March 1, 2018—Of the many extraordinary poems included in Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet, this one—listed as no. 18 in the collection—is a good place to begin. And this is as true for those who may know little or none of his poems as it is for those who hope to deepen a longer familiarity with his writings. To understand its frame of reference, we do well to remember that Rilke wrote the poems included in this collection, which was to become The Book of Monastic Life (Part I of his Book of Hours) as if they were penned by an old Russian Orthodox monk who was an icon painter (or, as the Orthodox would have it, an icon “writer,” since these images were like texts to be “read” with the heart).
In this poem, the painter-poet opens the piece sounding a note of resignation, despairing of his work as being up to capturing the divine—and who, among us, has not faced such a feeling of futility, in verbal form, at least? Here is his take on it:
Why do my hands go astray with the brushes?
Whenever I paint You, God, You hardly notice.
Granted, this is poetic metaphor and not literal description. But what Rilke is getting at is something each of us knows a thing or two about: no matter how strong our faith is, there are days—or seasons, perhaps even years—when God seems distant from us. Perhaps altogether absent, or far from the bounds of our faith, to the point of being “unconcerned” with our efforts at communicating. Our speaking is met with silence, which we might construe as indifference (or worse). Prayer that does not teach us this, of course, has not yet gone far; those we sometimes call mystics are the first to testify to this. And, in such moments, doubling down with our efforts at believing generally has little or no effect. The brilliant pagan philosopher of Late Antiquity, Plotinus, famously spoke of this as being “alone with the Alone.”
In the lines that follow, however, we sense a strong shift as the poet goes on to confess that
I feel You. You begin to tremble
on the hem of my senses as with many islands—
and to Your eyes that never blink
I am the room.
Now, on the surface of things, this is almost nonsensical: our senses don’t have hems. And what is this strange bit about islands? And: God’s eyes blinking? Really? And, what in the world would it mean to say, “I am the room”?
I can’t answer such questions with absolute certainty. Of course, poems are not questions begging for our answers. They invite us to ponder. To wonder. To enter into what one of my poet-friends calls “startlement,” which might well be (as Plato put it) the beginning of wisdom. If we try to grasp this while remaining on the literal level of language, we’ll get nowhere in a hurry. What I can tell you, though, to amplify these lines is that Rilke favored this simple “outer” word “room”—or Raum in German—to speak of the dynamics of our “inner life.” To grasp the power of this “doubling,” one has to learn to play with such simple images. Or, rather, to let them begin to play with us.
How do we do this? Try imagining God “trembling,” admittedly a strange scene. But at its root, the metaphor is one of vulnerability—toward me. I understand this when I think of my now grown daughters in times when they were struggling. In such terms, the mention of islands might begin to make sense, too, as land surrounded with water, but not fully separated because still within reach of our eyes. Every parent knows something of this, and we might well remember it—if we are fortunate—in the trusting presence of a loving parent or elder who knew to abide with us through times of crisis.
In just such a manner the surfaces (i.e., metaphors) of this apparently simple, even foolish, poem begin to unfold their deep wisdom: to imagine God’s eyes never blinking, when I am facing a tough stretch, is a remarkably comforting image. But what follows, though even stranger than this, might well open us to depths of feeling we would not easily find along a more direct path: “I am the room.” I am the place where You, God, seek to find a home. You seek to indwell me, like this!
The poem continues along this imaginative approach, suggesting that God has “chosen” to move apart from the conventional religious “location” of angels dancing in their ranks, choosing to dwell in what he calls God’s “outermost house”—i.e., far from the conventional, apart from something within easy reach. An island or distant house! Of course, the poem allows us to concede that we might well be the ones who have removed ourselves, first of all, from such a “place,” only to find—to our surprise—that God, too, is tired of being domesticated in such religious conventions as angels in their dance.
The last lines move the poem to a poignant place of startlement:
Your whole heaven listens within me,
for in my pondering I didn’t speak myself to You.
Here, we face the unexpected, given the poem’s starting point which began with resignation or even despair: Rilke senses that God is “listening” within him. What a strange—and yet strangely luminous—image this is: God, envisioned in his “wholes heaven,” does not come to speak to me. Rather, God comes to indwell me in order to listen—not to me, but within me. That is, at the heart of who I sometimes am in my inner turmoil or alienation—from God, from my “self,” from others—having lost the capacity to speak, to “open” myself to God (and, here, read: to self, to others).
What would it mean, in my times of crisis or confusion, of unbelief or despair, of resignation or anger, to imagine God coming from some “distant” place to dwell within me? Or, more to the point, to listen within me? This is the kind of friend, or therapist, we need in a time of darkness: the one who “empties” himself of the “privilege” of transcendence, and comes to indwell our lives (echoes of Philippians 2. 5ff.). Here, in this strange and unassuming little gem of a poem, Rilke imagines God doing just this, in the midst of the pondering that sometimes renders us mute. God, listening within me? God, listening within me? God?
Prof. Mark Burrows, Ph.D.
Protestant University of Applied Sciences, Bochum (Germany)
Mark Burrows is a faculty member at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Bochum, Germany, having moved there after a career of almost a quarter-century teaching at several graduate theological schools in the US and in Europe. His work spans a range of interests, focusing on the abiding voice of medieval literature–and above all that of those we have come to call “mystics.” As an historian of medieval Christianity, his research and writing have focused on those creative minds among the mystics, visionaries, and poets who often found themselves living and working at the margins of Christianity.
Join Mark Burrows as he leads the Spirituality Program’s “I have a room for a second life”: Journeying by Heart with the Poet Rainer Maria Rilke, on April 19 – 22, 2018 at Montreat Conference Center. You can learn more about this class, or register HERE.
 See Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark S. Burrows (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016) [no. 18].