(Re)Reading Rilke on the Way to Lent

I am praying again, Awesome One. . . .

It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.

Rainer Maria Rilke


Last week, I realized something startling: it seems no one in my life has ever heard of (let alone read–let alone Experienced) my long-standing favorite poem. And I mean no one: not my husband, not my best girlfriend, not the professor from undergrad whom I credit with passing on to me her love of (German) poetry in the first place. I’m taking this as a sign that I should maybe stop hoarding this poem and invite others into it. This week–turning as we are toward the “joyful sadness” of Great Lent–seems like perfect TIMING (there’s my attempt at a nominal link to the time-centered focus of this blog. Ha.)

So, poetry…

I’ve often heard that it’s a blessing to find one or two friends who stick with you through all the shifting seasons of your life. Something similar applies to poems–it’s bordering on the sacred when the same old lines continue to speak, meaningfully and deeply, even when everything around them changes. When relocations and politics and the start of a marriage and multiple graduate degrees and a whopping conversion have gone by and the words just continue to be there, and you can rest in them.

This, for me, has been one of those poems.

It’s called “I am praying again, Awesome One,” by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a German-Bohemian poet. (I’ll include a link to an English translation at the bottom of this post.) I’m not going to analyze the poem line-by-line or anything, though the academic in me misses that kind of writing. I want people to experience the poem as is, like I did, because I think its beauty lies in the fact that it doesn’t require deep analysis to understand.

Instead, I want to write about what it’s been like to read this poem over time, at various points in my life. As a convert–and as someone who has gone through a fair amount of Major Life Changes (MLCs) in the last ten years, it’s easy to fall into the trap of viewing my life as collection of discontinuous phases. It’s easy to look back on things through the lens of fragmentation and dissolution, black and white, before and after. It’s harder to remember that life is also a journey, one that is taking us Somewhere, and that we are a unified whole of the lessons we learn and take with us. There many things I love about Rilke’s poem, but at the top of the list is the way he gives words to the shame of fragmentation, not to mention how scary it can be to find our wholeness in God, not knowing how He will respond.

I was 17 or 18 when I first read this poem, having come across a quoted section in some unabashedly generic Christian devotional, probably by Max Lucado or Philip Yancey. That was back when hanging out at the local Christian Book Store Slash Coffee House pretty much epitomized the goal of the Christian life. The devotional was just okay, but the quotation blew me away. I had never heard of Rilke, but wrote his words down in my journal and kept paging back to it, trying to soak it all in.

I didn’t know then that what I was reading was merely a snippet of the original poem. The internet had been around for years, but I don’t think “google” was a verb yet, and several years went by until it finally occurred to me to “google” the poem. By then, I was smack in the middle of an undergraduate degree (in International Studies and German Studies), and struggling to wrap my mind around German literature. Prior to that point, I would not have described myself as particularly “literary”–I had always loved to read, but never anything that required mental exertion. College, though, was slowly changing me. It’s where I first started reading harder things–even German literature–and enjoying it. I was learning to love the simple act of sitting down with a text, slowly and quietly and lovingly. Probably, I should have have already learned this during the umpteen years I spent going to Bible Studies and reading the Bible, but I hadn’t. I think I learned to love the Bible after I learned to love literature. And the first literature I remember loving was poetry.

In any case… As beautiful as the learning process is, there’s always a subtle bit of grief that comes when your mind sheds its old exoskeleton to expand into new directions. Now, three degrees later, I am a bit better acquainted with that grief than I was then. I’m reminded of the poignant verse in Ecclesiastes: “he who increases sorrow increases grief” (1:18). The more you learn, you start to feel different on the inside and the world becomes more more complicated. You begin to wonder, sometimes, if you are still the same, hopeful person you used to be. In college, when I was just starting to learn the burden of knowledge, I remembered this poem. I remembered that once upon a time–before my German poetry classes, before I started thinking about graduate school–a German poem had spoken to me, profoundly. My past and future selves were not so different after all.

In graduate school, I came across Rilke more often and learned a bit about him, which made his poetry speak in new ways. Rilke had an unusually difficult life, in the sense that things were hard, but in really bizarre ways.Β  For example, his mom tried to raise him as a girl through childhood–not because he was transgender or anything, but simply because she wanted her son to be a girl. To be fair, Rilke’s birth had been preceded by the death of a sister, and it was likely out of grief his mother longed for a daughter rather than a son. But still. Like I said, unusually difficult.

And then, years later, my life went through a bunch of changes (as life tends to do, I guess).Β  Among other things, I’d converted to Orthodoxy. One of the hard parts about converting was learning what to do with the German parts of myself (though I’ve made some progress here and here). Suffice it to say, I couldn’t figure out how to weave all the cultural loose ends into my new, Orthodox self. The more Orthodoxy becomes a part of me, the less Martin Luther and certain other German reading companions resonate with me. That makes me sad, like losing my friends.

Once again, this Rilke poem came back to me. And its words were still fresh and familiar to me, perhaps more than ever. In rekindling my relationship with this trusted piece of verse, I remembered a fact I had glossed over during previous studies of Rilke’s life–that he had spent some time in Russia, that he was deeply moved by Orthodoxy (at least aesthetically). I remember (long before Orthodoxy was on my radar) reading a scholarly article about Rilke’s poetry that argued some of his poems were meant to be read as icons. The scholar believed that to understand them, you had to go beyond western concepts of ekphrasis, because Rilke relied on Orthodox notions of perception and Prototype.

I had no idea what any of that meant at the time. To be honest, I still don’t. Which makes me believe that the poem is something I will still be growing into, forever. I think, even after all these years together, it’s still a little too big for me. But I think it will wait for me to grow. I think it will still be there beside me over the course of my whole life, learning whatever I can what it means to pray, to see rightly, and to offer myself to God unconditionally, out of all the “pieces of my shame.”

To read “I am praying again, Awesome One,” in English, click here.

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  1. I’m also a lover of Rilke’s “Prayers of a Young Poet”. πŸ™‚ So glad to find a kindred spirit!

    Nicole, would you mind unpacking, “go beyond western concepts of ekphrasis, because Rilke relied on Orthodox notions of perception and Prototype” for me? “Ekphrasis” was a concept introduced to me through a local Christian writer’s group, but I didn’t realize it might be one of those things that doesn’t integrate well into Orthodoxy. You’ve really piqued my interest!

    1. Hi Tess! There are many of us kindred Rilke-philes out there it seems πŸ™‚

      So, you were referring to something I read about in a scholarly article years ago (and don’t remember the author/ title). And as I mention in the post, I can’t say I fully comprehend the author’s main point. But ekphrasis is just a general term that refers to the act of describing art (usually visual art) in writing. Ekphrasis itself isn’t a strictly western phenomenon (in fact, the word comes to us from Greek: ek + phrazein). I think the author’s point was more along the lines of the ekphrasis in Rilke’s poetry being somehow different than what you would expect to find in contemporary western authors of his ilk, because of his proclivity toward Russian/ Orthodox notions of perception. I suspect the author was specifically referring to Rilke’s object poetry–short, pithy poems he wrote about particular objects (e.g. “Little Tear Vase”). These poems feel very ekphrastic to me because he describes these objects almost as art or things of beauty, not just as simple objects. What might differentiate Rilke’s use of ekphrasis from his western contemporaries is that he describes things not just as simple, mundane objects–there is something prototypical about the objects and images he describes. There is this sense that we are looking not just at a vase but at what lies behind the image / object of the vase. The sort of essence of what it means to be a vase, at least as Rilke sees it. I think this is something that comes through in a lot of Rilke’s poetry, not just the object poems, because he is a very image-heavy poet. But he describes visual, tangible, earthly images with an almost sacred Beyond-ness that I think is what makes his poetry so arresting. Glimpsing the images in his poems (in the one I shared, for example, the alleyway, the garbage and broken glass, god’s hands) provokes a similar feeling of standing before an icon. I find Orthodox icons both beautiful and haunting, I think because they are composites of reality and Beyond-ness, type and proto-type, time and eternity. And for whatever reasons, I find I have much the same sense when reading Rilke’s poetry, particularly the image-laden passages.

      I should say I’m no expert in Rilke or even poetry, and I don’t know if what I wrote above would jive with people who know more about these things than I do. I guess it’s just my way of making sense of Rilke in the face of Orthodoxy and something I read years ago but can barely remember πŸ™‚ Take care!

  2. Thanks, Nicole! That makes sense. I can certainly see where Rilke’s perception veers towards the iconic as opposed to merely ekphrastic in that way. Ekphrasis, then, would be a more intellectual perception as compared with the way one perceives an icon. Heh— though just after typing that, I thought, “Well, then, what exactly was Plato doing with his forms? Was he ekphrasticly perceiving or iconically perceiving a table?” πŸ™‚ Sounds like a rabbit hole to me.

    Thanks again for the response– have a blessed Lent!

    1. Hi Tess! Just a quick followup: I don’t think ekphrasis is dichotomous to perceiving things “iconographically.” Ekphrasis is simply a device used in literature to respond to or describe art, and can take various forms, including perhaps Rilke’s more non-western aesthetic sensibilities. It’s not that ekphrasis is strictly intellectual/ western. Just wanted to clarify πŸ™‚

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