Monday, June 27, 2016

Poetry & Prayer: Rilke's Book Of Hours


If only there were stillness, full, complete.
If all the random and approximate
were muted, with neighbor's laughter, for your sake,
and if the clamor that my senses make
did not confound the vigil I would keep -

Then in a thousandfold thought I could think
you out, even to your utmost brink,
and (while a smile endures) possess you, giving
you away, as though I were but giving thanks,
to all the living.


Rainer Maria Rilke was a Bohemian-Austrian poet who wrote the Book of Hours, the title of which comes from the Breviary (in many Western Christian denominations this contains the liturgical texts for the prayers that make up the hours of each day), because he found the words to these poems to be like prayers. He wrote them as a dialogue between himself and God. 


Part of the inspiration for these poems came from his trip to Russia, which he called his spiritual "fatherland" and where he was moved by the spirituality he encountered there in the Orthodox Church.  The Book of Hours are comprised of three complete cycles (Of The Monastic Life, Of Pilgrimage, and Of Poverty and Death) of poems which explore his search for God and the nature of prayer. The poems wrestle with belief and doubt in a profound way much like that of the Christian contemplatives. At times full of tenderness and, at others, darkness. Deeply personal. Deeply beautiful. Book of Hours show the poet's rich inner life.

A poem from Book of Hours in Rilke's handwriting

Book of Hours established Rilke as a religious poet, which would culminate in his writing the Duino Elegies between 1855 to 1934.


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 a 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 the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.


In his Letters to a Young Poet, he writes to his young correspondent about the young man's struggles with belief in God. The young man fears he has lost God to which Rilke replies, "Do you suppose that someone who really has him can lose him like a little stone?" He further writes:

Why don't you think of him as the one who is coming, who has been approaching from all
eternity, the one who will someday arrive, the ultimate fruit of a tree whose lease we are?


Rilke's poems have had a huge impact on me ever since I discovered them while working in a bookstore during my college years. I'm not sure what made me take that copy of The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell) down from the shelf. When I opened that copy, the first poem I came across was from the Book of Hours. It was the line, "If you are the dreamer, then I am what you dream" that first resonated with me. Of course, I purchased it immediately and savored each and every poem.


I remember giving a copy of it to a girl I was dating at the time. We had known each other from when we worked at Carowinds, but, at the time, were both dating someone else. Then we happened to run into each other, a couple of years later, at Repo Records where I was buying a copy of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark. We started talking about music and by the end of the conversation decided to go out. A few months had passed before I gave her Rilke's poems as a present. She unwrapped the book and a tear ran down her cheek. "No one has ever given me poetry before," she admitted, moved by this romantic gesture. "What made you think of giving me this?"

"Because there was a line in his poem 'The Vast Night' that made me think of you." I replied.

Curious, she asked, "And what was that line?"

"Your smile entered my heart," I quoted the last line of the poem. While our relationship did not last, my love for Rilke's poems did and has continued to this day. Even now, I still like to recite lines from that first poem I read:

My soul, dressed in silence rises up
and stands alone before you: can't you see?
Don't you know that my prayer is growing ripe 
upon your vision, as upon a tree?


Both Book of Hours and Duino Elegies (both of which show his insatiable longing for the Divine) are among my favorite works of poetry. Both Rilke and I are introverts and, perhaps it's because of this that I connect to the inwardness of his works. I highly recommend both of these collections to anyone interested in the infinite and transcendental beauty of his words.


Robin Williams reading Rilke's most famous poem "The Panther" in the movie Awakenings

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