My coworker Dean has written an excellent review of Prayers of a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Mark S. Burrows. Prayers of a Young Poet is from Paraclete Press. It is a hardcover with 112 pages and sells for $22.99. Many thanks to Paraclete for providing a copy of the book to Dean for his review.
Rumors of God:
A Review of Prayers of a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke
Trans. Mark S. Burrows
In recent years, it seems the church has experienced something of a bright and shining retrieval of the doctrine of the “mystery” of God. At Baker, I have seen several books come through our doors dealing with this concept, and it seems that if there is one thing “liberals” and “conservatives” can agree on, it is God’s overwhelming mysterious quality. It is surprising to me, however, that this retrieval has often come in the form of tweaking systematic theologies or producing dense academic texts rather than through an appeal to the deep and rich genre that has informed Christianity on this issue for centuries—that is, poetry. Indeed, the boundary between philosophy and poetry was once far more permeable than it is now. One thinks of the mystic masters like John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, or even Aquinas and Augustine. With the return to the mysterious aspect of God, a move I highly welcome, a revival of religious poetry could prove incredibly helpful—and it is the religious poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke that I would like to suggest as an excellent foray into such a revival.
If God overwhelms our theological and philosophical categories, and a remainder of his transcendence is always escaping us, then it is only natural that we turn to the poets, for this is precisely their world. This is especially true in the case of Rainer Rilke. In Prayers of a Young Poet, Rilke creates the character/pseudonym of a Russian Orthodox monk, one training to paint icons, who continually grapples with the mystery of God. Rilke requests that the poems not be read piecemeal or randomly but as a continuing narrative (and having read the entire book in one sitting, I did not find this a hard request to honor). As such, one encounters a whole range of thoughts and emotions toward God, none of which are ultimately endorsed but held up to the reader as possibilities. The monk oscillates between different poles or absolutes—transcendence/immanence, spirituality/physicality, life/death, etc. If there are dogmas present in these poems, they are held hesitantly. One could say that Rilke’s monk lives within the paradoxes of Christianity; God is so Other to us, so wholly transcendent, and yet so close and immanent as to become human.
From this internal dialogue, we get such beautiful reflections as:
“You’re the murmuring embers
sleeping on all the ovens, far and wide.” (72)
“I’m circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I’ve been circling for thousands of years–
and I don’t yet know: am I a falcon, a storm,
or a vast song…” (36)
Or one of my personal favorites:
“But when I bow down into my self:
My God is dark and like a clump
of a hundred roots drinking silently.
I lift myself from His warmth;
more than this I don’t know, for all my branches
rest in the depths and only sway in the winds.” (37)
In these poems, we find echoes of God’s intimate omnipresence and his centering, other-oriented transcendence. But the poems are not isolated to reflections on God. The religious aspect of existence, with all its joys, ecstasies, anxieties, and peace, is thoroughly explored. That Rilke was influenced by figures like Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard is highly evident. Consider these lines, part of a poem marked by an anxious feeling of forsakenness:
“All at once you find yourself left utterly alone
with your hands that detest you–
what, then, if your will can’t do a miracle…
But through it all rumors of God wander
in your dark blood as if along dark alleys.” (p.73)
Here we find the resolute desire for God in the midst of abandonment. These words are reminiscent of Kierkegaard’s obsession with repetition, despair, hope, and the refusal of resignation. Even if all that remains of God in such trying times are rumors, they are, nonetheless, possibilities. We feel the impending trauma of Nietzsche’s pronouncement of the “death of God”—this despair must be conquered by hope and creation.
What one will not find peering into the journey of Rilke’s monk is a systematic theology. Indeed, one will not find a “theology” at all, that is, a logos (logic) of theos (God). We find what has been sometimes referred to as a theopoetics—a poetics of God. Present in these poems are orthodoxy and heterodoxy, perhaps even heresy. But is this not the case with all of our theologies? One will not always agree with Rilke’s monk, but this monk is not looking for agreement. He is expressing a longing and a journey, and all such journeys are by no means clear and neat (otherwise we would probably call the “journey” a vacation). In contemplating the mystery of God and its relation to human experience, we would do well to wrestle with Rilke’s monk, viewing this monk not as a threat to right belief or as the harbinger of a somehow truer belief, but rather as a fellow wanderer along the Way. Though I do not intend to muscle out the theologians by way of poetry, I do hope to give the poets a significant seat at the table. As the monk pens,
“A thousand theologians plunged
into the ancient night of Your name;
young maidens wakened to You,
and young men girded in silver
shimmered in You, You battle.” (92)
The theologians are not eliminated but recontextualized; their blazing light of truth is overwhelmed by a deeper night of mystery—God is not an object of inquiry, but a battle.
A final note on the book itself is in order. Though I am no German scholar, Mark Burrows renders Rilke’s text with a mind toward the feeling of Rilke’s poetry rather than attempting to preserve the rhyme and rhythm that other translations often do. Personally, I appreciate this a bit more, and Burrows provides an incredible essay on the process of translation as a sort of afterward to the book itself. The introduction, also by Burrows, presents a compelling and personal survey of Rilke’s life and work as a whole, which has a gravitational force often absent in academia. His prose itself feels poetic, and it allowed me to trust him as a translator of poetry. We hear about poetry in general, about this particular collection in its historical context, which is blessed and haunted by a transformative Easter experience Rilke had while visiting Russia as a young man. These essays are rife with helpful advice, and it helps one read the bookended poems slowly and with deep intentionality. It is rare that such introductions and afterwards shed such a unique light on the text itself, and I feel indebted to Burrows for granting me a deeper appreciation for poetry in general and Rilke in particular.
If you wish to plumb Rilke for poetic expressions of neatly tied together doctrinal systems, this book will frustrate you. If you wish, however, to try to live within the cracks of religious thought and experience, to work through the real dilemmas of belief in a paradoxical God and narrative, then Rilke will be an authentic companion. There are times when the monk and I are quite close; other times when I fear his confident claims. But it is clear that the monk is in battle—like Jacob, we see the monk wrestling God, demanding a blessing, and often wounded in the process. If we are really serious about speaking about God’s mystery, we will expect nothing less, and we will, like Rilke’s monk, try our best to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. In the process, we might find rumors of God, even at our lowest depths, and through such rumors might encounter God himself, a God we might circle for a thousand years, a God present in the murmuring embers of our ovens, a God of roots that we might take root in.