Poet. Writer. Philosopher. Spiritualist. Rainer Maria Rilke certainly warranted all these designations; one might even add that he was gifted with an understanding of the world which transcended his years and mortality.
Rilke was born and wrote during Europe’s Belle Époque (b. 1875 d. 1926). An Austrian poet and novelist, Rilke lived in Paris for a significant part of his literary years and there began lifelong friendships with Rodin and Cézanne. Rilke was a part of the Parisian Impressionist era at the turn of the century. In recent pop culture, we met him sitting at a table writing in one of the Belle Époque sequences in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. In real life, he was an introverted, feeble man with an antisocial quality. He had difficulties engaging directly with other human beings, thus he often chose to write letters to communicate with those in his life. And it is in the letters that survived him where we can catch a glimpse of the power of perception and clairvoyance that this delicate and potent mind possessed.
For many years, I considered myself spiritual in the sense that I did not believe that organized religion and God had much to do with one another. Since I’ve lived in France, or more specifically married into a traditional Catholic family, I’ve been given the opportunity to observe first hand another perspective – one whose belief is unquestioned, whose faith is unyielding.
Several years back when I was going through the major change of leaving a life I had built for myself in big city North America for the unknown of a new life, my mom gave me a little book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. At the time, I didn’t read it through. I felt I had more pressing matters to attend to: was I in the process of ruining my life or taking the leap I needed to break free of chains to which my younger self had unwittingly bound me? I should have read the book back then.
The passage I read last night struck me as particularly poignant. In it, Rilke, a non-practicing Catholic, speaks to a young correspondent about his conception of God.
And if it frightens and torments you to think of childhood and of the simplicity and silence that accompanies it, because you can no longer believe in God, who appears in it everywhere, then ask yourself, dear Mr. Kappus, whether you have really lost God. Isn’t it much truer to say that you have never yet possessed him? For when could that have been? Do you think that a child can hold him, him whom grown men bear only with great effort and whose weight crushes the old? Do you suppose that someone who really has him could lose him like a little stone? Or don’t you think that someone who once had him could only be lost by him? But if you realize that he did not exist in your childhood, and did not exist previously, if you suspect that Christ was deluded by his yearning and Muhammad deceived by his pride – and if you are terrified to feel that even now he does not exist, even at this moment when we are talking about him – what justifies you then, if he never existed, in missing him like someone who has passed away and in searching for him as though he were lost?
Why don’t you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose leaves we are? What keeps you from projecting his birth into the ages that are coming into existence, and living your life as a painful and lovely day in the history of a great pregnancy? Don’t you see how everything that happens is again and again a beginning, and couldn’t it be His beginning, since, in itself, starting is always so beautiful? If he is the most perfect one, must not what is less perfect precede him, so that he can choose himself out of fullness and superabundance? Must he not be the last one, so that he can include everything in himself, and what meaning would we have if he whom we are longing for has already existed?
As bees gather honey, so we collect what is sweetest out of all things and build Him. Even with the trivial, with the insignificant (as long as it is done out of love) we begin, with work and with the repose that comes afterward, with a silence or with a small solitary joy, with everything that we do alone, without anyone to join or help us, we start Him whom we will not live to see, just as our ancestors could not live to see us. And yet they, who passed away long ago, still exist in us, as predisposition, as burden upon our fate, as murmuring blood, and as gesture that rises up from the depths of time.