Would it bother you if there was no relief for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane? I love how Rilke gives himself permission to imagine the utter despair of that last night on earth.

“Der Olivenhain”

He went out under the grey leaves,
all grey and indistinct, this olive grove,
and buried his dusty face
in the dust of his hot hands.

It has come to this. Is this how it ends?
Must I continue when I’m going blind?
Why do you want me to say you exist
when I no longer find you myself?

I cannot find you any more. Not within me.
Not in others. Not in these stones.
I find you no longer. I am alone.

I am alone with everyone’s sorrow,
the sorrow I tried to relieve through you,
you who do not exist. O unspeakable shame.
Later they would say an angel came.

They would say an angel came.

Why an angel? What came was night,
moving indifferently amidst the trees.
The disciples stirred in in their dreams.
Why an angel? What came was night.

The night that came was like any other,
dogs sleeping, stones lying there—
like any night of grief,
to be survived till morning comes.

Angels do not answer prayers like that,
nor do they let eternity break through.
Nothing protects those who lose themselves.

 

I am strangely comforted by this poem of Jesus despair. I have felt it myself, not in degree, but in kind. That moment when you realize the faith you had placed in the Good, the God that had called you, was merely the stuff of your imagination. Or if the call was real, the One who called was not as trustworthy as you had believed. If Jesus came to that conclusion, then it is no sin for the rest of us to do so as well. Dark nights abound, in the gospels and beyond.

But the storytellers who first told the story could not let that be and it bothers Rilke to no end. He mentions the angel who did not come five times. The early historians did not want a God who abandoned his beloved child in his hour of need. Instead, “an angel came from heaven to strengthen him,” (Luke 22) and with that single line we project a measure of grace and ease onto the moment, divine intervention breaking through.

But perhaps Rilke is right and an “angel” is nothing more than a cool breeze on a hot, dusty face and the night’s eventual passing. Could that be enough? Apparently, for Jesus walked out to meet his accusers of his own volition, ready to finish the life’s task given to him by a God he no longer believed in. And isn’t that the ultimate act of faith?

Olive_Grove
An olive grove

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

images

“Change”

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame

where everything shines as it disappears.

The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much

as the curve of the body as it turns away.

 

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.

Is is safer to be gray and numb?

What turns hard becomes rigid

and is easily shattered.

 

Pour yourself out like a fountain.

Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking

finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

 

Every happiness is a child of a separation

it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, become a laurel,

dares you to become wind.

 

Rilke, from Songs to Orpheus II

I realize I’m on a bit of a Rilke jag this week and hope you don’t mind.  I wanted to post this poem in conjunction with Rumi’s poem, “Two Kinds of Intelligence.” They both tap into that same idea that there is a deep wisdom in staying flexible, and allowing things to flow through us and that for some reason, we always need that reminder. Most of us have settled into our comfort zone, and aren’t looking for change. Evolution and growth might be nice in theory, but in practice, we often resist them with all our might. I think we might even over-idealize concepts like “tradition,” “commitment,” and “the way things used to be,” as a way to avoid making healthy, necessary, albeit painful changes.

But nothing in the universe is static! So why would we think that our lives, beliefs, nations, or faith traditions should be?

The key to adopting this wisdom can be found in the final stanza.

Every happiness is a child of a separation

it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, become a laurel,

dares you to become wind.

Nothing good can ever come again if we do not expand and grow, personally, professionally, relationally. It is the resurrection mystery at the heart of the universe. Separation, loss, death – things we do not think we can survive – these are the roots of our future happiness. Even Daphne, who lost her idyllic life and became a stationary laurel tree, invites you to become like the never-still wind. It is always blowing somewhere, changing something. The rustle of her leaves is the only movement she will ever experience. Would you be willing to trade places with her?

 

 

tumblr_p0fr90vfaC1ry5naio1_500

“Remembering”

And you wait. You wait for the one thing
that will change your life,
make it more than it is—
something wonderful, exceptional,
stones awakening, depths opening to you.

In the dusky bookstalls
old books glimmer gold and brown.
You think of lands you journeyed through,
of paintings and a dress once worn
by a woman you never found again.

And suddenly you know: that was enough.
You rise and there appears before you
in all its longings and hesitations
the shape of what you lived.

Rilke is one of the most widely celebrated poets of the 20th century. His life is fascinating and he kept up a wide correspondence with many women and men throughout his lifetime. His Letters to a Young Poet is classic wisdom text about living as an artist.

Last week, Molly asked me to french braid her hair before hockey practice.  It’s a little ritual we have; she shows up with her hair bands and a comb and sits between my legs and we chat about the day. But last week, instead of small talk, I handed her my copy of Rilke opened to this page and asked her to read it aloud. She did once, and then I asked her to read it again and tell me what she thought it was about.  I didn’t know if a fifteen-year-old would know, but she did.

It’s about wasting your life, waiting for your “real life,” your “better life” to begin. You think that what’s happening now is boring, or beneath you, so you’re “remembering.” You keep looking back at all the choices you didn’t make, and the ones that got away.  You’re afraid you might have missed your chance to be special, to have the life you want, but really, it’s like you just have to wake up to what’s going on right now in your life. Wherever you are, is exactly where you’re supposed to be.  You’re life can still be great; you just have to recognize it.

I won’t claim Molly said all those words, but that was the gist of it. Even at fifteen, she’s experienced the universal longing for things to be different than they are, for our lives to conform to the vision we set for them. I’m glad I tried the poetry experiment with her; maybe she heard Rilke’s message a little sooner than the rest of us. (As a bonus, she also asked to borrow my copy of A Year with Rilke. I don’t think she’ll stick with it, but I’m glad she’s curious!)

It’s Easter, April Fool’s, Sunday.

It’s one of the few “forced” days of rest. For the most part, you couldn’t go to work, hit the gym, or the local mall.

How did you receive this day?

With joy and relief, or with dread for the too-many-hours set aside for something “special” that maybe didn’t even happen?

However you spent your day, it’s also the beginning of National Poetry Month.

Last year, I joined the poetry experience half way through and shared a poem a day and reflection on Facebook, but this year, I thought I’d celebrate NPM with all of you.

Welcome to Day One.

I have always loved poetry, as a reader, student and teacher.

I am captivated by the diversity, musicality, and creativity of poets across the ages. I love the turns of phrase that surprise, enlighten me and sometimes confound me. It doesn’t bother me to think, “What in the world does that mean?” I actually enjoy the surgical precision it takes to dissect a difficult poem, line by line.

I realize that puts me in the minority when it comes to casual poetry readers, but that’s part of what National Poetry Month is about: spreading the “good news” about poetry far and wide, just like the Apostles did during Easter. (I’m taking the confluence of the two events as a happy accident.)

So for the next thirty days, you’ll receive a “Poem of the Day” from me in your inbox.  I know it’s a heavy reading load, so feel free to delete if you aren’t interested, or enjoying them, but please don’t unsubscribe! I’ll be back to my infrequent posting schedule soon enough. And if you find a poem that strikes your fancy, feel free to share it by email or on Facebook, using the links below.

More Love = More Poetry

And without further ado, here is our first poem.

last-supper-ivan-guaderrama
The Last Supper by Ivan Guaderrama

“The Last Supper”

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.

Book of Images, Ranier Maria Rilke

With Easter landing on the first day of National Poetry Month, this poem by Ranier Maria Rilke seemed an obvious choice. It spans the last few days of Jesus’ life from the Last Supper to the Resurrection (though that event is referenced only obliquely in the last line.) On Holy Saturday, we read the poem aloud as family a few times and I asked them what metaphor, or turn of phrase they noticed, or if there was a line that confused them.

One liked the metaphor of the gun in a forest. He knew exactly what that felt like, the eerie stillness that lingers after a shot, like everything is holding its breath, before it exhales in safety again. Another was struck by how sad it was to think that all the disciples were already on their way out the door, how they “long to leave” and will at the first sign of trouble. I was taken by the description of Jesus “flowing past/ those to whom he had belonged.” It’s a strange image, but one we can probably all relate to.

There have been times in all of our lives where we experience a “dislocation” from our peers. It’s almost a universal experience and it could be anything really – a medical diagnosis, a depression, deep grief after a loss, a shameful mistake we’re not sure we will be forgiven for. Though we try to participate in our communal life, it’s as if a barrier has been set between us, unseeable, but impenetrable nonetheless. I’ve never liked the experience, but rereading this poem, it is revealed as a holy space too, where deep work can be done.

And finally, Easter. Though the disciples were fleeing Jesus, they will “find him everywhere,” just as I do to this day, sometimes where I’m looking, but most of the time, where I’m not. This poem doesn’t offer the big “Alleluia” we’re used to on Easter Sunday, but ecstasy like that never lasts for long anyway. It’s the showing up time and time again that ultimately counts.