Reflections by Jerry Webber

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Rilke Poem: About Attending to the Patterns of Our Days

Orchard and Road

In the traffic of our days
may we attend to each thing
so that patterns are revealed
amidst the offerings of chance.

All things want to be heard,
so let us listen to what they say.
In the end we will hear what we are:
the orchard or the road leading past.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, "Orchard and Road" from the Collected French Poems, quoted in A Year with Rilke, trans. by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 131.]

Quakers say, "Let your life speak" or, "Listen to your life." It's more than just a saying that encourages us to live large.

I realize that when I'm faced with a decision or with some choice that feels significant, something inside me already knows what to do. I think that's true for all of us. It's the part of a human being I'd call "soul," or the "God-seed" within, that part of our being that already is connected and rooted in the soil of God's goodness. The soul is grounded in the reality of all that is. It knows what to do.

[Note: Mary Oliver begins her classic poem, "The Journey," with those very words:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began
. . .]

So Quakers might say to us, "Listen to your life. Let it speak. It will tell you what to do." For many of us, that may seem easier said than done.

In the poem above, Rilke suggests much the same thing. "In the traffic of our days," he says, pay attention to each thing, to the movements and patterns and thoughts and reactions. Attend to what happens. Don't stumble blindly through the day, through the "traffic," as if the ordinary and mundane did not have some significance. Maybe in another day or from the wisdom of another tradition, he would say, "Live reflectively" or "Be mindful."

Because there are patterns at work within us, and perhaps there are predictable patterns at work in the world. The patterns of the world may have to do with image and conformity and popular notions of what it means to be successful; we are invited, though, to notice the more intimate patterns of our own DNA through the traffic of our days.

And to quote yet another poem that has come to mean a great deal to me, if we are not mindful of the exterior patterns or rhythms which press in upon us and to which we give ourselves and which we assume to be true in the world,

"a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong God home we may miss our star.
(William Stafford, "A Ritual to Read to Each Other")

We tend to assume the patterns others have made (the "wrong gods") and miss the patterns that live within us ("our star")! The patterns and assumptions that are woven into our essence are waiting to be heard. They are, in Stafford's image, the "star" we must follow.

In the second stanza of Rilke's poem, he repeats three times the image of "heard . . . listen . . . hear."

Then he says it: The attending and listening is so that we might "hear what we are."

It takes a radical leap of faith to trust God . . . maybe even more radical to trust ourselves and our own capacity to hear and live into "what we are."

This, however, is the ultimate vocation of every human being. This is what we are made for. This is who we are.

We begin to live into this vocation by attending to the patterns of our days.


Kathryn Kelley said...

interesting. I was thinking about patterns today as well. perhAp stemming from text. 
my thinking .."how long will a woodpecker continue to work at the urban metal tree that we experience as a street light? how long til they dull or chip their beaks? or get really hungry? how long? or my friend Cynthia has a male bird that continues to fly into her window? smack, flutter, ouchy, and then again for months on end. is it simply from the male that looks back at him that he rebuffs the pane? in certain arenas, I've found humans to quite frequently be as repetitive. why? are these no longer functional defense or survival mechanisms? ingrained habits? I don't think these behaviors cause the birds to suffer for they seem only temporally located in that now. on the other hand, because are minds are not temporally bound in the present moment, we suffer as we understand these things as nonfunctional, even damaging, defense and survival mechanisms. we are such amazing but odd creatures that we can stand outside of the now and watch ourselves. there are definite gifts with this capacity and absolutely the potential to suffer because of it. perhaps this temporal fluidity of thought and heart is one smidgen of how we may a be like our maker. perhaps?"

also interesting or maybe a little emotionally bothersome(not in bad way) is in a few things now you have  brought up  star. with this reading it has dredged up from memory the two time, 30 years a part--once in college and again on jan 1 or 2, 2009, that strangers have said they had a word from god for me and felt compelled to lay hands on me. pretty much made be uncomfortable because even though I find a lot of that behavior bunk, I've always felt I can't possible know the breadth of god and he may choose to work in ways I might kind of see as mambee pambee. so I let them. both did and said the same thing! both called me god's "bright morning star" and pretty much everything else they said paralleled one another.  I find this undoing. am unsure how I am suppose to hear this or how it applies to listening to my life, somehow it seems important to me. just don't know how to unpack it. mostly I've kept it stuffed away. why does god keep bring stuff up? (this isn't really a question--it is either a whine or a statement of relief. at this moment I can't tell the difference.)

Kathryn Kelley said...

I hope all this contemplative stuff will help me not take life so freaking seriously. I need to play. I need to see the largeness of life. I don't want the heart of a dang  poet. I spend too much time in my head, to much time temporally dislocated. for me I have to stop listening to my life for bits and only thing working is physical listening. the breath doesn't help me because I too quickly get lost back in my head. listening to nature does help; the sun on my skin, the coolness of a shadow pushing away the heat, the breeze fluttering wisps of my hair along my cheek, the sound of the bending branches, these help me.