God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
“Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59. Listen to the poem here.
by Jennifer Michael
I have often said many sources of sacred writing do not come directly from Scripture. A while back, I discovered one such inspiration when one of my parishioners mentioned a quote from the above poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. I had never heard of this poet. And this discovery surprised me because I grew up in a home where my mother often read poetry rather than fairy tales to us. Who wants to hear about a princess when you can imagine every raven you see is speaking to you? “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore!’” writes Edgar Allan Poe.
So, I was intrigued and sought to learn more about this poet who appears to be one of everyone else’s favorites. And now, I find myself overwhelmed with the eloquence and depth of his writing.
The concept of “letting everything happen to you: beauty and terror” seems a perfect description of this uncertain time. Every day I can feel this palpable tension between the light and dark forces that swirl around us. Reports of violence and unrest unfolding in our streets are often juxtaposed by images of a sunlit path underneath changing leaves that invite you to walk under their canopy.
Perhaps this time of pandemic is indeed that time when we must just let everything happen to us. We have no choice. Beauty and terror walk hand in hand in our world today.
But then I read the whole poem and became even more enamored of this poet. Rilke writes, “Go to the limits of your longing. Embody me. Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.” The narrative is God speaking to us, whom God has created, urging us to live fully into who we are meant to be. Live the height, depth, and breadth of God’s expectations to the point where we burn like flames casting shadows big enough for God to fill with love and grace for the whole world.
Now that is what truly inspires me today. To imagine myself in a way gives me courage in these uncertain times. If I burn brightly with that light of Christ in this world that is hurting so much, then perhaps in my shadow, someone can find comfort or peace.
Returning to normal
We are all struggling to fulfill the limits of our longing. We long for a return to “normal,” to hug one another, to sing in our sacred spaces, to engage in the simple pleasure of eating a meal together. And yet, it will still be some time before we can find that fulfillment.
So, amid everything happening to us–both beauty and terror–I celebrate sacred words like these from Rainer Maria Rilke. Words that remind us who we are called to be and what we are called to do in this time, at this moment. “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Don’t lose your connection to God.
I thank God for sending the Holy Spirit to me, breathing these words into my life. I hope that you will find inspiration and hope in them as well. Burn brightly and take hold of God’s hand.
The Rev. Jennifer Michael is pastor at Saint Peter Lutheran Church, Battle Creek, Mich. She was president of Women of the ELCA’s executive board from 2011-2014.