Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

One Foot in the Dark and One Foot in the Light: A Rilke Poem

I'm aware of my tendency to label things as "good" or "bad" depending on how they impact me. It may be that way with most all of us. Our vantage point is always self-referenced, so that we evaluate the events in our lives and in our world by the measure of how they impact us. Those things that are "good" bring me happiness and well-being. Those things are "bad" that cause me pain and discomfort. These are the standard value-judgments with which most of us live.

I'm convinced that a growing life with God relies less and less on such value judgments. Over time we recognize that there are some things that are "good" for me that don't necessarily feel good in the moment. Pain and struggle are valuable parts of the human experience, as well as laughter and gladness. As we grow up spiritually, we acknowledge that we can't fully see through every situation to the bigger picture. Our sight is limited, so that we don't often see the larger work God is accomplishing in our lives and in our world, even in the struggle and uncomfortable seasons of life.

[I read an excerpt from Richard Rohr a couple of weeks ago in which he mentioned discernment as the spiritual gift of being able to see that what may be "good" for me may also be "bad" for someone else in the world . . . for someone close to me or for someone somewhere else on the planet. It takes a maturing person, a person who is becoming a spiritual grown-up, to recognize that not everything that feels good or appears beneficial to me is also good for others and for the created world.]

It is difficult to hold this tension, to live in this liminal space where things are not as we wish them to be. We tend to want one or the other. We want the bad turned into good, the water turned into wine, the darkness turned into light, the earthy turned into the celestial.

Most often in life we are invited to stand between the two, to wait at the threshold, to live with one foot in the light and another foot in the darkness. It is a marvelous grace to be able to do this, and one that runs counter to what most of us want from life.

Last week a poem from Rainer Maria Rilke's Book of Images found me. The poem, in German, is entitled "Abend." In English, that would be "Evening" or "Sunset." It speaks, at least to me, of this way of holding the tensions, of living the "both/and" rather than the "either/or."

by Rainer Maria Rilke

The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

[Rainer Maria Rilke, The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International, 1980, 1981, 1982), 13.]

Some contemporary critics of Rilke's poetry call this poem "ludicrous" and "bombastic." I'm not up on my poetry criticism, so I don't know about that. I do know that the poem stirred me with its images.

First, there is the image of evening or sunset, that twilight (literally, "twin lights" or "two lights") when the daylight lingers but also the darkness of night is closing in. I recognize that much of life is lived in this evening time, holding onto the light of day and resisting the darkness of night. In this twilight, a person belongs to both the light and the darkness, while at the same time belonging to neither one.

As the poem unfolds, Rilke shifts the image from the light/dark of evening to the two movements represented by stars ("journeying to heaven") and earth ("one that falls"). Again, Rilke says that we live in both realms. Both are true of us.

The old rabbis taught that each human has two pockets. In one pocket is the message, "You are the dust of the earth." In the other pocket, the message says, "For you the universe was made." I think of the "dust pocket" as my humanity. I'm not to deny it or to change it. I am invited to live a fully human life. I am the dust of the earth. From dust I have come and to dust I will return.

I am also, however, created in and for connection with God. There is a grand, bigger-than-life design woven into my DNA by God. I, like you, have a destiny that is larger and more expansive than I can possible imagine. So there is a part of me that lives fallen to the earth ("stone in you," Rilke says) and a part of me that "journeys to heaven" (the "star" in me).

So here's the challenge: I am invited to recognize each within me, simultaneously, and to live into the fullness of both. In Rilke's poetic language, he says it leaves you, "inexpressibly to unravel your life (or "untangle your life") with its immensity and fear" . . . both "bounded" and "immeasurable."

"Immensity" speaks to the feet which stand with light and with the heavenlies . . . and "fear" speaks to the part of us that is familiar with darkness and with the earth/dust.

In fact, in the original poem, "immensity" and "fear" are only two of the three words Rilke used in that line. The third word is rendered in other translations of the poem as "growing" or "ripening."

These are the challenges of every human life . . . to untangle our lives in their immensity and fear and ripening. I sense the invitation to live into my God-designed life in all its hugeness and fearfulness and growing edges. I can have feet planted in all those places. I don't have to choose one or the other.

It is in this way, I believe, that I'm invited to live fully with and for God in every season.

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