Solitude and Praise: Part One
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs-
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
May the meditations of our hearts as we read together be aligned with our love, our strength, our courage and our freedom.
“I would like to live a small, fearful life that lacks courage and is miserable.”…. said no one ever!
We aspire to live a large, expansive and courageous life, don’t we?
After a significant death of someone important to us, once we catch our breath, (which can take eons, if you did not know), we often take an assessment. We might find ourselves intuitively reflecting on what the has been wrought and what the future might bring.
The words of Rainer Maria Rilke are a great companion in this type of reflection.
In these two blog posts we will encounter the architecture of Rilke’s personal story and how it maps onto his words and back again. I hope that you would be enticed to connect or reconnect with him. I will be using various translations of Rilke as well to share with you Rilke’s two ways to reach for clothes of new colors…
The coat of new colors is obtained, for Rilke:
1. by putting on the cloak of solitude and
2. by putting on the adornment of praise.
Rilke’s years are 1875 - 1926. He is on the fulcrum the two centuries, he was destined to maneuver a demanding pivot that went from the vanishing romantic 19th century into the rugged and skeptical 20th century.
Rilke’s story is full of bizarre and poetic irony. Born to a Catholic family in Prague, his birth was immediately overshadowed by death. His parents had placed a daughter in her grave just prior to his being born. His mother was deep in grief - so much so that she dressed him as a little girl and called him Sophia… you may know, the Greek word for wisdom...
At age 11, he was sent off to an opressive and masculine Prussian military academy. His father was, apparently, concerned about his son’s masculinity. When discharged from the military academy due to health concerns, he returned only to find his parents divorced. This was the level of transparency and communication within the Rilke family.
Rilke’s early years seems to be about dislocated extremes.
Scholars... label him as an existentialist, a humanist, an empath and a pantheist... He seems far more complicated that this, in part, because he is, first, a poet. Rilke, as a person, had a singularity of purpose for good or for ill. He worked in traditional sectors briefly, fraternized in the modern art movement, traveled through Europe. Tried briefly to be a husband and a father. But he was one of those people who was singular in life and in calling. He was to be, soley, a poet. And because of that, not without critics. Most recently, the American poet John Berryman wrote: “Rilke was a jerk.” Some biographers are troubled by his lack of capabilities in practical matters. But, I wonder, when did we start asking our poets, our artists and our musicians to be without flaws, perhaps even deep flaws?
Regardless, he eclipsed the constrictions of his generation to discover and reveal some of what is hidden behind things. And this is our treasure trove to be had from him.
That ability to move past constriction results in words that can speak to anyone, regardless of their spiritual leanings. For instance, Don Paterson translated Rilke as sort of an atheist’s hymnbook. He recognized that he needed a book of praise from which to move his soul work through.
Rilke wrote 10 letters over 5 years to Frans Kappus. These were to be published later as a slim book called “Letters to a Young Poet” which I recommend to you. Central to these letters from Rilke is the clear invitation for the reader to see themself as the leader of their own journey.
This journey requires a practice of solitude. His most succinct statement is this:
“...Your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”
Let’s talk specifically about Rilke’s cloak of solitude…
Solitude is foreign to you and I, we who are immersed in a culture where we are preoccupied, noisy and lonely. Our external measures of our worth, value and esteem can often lure us into fragile states of being.
Solitude, on the other hand, fosters a connection to that non-visable source within and the non-visable cosmos without. Both environs deem us a miracle.
When we are grieving the loss of someone in our daily, physical existance, is our solitude a support and a home for us? Often we label solitude as the horrible result of such a loss - if we are one of those that suffers a dirth of unwanted aloneness. Our future, full of “unfamiliar circumstances” may frighten us and we may struggle against that silent center from which one might find all one’s paths.
What work can we be doing, during the moments of aloneness, to cultivate our depths further?
Go to Rilke to learn this. Sit with him a while, friends.
If we learn from Rilke that solitude is a foundation - then we also learn from him that the adornment of praise is something that we need to employ within the struggle of grief.
Rilke's praise is not a cheap nor easy praise. For Rilke’s praise is often born out of challenges. He demonstrated an ability to praise within hardship.
We want to know how to do that.
Rilke’s story continues - he wrote his first three pieces of the Duino Elegies in 1912 and he abruptly stopped. The bloody horror of World War I swept over everything. Rilke endured a soul-wound from exposure to the war - the evidence of this being how he was blocked from writing for around 10 years. He dove deeper into solitude by relocating to a freezing chateau in Switzerland. Which is where we will linger in this moment. This time for Rilke of focused solitude would birth an emerging value of praise - even in a most challenging and unlikely way.
He sat in that bitterly cold chateau in Switzerland, struggling to write more of the elegies with little to show for the agony.
Then, he received letter, then later a parcel. And it was about to change everything.
A soul mate friend wrote to him, sharing her anguish over the death of her 19 year old daughter, named Wera. Rilke had enjoyed Wera, appreciating her youthful spirit and her talent for dance.
Rilke wrote back, giving his deepest condolences. The grieving mother then sent Wera’s journal to Rilke. This parcel bound together all that the 19 year old had written during her last days as she was dying of leukemia.
You recall that Rilke’s birth was overshadowed by the death of a little girl, his older sister... part of him had died before he had even begun to live with the death of this older sibling. And now, something was about to be born in Rilke with the death of Wera.
The second blog post in this series will pick up on this critical moment for Rilke and what was to follow... stay tuned.