Sermon on RM Rilke by Rev. Carla Grosch-Miller, from St. Columba's URC, Oxford 10/2/13

2013 Feb 10                        Worcester College Chapel Evensong                       CA Grosch-Miller

Luke 9:28-36; Letters to a Young Poet, RM Rilke


Scripture: Luke 9:28-36

Other reading:  From Letters to A Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke


At Worpswede bei Bremen, 16 July 1903

…I have left a letter of yours unanswered for a long time.  It is not that I had forgotten it; on the contrary, it was the kind of letter anyone would read a second time if he chanced on it again among his papers, and I could recognise you in it as if you were standing beside me. …I am sure you remember it.  Reading it as I do now, in the great stillness of this faraway place, I am touched by your wonderful concern for life even more than I was in Paris, for there everything sounds different, smothered by the inordinate din that agitates everything.  Here, in the midst of this enormous landscape and of the great winds that blow across from the sea, I feel that there is no-one who could find answers to those questions of yours, those emotions, which deep within themselves live a life of their own.  Even the best of us cannot quite find words that will truly express things so subtle and virtually unsayable.  Nevertheless I believe that you need not stay unanswered so long as you keep in touch with things resembling those by which my eyes are at this moment refreshed.  If you keep close to Nature, to all that is simple in Nature, to the small things which scarcely anyone notices and which can for that very reason invisibly lead to what is great, what is immeasurable; if you truly possess this love for lesser things and if, by serving them, you can quietly win the trust of things that seem humble – then everything will grow easier for you, more unified, somehow more reconciling, not necessarily in your mind, which may hesitate, amazed, but in your deepest awareness and watchfulness and understanding.  You are still so young, so uncommitted, and I do entreat you as strongly as I can, my dear Sir, to stay patient with all that is still unresolved in your own heart, to try to love the very questions, just as if they were locked-up rooms or as if they were books in an utterly unknown language.  You ought not yet to be searching for answers, for you could not yet live them.  What matters is to live everything.  For just now, live the questions.  Maybe you will little by little, almost without noticing, one distant day live your way into the answers.    





We gather in the afterglow of the transfiguration, its radiance transfixing, transforming…to contemplate a poet who caught the radiance of God in the simple things of earth and the ripening of human consciousness: Rainer Maria Rilke.  Like Gerald Manley Hopkins, who wrote the world is charged with the grandeur of God, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Earth’s crammed with heaven…., Rilke found God manifest in the creation, an immanent reality brought to fulfilment in the poet’s grasping of it.  Seeing and cherishing the things of the earth, Rilke resacralised the world. (Barrows & Macy 1996, 153)  Digging deep into his inner being, he discovered the hand of the divine awakening and “ripening” him.  In this way, he is particularly amenable to the postmodern West.  No dualism impeded his spiritual journey; no institution confined his understanding.  His passion was for the content of God emergent in earth and in humanity.


You have already heard some of his wisdom: closeness to Nature, attentive loving observation, patience with all that is unresolved in your heart, love the questions, live them that you may one day live into the answers.  I am most intrigued with Rilke’s poetry of becoming, his understanding and expression of how we become ourselves and that God becomes through us becoming.  The poems I will be sharing with you on this topic come from a collection he called The Book of Hours, a book of three collections: The Book of Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage and The Book of Poverty and Death.  He wrote these poems in German.   I will be reading from the 1996 translation Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love poems to God, by poet Anita Barrows and systems thinker and environmental activist Joanna Macy. (NY: Riverhead Books)


Rilke had what he called in a letter a completely indescribable passion for experiencing God. (Barrows & Macy 2009, 33)  Born in 1875 in Prague, he was raised Roman Catholic but found his spiritual home at the turn of the century in Russia and the Orthodox Church.  There he found a God who inhabited earth and expressed its divinity in human potential.  [van der Lippe, quoting Andreas-Salomé You Alone at 10]. There, he said, God broke in on me, and for a long time I have lived in the antechamber of his name, on my knees. [You alone, 153-154]


The Book of Hours came to him in an outpouring, as though dictated from above.  He wrote at a feverish pace, in three sittings, between Sept 1899 and March 1903.  He wrote as though he were a Russian monk living in a cloister, summoned to the task of seeing and meeting what was most real to him in the world.  He wrote of the ripening of the self through our wrestling with God, and the impenetrability of the holy, whose firm hands hold and free us:


From Book I, 25 (p. 70)

I love you, gentlest of Ways,

who ripened us as we wrestled with you.


You, the great homesickness we could never shake off,

you, the forest that always surrounded us,


you, the song we sang in every silence,

you 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.


He was aware of the desire we have to cling to what we discover in our wrestling, to put the ephemeral in tangible form, like Peter – transfixed by the sight of Jesus, Moses and Elijah shining on the mountaintop – who wanted to build three dwellings.  Rilke did not disdain that very human tendency to concretise and systematise religious feeling, but for him, he knew that the real faithfulness was sensing God and letting God work in us, so that we become living words.


From Book II,15 (p. 115):

All who seek you test you.

And those who find you

bind you to image and gesture.


I would rather sense you

as the earth senses you.

In my ripening


what you are.


I need from you no tricks

to prove you exist.

Time, I know,

is other than you.


No miracles, please.

Just let your laws

become clearer

from generation to generation.


Desire is no enemy to Rilke.  Longing features strongly in the poems, as does emotion and embodiment, and silence and solitude.  The whole of human experience is the realm in which we find God and in which we manifest God:


Book I, 59 (p. 88)

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 a country they call life.

You will know it by its seriousness.


Give me your hand.


Again from Book I,17 (p. 64):

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 evening

it’s you she receives.


You are the partner of her loneliness,

the unspeaking centre of her monologues. 

With each disclosure you encompass more

and she stretches beyond what limits her,

to hold you.


And from Book III,62 (p. 147):

I thank you, deep power

that works me ever more lightly

in ways I can’t make out.

The day’s labour grows simple now,

and like a holy face

held in my dark hands.


Reading the Book of Hours, we are struck by the intimacy of the relationship between God and man, God and woman; and by the earthy tenderness with which God cradles human life and brings it to its fulfilment, which is to manifest the divine.


He speaks to God:  Book II, 26 (p. 122)

You too will find your strength.

We who must live in this time

cannot imagine how strong you will become –

how strange, how surprising,

yet familiar as yesterday.


We will sense you

like a fragrance from a nearby garden

and watch you move through our days

like a shaft of sunlight in a sickroom. 


We will not be herded into churches,

for you are not made by the crowd,

you who meet us in our solitude.


We are cradled close in your hands –

and lavishly flung forth.


Today we remember the Transfiguration – the revelation of radiant Word made flesh, the fulfilment of God’s purpose in creation.  The Transfiguration is the apex of the incarnation, the whole of the promise that God might dwell fully in and through humanity.  Rilke’s Love poems to God reveal the way, in silence and in solitude, through our seeing, our longing and our becoming, the divine comes to life in our flesh.  Hear again:


You…go to the limits of your longing. 

Embody me.


Flare up like flame

and make big shadows I can move in.


May we know God’s tenderness and strength in the things of the earth and the longings of our hearts.  And may we be ripened by our wrestling, by the loving and living of our questions, as we become who we can be in the likeness of Christ.  Amen.

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