You’re the miracle that happened in the desert

    for those who’d passed through.  

             - Rainer Maria Rilke, from Prayers for a Young Poet

Such a claim as this alerts us to the vital embers that glow within the language and imagery of Rilke’s “prayers.”  They often draw, as we see in these lines, from ancient stories and traditions—in this case, the account of the exodus from the Hebrew Scriptures.  Or is his reference to something closer to us, an experience we know in our own lives?  Image, gesture, memory:  these all take us to the depths of the “self,” where history and legend meet us in our own experience as of the “unconscious.”  Rilke and poets like him speak from that place, and toward that place in their readers. 

Here, the poet calls us to attend to the miracle waiting for us in the dark veil of those “desert” places we know in our lives.  Such poetry witnesses to this journey through that place to a land of promise.  It presumes that following in the path of such an exodus leaves something important lingering within us:  thirst and eyes to see in the dark; loneliness and a sense of belonging—to others, to God, and to ourselves in this journey.  Where else, we wonder, is this to happen but in our own experience of “passing through” the desert?

The Christian journey was often characterized by medieval theologians as one that began with “purgation” and moved forward by means of “illumination” toward final “union” with the divine.  This awakening shapes, implicitly, the journey traced in this retreat:  purgation (Thursday, Friday); illumination (Saturday); and, finally, union (Sunday).  In Rilke’s hands, as with theologians as deft as John of the Cross, this journey inward and then outward is not conceived as a rigid pattern, but rather as an intensification—suggesting dimensions of experience that are more like a passage through loss to discovery, from darkness into the light, from death into new life.   Such dimensions remind us that life begins—again and again—in chaos and separation, and only then opens us to the experience of resurrection.  This movement suggests the experiential categories that will structure the hours of our retreat.  Through the guiding voice of these poems, we move from “unknowing” to a “ripening,” and finally toward “the one-ing.”

Finally, everything is grace and grace is everywhere.  Rilke’s prayers call us to participate in the deep conversion this insight offers.  They beckon us to live into our own “becoming,” and become in our loving.  They invite us to seize the miracle happening in the desert within us, and to “feel that [we] can— and seize the forming day.”


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