Poetry provides spiritual nourishment in these sparest days of Lent

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The statues and crucifixes in our churches this week will be draped with purple sheets. The sparest days of Lent, the church's annual retreat, are upon us.

The sight of these hooded saints feels appropriate to me this year, for rather than giving up some material attachment during Lent, I've tried to let go of some of the old images that have attached themselves, in my mind, to God.

I have not gone as far as Paul Elie, author of the magnificent four-way literary biography The Life You Save May Be Your Own, who, I'll admit, frightened me two years ago when he proposed giving up Mass for Lent.

"We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith," Elie wrote at that time, "what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly."

Elie imagined he would return to the Catholic pews when his period of exploration was over but stressed that he couldn't be sure: "To some degree, it's out of my hands, a response to a calling."

I don't find it necessary, or desirable, to renounce my own basic existential decision for Christian community in order for my spiritual life not to stagnate; yet I can understand Elie's desire to enter so deeply into the nocturnal desert that unquestioned customs and presumptions fade into the background like the twinkling lights of a city we've left behind, freeing us to contemplate the pure and immense darkness of God.

For me, I have found it sufficient to read Rainer Maria Rilke during Lent. I recommend an extraordinary volume of his poetry, edited and translated as Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God by environmental activist Joanna Macy and poet and psychotherapist Anita Barrows.

Macy and Barrows -- who are now both Buddhists -- each discovered Rilke during a time of spiritual restlessness.

"The Christian God with whom I had been intoxicated in my teenage years," Macy writes in her introduction to this volume, "did not survive the theological studies I undertook to serve him (and it was a him)."

Barrows, who also contributed a preface, was a Jew who had converted to Catholicism, yet "could not get over feeling like an imposter. My Jewishness would not let me give myself fully to Christian forms and rituals, and anyway, it was the spare medieval monastery I longed for and not the institutional Church."

Still, each translator discovered an abundance of images in Rilke that expanded their understanding of the divine beyond cliches that could not satisfy them.

"I felt a sense of release," Macy recalls, "as if I had been let out of a cage I had not known I was in."

In one poem, Rilke articulates the problem of a god whose image has largely been shaped by a patriarchal and at times triumphalist tradition:

We must not portray you in king's robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

At first, to read the following lines from Rilke's "Duino Elegies" (which are not anthologized in the volume I mentioned), one might suppose he has no interest in naming the ineffable, a vain ideal that could only frustrate the poet's responsibility to the incarnate world:

Are we perhaps here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window ...

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,
you won't impress him with your glorious emotions; in space,
where he feels with more feeling, you're a newcomer. Rather show him
some simple thing, something shaped through the generations,
that lives as ours, near to our hand and in our sight.
Tell him of things. He'll stand more awed; as you did
beside the ropemaker in Rome or the potter on the Nile.

Yet in fact, over the course of the "Book of Hours," Rilke's great love for the divine mystery compels him not to remain silent. Describing the "wind, woods, and water/roaring at the rim of Christendom" becomes a devotional task. As he writes:

I want to utter you. I want to portray you
not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark.
There is no image I could invent
that your presence would not eclipse.

I want, then, simply
to say the names of things.

Any of the names he comes up with could move us to prayer. For Rilke, God is "the great homesickness we could never shake off," the "cathedral we dimly perceive," the "scattered islands" at our "senses' horizon." God is everything enumerated in one of my favorite poems:

You are the future,
the red sky before sunrise
over the fields of time.

You are the cock's crow when night is done,
You are the dew and the bells of matins,
maiden, stranger, mother, death.

You create yourself in ever-changing shapes
that rise from the stuff of our days --
unsung, unmourned, undescribed,
like a forest we never knew.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.

In the end, Rilke laments to God, all of these images are only "fragments of your ancient name." (Sr. Joyce Rupp took this line as the title for her own poetic compilation of images of God from the world's religions.) Yet these stammerings are suggestive of the primordial mystery that many of us glimpse in our early religious development and have to struggle not to forget.

For several weeks, I have used Rilke's poems, like Psalms, for morning and evening prayer. I have found in them an extraordinary spiritual liberation. I have also found that they illuminate my churchgoing rather than calling me away from it -- particularly in these days, when the churches' alabaster statues are all covered up in their niches. 

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