this post is a slightly edited version of a post that appeared on August 20, 2012, on the Good Letters blog
In college, I took a yearlong class on Western Civilization. Certain images stand out: reading Oedipus Rex on the lawn outside the Life Sciences building and overhearing a student pronounce “Khomeini” with the same initial sound as “challah”—this would have been a month or so before the taking of American hostages; getting an A+ (my only in college) on a paper applying Civilization and Its Discontents to D. H. Lawrence’s story “The Prussian Officer”; hearing a T.A. refer to Shakespeare’s “two-backed beast”; covering entire paragraphs of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet with my pink highlighter.
In Woody Allen’s disappointing (imho) latest movie, To Rome With Love, the aspiring-actress played by Ellen Page quotes Rilke (“You must change your life!”) as yet one more example of the character’s pretension and shallowness. But when I was eighteen years old and studying in an empty classroom of the architecture building, those words electrified me. When I read for the first time, sentences such as You ask whether your verses are any good, I held my breath. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
I’ve hung onto my pink-highlighted paperback copy, as well as the hardcover with lovely endpapers that my mother gave me a few years later for my 23rd birthday. I’ve kept the book on my night table, taken it with me on retreats, read it—a paragraph, a page, the whole thing—when I felt stuck. During a painful time, when every waking moment terrified me, I came across the dragons and felt myself open up to something larger and wiser and more eternal than my fear:
Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.
Several months ago, one of my online students wrote to me about discovering Rilke’s Book of Hours. I began reading the “love poems to God.” One every morning, as a lead-in to sitting in silence.
I’ve practiced centering prayer on and off for years, as I first learned about it through the teachings of Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk. Readings words may seem antithetical to the task of centering prayer, which invites us to let go of words and anything our minds might get attached to. But many of the poems in Book of Hours lead directly into that kind of contemplation.
For example, I, 3 (the poems are numbered, not titled; the translation is by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy): “…when I lean over the chasm of myself— / it seems / my God is dark / and like a web: a hundred roots / silently drinking.”
Or, from I, 6: “You, God, who live next door— / If at times, through the long night, I trouble you / with my urgent knocking— / this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom…. / As it happens, the wall between us / is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry / from one of us / break it down? It would crumble / easily. / it would barely make a sound.”
I don’t read German, or understand much beyond a few articles and simple nouns, but each morning, before reading the English, I whisper the German original. I know I’m garbling the pronunciation, but it doesn’t matter. I like the sounds, just as I do when reading Dante aloud. German holds more fraught associations than Italian does—not only those of 20th century atrocities but of my own history as the descendant of German immigrants in the 1880s. But all that falls away into assonance, consonance, rhythm, pure sound. As I whisper the German, I know that the English translation sits right there, across the gutter of the page. My glance can slide right over and give me instant comprehension. But I wait.
I recall the unspoiled enthusiasm I once felt, the dry-throated awe, as an eighteen-year-old with a pink highlighter in hand. It’s that, too, that I want to get back to.