Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Discovering, While Slowing Down
My good friend Mark Burrows has just published a collection of poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, originally issued in the first years of the 20th century. The elegance of Mark’s translations is matched only by the intensity and difficulty of Rilke’s poetry. It will, therefore, be a slow but rich journey through them. An early poem begins,
I live my life in widening rings
which spread out to cover everything.
I may not complete the last one,
but I’ll surely try:
License allows the phrases to play with my thoughts, perhaps resonant with Rilke, perhaps not. We often think of growing old as a closing down, a narrowing. Yet Rilke poses a kind of spiraling out from the center, a circling partially untethered and thus urged by some sort of centrifugal force to venture out toward the unknown. Life is measured by daring rather than caution. Contrary to convention, growing old means fresh opportunity rather than limits.
Alter the image and the spiral of “widening rings” becomes ripples on the water’s surface caused by some disturbance, rings which move relentlessly to the shoreline only to be reflected back toward the center creating complex and intricate designs. Perhaps life is a rhythm of reaching out to daring edges and seeking after safe centers, a constant movement of exploration and centeredness – restless yet bound – that holds us in constant, creative, fluid tension.
And what of the center, the source, the original disturbance? Rilke continues, and concludes:
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. . . .
I find the falcon appealing, soaring further and further toward the horizon yet always linked to the falconer by some innate sense that eventually draws it back. Then the storm, roiling and troubling the landscapes and seas of injustice or despair yet with an eye of tranquility at the center. Or perhaps the vast song, sounding forth toward some unknown audience waiting for harmonies of joy, hope, love, peace.
I suspect I am none of these things, at least not fully, though called fully to be each one by the One who flings us forth to soar, trouble, and sing. Our days are filled with the ordinary, with mundane and seemingly senseless tasks that threaten to turn life to a round so endless that we are tempted to pray for an ending. And yet. . . . Faith posits something else and lures us out beyond even the last ring. And it reminds us that we are graced by companions, thousands of years of them, and the precious ones who share our own few but blessed years. Rilke is challenging; the allusion to the ancient tower eludes me. But he invites contemplation, a slowing down, surely a gift in busy lives. And whether he turns us toward the One at the center or toward the receding boundaries of a distant horizon we learn something of the source and end of our destiny – to soar, to trouble, to sing.
John H. Thomas
October 25, 2012
[Mark S. Burrows, transl., Prayers of a Young Poet – Rainer Maria Rilke (Paraclete Press, 2013).