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.
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.
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.
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.”
As you can probably tell from my lack of posts, this Lenten season has not been a particularly devout one for me. The week before Lent was a blur after Molly’s surgery and Ash Wednesday coincided with her re-admittance to the hospital. The day made no impression on me until late that evening when a hospital chaplain stopped by and offered to pray with us and offer us ashes. Tim and I accepted gratefully, but when Molly indicated she wanted them, I almost knocked the bowl from the chaplain’s hands. Something deep inside me was repulsed by the thought of marking the body of my suffering child with a sign of her mortality. It seemed morbid and inappropriate, but I let it pass and it did Molly no harm. Still, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning to the season.
The next day, however, something my former pastor Nancy Corran preached to our community came back to me. She said, “If your life is a Lent this year, if you are suffering in a desert already – physically, mentally, emotionally, financially – whatever it is, don’t feel like you have to pile more on. Let your life be your Lent and let God Love you through it.” Those were some of the most profound and compassionate words I had ever heard a priest say, but the privilege of my life had always precluded me from taking her up on her offer. This year, however, I decided it was time. My life was Lent enough.
But Holy Week is here and Molly is back at school. She hardly needs any medication and can manage most things on her own. If you weren’t watching closely, you’d never know she was six weeks out from surgery. And so I began to wonder what I had learned during my “life as Lent” experiment. Jesus’ forty days in the desert showed us that a Lenten practice isn’t about a transaction to be completed, but a transformation to be undergone. He went in to the desert a newly baptized man, but emerged a man on a mission. What about me?
While there were no great changes of heart, my sense of mission has deepened this Lent. More than ever, Love is the ground from which I want to ”live and move and have my being.”
Last night, I read the Passion account from the Gospel of Mark and I was struck by the fact that the word “Love” is never mentioned. 1 John 16 may remind us that “God so Loved the world…” but in the eye witness accounts, Love fades away. Instead, fear, betrayal, pain, cruelty, guilt, and abandonment each take their starring turn. Love may be the motivation for Jesus’ actions, but it’s never explicitly stated and if there is one thing I have learned from all my years of study, it’s that we can’t see what we aren’t told to look for and through it all, Love is what we should be looking for. Any time I see a story about Jesus where Love is not mentioned, I know it’s not the whole story and I have to look again. God is Love and so for Jesus to be unloving, or unmotivated by Love was not possible.
Love is what sent Jesus out of the desert ready to serve humanity: Love of God, Love of self, Love of neighbor. They were all one in his heart and mind and it is that Love, that deep internal knowing of perfect relationship that allowed him to walk through the desperate time we call Holy Week. Jesus’ Love is what makes it holy, because he was wholly committed to Loving us and showing us what Divine Love looks like.
This week, it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of worshipping Jesus, for who he was and what he did. But he didn’t ask us to worship him; he asked us to follow him. He didn’t want admirers; he wanted disciples, women and men who were willing to do what he did, however imperfectly, (because that’s the only way we do can anything). Perfection is the enemy of the good and that was never something Jesus wanted to get in our way. We just have to read the post-Resurrection accounts to see that’s true.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t tell the painful and tragic story of Jesus’ death on the cross. I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge our own culpability in his death and ask for forgiveness. I am saying that maybe we could use this Holy Week to try to Love as Jesus did.
On Holy Thursday, how can we humble ourselves before our friends and family as a sign of our Love for them?
On Good Friday, how can we allow ourselves to not need to be right, or defend our positions and reputations?
On Holy Saturday, how can we rest and just let things be as they imperfectly are, instead of rushing to make everything all right already?
On Easter Sunday and every day after, how can we celebrate the truth that death is not the end of the story and that Love conquers all?
Today, I’ll be washing feet. Tomorrow, I’ll be shutting up. Saturday, I’ll be unproductive and Sunday, I will be smiling and singing Alleluia. I hope you’ll join me.
Here are some of the other posts I’ve written about Lent and Holy Week in year’s past.
I woke this morning, like all of you, to the news of the terrorist attacks in Belgium. I thought, as surely all of you did, “What can I do?”
What can any of us do?
As a practicing Catholic Christian, Holy Week gives me an answer.
I attended mass on Palm Sunday, just two days ago, where I heard the gospel writer Luke report that Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem and wept, saying, “If this day you only knew what makes for peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes…” Jerusalem was a stand-in for God’s chosen people, which Jesus knew included everyone.
Surely Jesus is weeping today – for Brussels, for Belgium, for the world, the victims and the perpetrators.
We do not know how to make peace. It eludes us at every turn. We have tried more sanctions and surveillance, anger, revenge, violence, and profiling to no avail. We have won individual battles, but we are losing the war. We have to find another way forward – at least in our own hearts, because that is where all lasting change comes – from the inside out and the bottom up. And I think about how Jesus acted during the final days of his life and it gives me a clue about where to begin.
The Buddhists have a term for individuals who act as Jesus did in the world, especially as he entered Jerusalem, knowing he was going to his death. They are called SPIRITUAL WARRIORS.
A spiritual warrior is “one who combats the universal enemy; a heroic being with a brave mind and ethical impulse.” The spiritual warrior’s “only complete and right practice is that which compassionately helps other beings with wisdom.”
I believe that is how Jesus entered Jerusalem. He went, full of compassion for the brokenness of our world, in order to teach us another, wiser, way to be.
While some Christians cling to the idea that Jesus’ death paid our debt to God, I don’t see it that way. Honoring a divine blood price and human sacrifice sounds far more like something the Islamic terrorists would embrace than the God that Jesus’ humble, loving, and merciful life revealed.
Theologian Ronald Rolheiser wrote a beautiful alternative metaphor of how Jesus’ willing, sacrificial death might have accomplished the same purpose of universal love and salvation, but through an entirely different mechanism.
Jesus took away our sins in the same way a filter purifies water. A filter takes in impure water, holds the impurities inside of itself and gives back only the pure water. It transforms rather than transmits. We see this in Jesus. Like the ultimate cleaning filter, he purifies life itself. He takes in hatred, holds it, transforms it, and gives back Love. He takes in chaos, holds it, transforms it, and gives back order. He takes in fear, holds it, transforms it and gives back freedom. He takes in jealousy, holds it, transforms it and gives back affirmation. He takes in Satan and murder, holds them, transforms them and gives back only God and forgiveness.
This is it friends! This is how we can live like Jesus, no matter what our faith, or belief system, or even if we have none at all.
In fact, I guarantee you are already doing it! Every time you act, instead of react; every time you hold your child’s fear, your friend’s anger, your life’s chaos, and give back something better, you are the holding tank and the filter of Love.
But in these difficult times, we have to crank up our internal filtering systems and start working overtime. We have to pay attention to what’s coming in and be intentional about what we are putting back out, because that is what a spiritual warrior does and that is what we are all called to be! Of course, some of us are called to be military warriors as well, to work on the front lines of defense against terror and violence, but we are still called first and foremost to be spiritual warriors, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Only by holding and transforming hate into Love as Jesus did will we meet the evil of this world with a more powerful force than itself. Remember what Paul affirms for us: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love NEVER fails.” 1 Corinthians 13:7. If Love appears to be failing, it is because we haven’t really tried it yet.
Mark Nepo says that the spiritual warrior is “someone who is committed to a life of transformation not knowing where it will take them, or what it looks like,” but that you can be sure “they have a crack in their heart, because that’s how the mysteries get in.” Jesus wept because his heart was full of cracks; it was broken open for all of humanity and we must allow the same to happen to us if we have any hope of being a part of the peace-making process in the world. I don’t know what it will look like, but I know we must begin there.
I had plans to commemorate Holy Week in church settings: to share Jesus’ last meal, recall his final words to his family and friends, and observe his persecution and death, but my piety has evaporated in the face of tragic reality. This week instead, I’m going to learn all I can about the victims of today’s bombings, the ones who ate their last meals and spoke their final words and walked to their deaths, not willingly, but betrayed, as Jesus was, by the worst of blind, ignorant, and fearful humanity. My faith demands that I hold them, as I would hold Jesus this week, in Love. I don’t know what difference it will make, but it is what the cracks in my heart ask me to do.
I know I quote Richard Rohr way too often, but he is so good and as always, he gave me a path forward just this week. In his daily meditation on Saturday, he wrote, “True spirituality is about keeping your heart space open. It is daily, constant work. The temptation is to close down: to judge and dismiss and hate and fear.” But if we are training to be spiritual warriors, we have to resist that temptation, because giving into it means deserting the work of God in the world, which is Love, mercy, reconciliation and healing. Richard goes on: “You have to work to live in Love, to have a generosity of spirit, a readiness to smile, a willingness to serve… Love is a choice. You have to deliberately, consciously, intentionally choose to stay connected through your practice to the Source of Love, which is the heart of God.”
Practice, warriors, practice! This week especially! Every time you remember, every moment you have to spare, let the cracks in your heart be a filter for Love. Breathe in the pain of the world and breathe out healing and wholeness. Breathe in the hate and breathe out forgiveness. Breathe in the judgment and breathe out compassion and mercy. Breathe in the toxicity, pain, and fear of humanity and breathe out Divine Love. And although I know we cannot bring new life to Belgium at the end of this Holy Week, we will be bringing new life to the world from the inside out.
P.S. The list of the victims is very sketchy still, so I can not name any as of yet, but when I am able to find more information, I will try to update the blog, so perhaps you can hold them in your hearts with me during this Holy Week.