient; he did not exist in unitive consciousness from the moment of his birth; he was not lying in the manger, mulling over the inevitability of his life, death and resurrection.

I have often thought that the forty days in the desert that Jesus endured at the beginning of his ministry is bookended by this week in Jerusalem. They were both fraught with mortal danger, but also with the temptation to want things to be different than they were. Which one of us has not wanted to run out on life tasks that ask so much more of us than we think we can give? Which one of us has not done it – closed our hearts, hands, or eyes to a person, a community, a world in need, simply so we could go on living the only way we know how?

How could we help it?

I don’t know, but I imagine a prayer like this flowing from Jesus’ lips during his early days in the desert, when he was full of the baptismal blessing of God, confident that he could conquer the world for Love. He knew he was different; he knew he was chosen; he knew he was called and all he had to do was get out of the way, so that God could flow from him into the world.

But this wasn’t actually Jesus’ prayer; this was Rilke’s. This is the prayer of every mystic and saint, known and unknown, from the beginning of time.

May it be ours as well.

Golden afternoon light reflected on the surface of a stream

In the Christian tradition, today is Palm, or Passion Sunday. Around the world, churches will be proclaiming Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, which will, by the end of the week, turn into a nightmare of failure and death. We need look no further than this week in Jesus’ life to witness the reality of unjust suffering, the fickle nature of social approval, and the tyranny of a threatened power structure.

During this Holy Week of Lent, I will be offering poems from Ranier Marie Rilke. His poetry is a reflection of his deep faith and his deep wrestling with that faith. His God is not just found in churches and sacraments, but in every inch of matter, animate and inanimate, in animals as well as humans, in hearts and heads and bodies. Much of his poetry echoes the famous insight of St. Augustine: Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.

Rilke’s poetry reminds me that our faith is poorer for only reading scripture in services on Sundays. There are so many holy words left unspoken that could change our lives.

“God Speaks to Each of Us”

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,

then walks with us silently out of the night.

 

These are the words we dimly hear:

 

You, sent out beyond your recall,

go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

 

Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.

 

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.

Just keep going. No feeling is final.

Don’t let yourself lose me.

 

Nearby is the country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.

 

Give me your hand.

 

I chose this poem for Palm Sunday, for if “God speaks to each of us,” then Jesus’ experience of God was no different than ours. He was simply the one who listened best. From the beauty of Palm Sunday to the terror of Good Friday, Jesus must have clung to his Beloved’s reminder: “Just keep going. No feeling is final./ Don’t let yourself lose me.”

May we go and do likewise.

green palm plant
Photo by Plush Design Studio on Pexels.com

This is the final poem I will be sharing by David Whyte.

“THE TRUELOVE”

There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.

I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.

Years ago in the Hebrides,
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,

and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
the distant
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them

and how we are all
preparing for that
abrupt waking,
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly
so Biblically
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love

so that when
we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
everything holds
us, and everything confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,

but you don’t
because finally
after all this struggle
and all these years
you don’t want to any more
you’ve simply had enough
of drowning
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness
however fluid and however
dangerous to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.

 

I loved how this poem surprised me. The first two stanzas allude to the theme of romantic love that Whyte brought out in “Midlife Woman.” However, in the next stanza, he quickly moves away from romantic love. He brings us into a scene straight out of an Irish painting, an old man by the sea, and implies that the man’s faith in Jesus is a kind of true love as well. We are cast into the Biblical story of Peter’s great faith and doubt, both in Jesus and himself, and finally, we are playing the role of Peter ourselves. We are the ones called by the Divine out of the boat as an act of faith and true love.

Do we have the courage to walk on, or will we drown as we have so many times before?

This poem reminds me that True Love is an act of faith as much a decision we make for ourselves and for life itself as it is for the other.  

42429

I wanted to wrap up this week of David Whyte’s poetry with some of my favorite work. I honor and appreciate the poems that change and challenge me, but I long for poems that love me. How does a poem do that? By helping me to love myself. I shared this poem last year, but it bears repeating.

“Midlife Woman”

Mid life woman

you are not

invisible to me.

I seem to see

beneath your face

all the women

you have ever been.

 

Midlife woman

I have grown with you

secretly,

in another parallel,

breathing with you

as you breathed,

seeing with you

as you see,

lining my face

with an earned care

as you lined yours,

waiting for you

as it seems

you waited for me.

 

Mid life woman

I see your

inner complexion

breathing beneath

your outward gaze,

I see all your lives

and all your loves,

it must be for you

that I wanted to become

more generous,

a better man

than ever I could be

when young,

let me join all your

present giving

and all your receiving,

through you I learn

the full imagination

of every previous affection.

 

Mid life woman

you are not invisible to me,

in you

I see a young girl,

lifting her face to the sky,

I see the young woman

in haloed light,

full and strong,

standing before

the altar of time,

waiting for her chosen.

I see the mother in you,

in your past

or in some yet

to be understood

future,

I see you

adoring and

I see you adored,

and now,

when I call your name

I want to see

day by day,

the woman

you will become

with me.

 

Mid-life woman

come to me now,

I see you more clearly

than all

the airbrushed

girls of the world.

I became a warrior

only to earn

your present

mature affection,

I bear my scars to you,

my eyes are lined

to smile with you

and I come to you

uncultivated

and unshaven

walking rough

and wild through rain

and wind and I pace

the mountain

all night

in my happy,

magnificence

at finding you.

 

Mid life woman,

In the dark of the night

I take you in my arms

and in that embracing

invisibility feel all of your

inner lives made touchable

and visible again.

 

Mid-life woman

I have earned

my ability to adore you.

Mid life woman

you are not invisible to me.

Come to me now

and let me kiss passionately

all the beautiful women

who have

ever lived in you.

My promise

is to you now

and all their future lives.

 

I do not know a middle-aged woman, who does not long to be seen in this way. We don’t know how to ask for it and only poets like Whyte can speak it so eloquently, but  everyone longs to be loved for the fullness of their humanity, not just the veneer of their imagery. In a world that worships at the fountain of youth, mid-life is the turning point when the accolades diminish and the dream of being loved passionately begins to fade away. We are softer; our faces are lined; our hearts and bodies are marked by the cares we have carried for years. It’s easy to believe love will never come, or that if we had it once, it will never come again.  Are we worthy of love even now, at this late hour? Whyte says yes, and yes, and yes again.

To the midlife women reading this, let this poem be a mirror, reflecting you in all your beauty. And if you love a woman in her midlife, let her know through a word, a glance, or an embrace. Even a silent prayer of gratitude may carry the energy she needs to keep going and growing in wisdom, age and grace.

IMG_6648 2
“Midlife Woman” PC: Matt Maude, London, 2015

 

I am going to take a one-day break from the poetry of David Whyte to honor one of his best friends, the Irish writer and poet, John O’Donohue. Many grieved the early death of O’Donohue at the age of fifty-two, Whyte among them. They were anam cara, the Celtic word for “soul friend,” someone who accompanies you on your life’s journey, not just hand in hand, but heart and soul as well.

Whyte’s call to personal accountability has always felt like a challenge to me, direct and unambiguous, rigorous almost. I appreciate that, because that is often what is needed to make changes in our lives and habits, especially the big ones that ask us to go against our religious and cultural upbringing. But John O’Donohue had a different approach. His words are so loving, so soft and gentle, that even the most vulnerable part of you feels safe enough to speak up. O’Donohue’s work invites you to dance, not to discipline. Instead of “the questions that have no right to go away,” he simply holds up a mirror and asks you what you see.

At the End of the Day: A Mirror of Questions

What dreams did I create last night?

Where did my eyes linger today?

Where was I blind?

Where was I hurt without anyone noticing?

What did I learn today?

What did I read?

What new thoughts visited me?

What differences did I notice in those closest to me?

Whom did I neglect?

Where did I neglect myself?

What did I begin today that might endure?

How were my conversations?

What did I do today for the poor and the excluded?

Did I remember the dead today?

When could I have exposed myself to the risk of something different?

Where did I allow myself to receive love?

With whom today did I feel most myself?

What reached me today? How did it imprint?

Who saw me today?

What visitations had I from the past and from the future?

What did I avoid today?

From the evidence – why was I given this day?

For O’Donahue, that final question is the one that has no right to go away. He wanted his life to have meaning and purpose and that was the question that helped hold him accountable.

*This poem is a reinterpretation of the centuries-old Ignatian Examen, which asks its participants to reflect on the presence of God in their daily lives. O’Donohue was a Catholic priest for nearly two decades, before leaving the position to devote himself to his writing.

Unknown

This poem by David Whyte is called “Sometimes.” The irony is that Whyte’s poems don’t challenge his readers sometimes, but all the time.

“Sometimes”

Sometimes
if you move carefully
through the forest,

breathing
like the ones
in the old stories,

who could cross
a shimmering bed of leaves
without a sound,

you come to a place
whose only task

is to trouble you
with tiny
but frightening requests,

conceived out of nowhere
but in this place
beginning to lead everywhere.

Requests to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

questions
that can make
or unmake
a life,

questions
that have patiently
waited for you,

questions
that have no right
to go away.

 

This is one of Whyte’s simpler poems to understand, but that makes it no less challenging to engage with. I have never visited the landscape he describes, the  deep mystical Irish countryside, but I have experienced the kind of “trouble” that landscape brings up for him. It isn’t the setting that is important; it is silence and the stillness it offers. It takes a special place, a place far from the busyness of the world, to hear the “questions/ that have no right/ to go away”.

In our modern world – one that prioritizes performance and efficiency (supreme market values) above all else – these questions are rarely asked. They don’t make sense; they don’t really matter; and to answer them honestly might require us to transform our lives. The lines that haunts me above all else are these:

… to stop what
you are doing right now,
and

to stop what you
are becoming
while you do it,

For years now, this invitation has arisen again and again, to not just consider what I am doing, but who I am while I do it. In all that I do – parenting, marriage, teaching, working, volunteering, studying – how am I showing up and why? I want to be able to name and claim my energy and purpose honestly and with integrity. To be clear, I fail all the time in my execution, but I try to never fail to ask the “questions/ that have no right/ to go away”.

David Whyte lists and elaborates on his questions that have no right to go away in this essay for Oprah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Start Close In”

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way to begin
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

To hear
another’s voice,
follow
your own voice,
wait until it
becomes an
intimate
private ear
that can
really listen
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take
the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

 

I wish this poem was already in existence when I heard yesterday’s poem, “Sweet Darkness.” I heard that first poem as an “invitation” to change and this one as a “how to.” Though I found my way without access to its particular wisdom, I have found it so helpful since. It is a daily reminder to wake up, to take stock, and to always start “close in.”

I am a future-oriented thinker, so I have a tendency to get ahead of myself.  I don’t while away hours thinking about the past; I don’t often get lost in the present moment. Rather, I can spend hours daydreaming about the future and how things might go. I can get ten days, ten weeks, ten months of planning under my belt in just minutes. This poem gently, lovingly, and wisely calls me to start in the here and now.

This poem is a call to problem-solving in the present moment by taking a long, hard look at the real, which is almost always “the step/you don’t want to take.”

This poem asks me:

What am I avoiding?

What am I refusing to see?

What don’t I want to change?

Whyte invites us to ground ourselves, literally, in“the pale ground/ beneath your feet” and metaphorically by finding the ground of our own being, listening to our own voice, intimately and humbly. Only then will we have the wisdom to courageously make the next right step.

grayscale photography of person wearing checkered slip on shoes
My favorite shoes to take steps in these days…