Thursday, February 28, 2013

Prayers to a Dark God


by Sebastian Faust

-A conversation with Rainer Maria Rilke-

I’ve been reading Rilke. Actually, I’ve been doing something more than reading; I’ve been praying with Rilke, meditating beside him, searching with him. 

I’d bumped into him before in undergrad: some correspondence of his, Letters to a Young Poet, was tucked inside the pages of one of my textbooks. But reading his mail was really all I knew of him. Now though, we’ve been talking for a few weeks. It’s nice.

 I met him after Prague. I went to Prague, years back, and somehow it changed me. I’m not exactly sure how; it has something to do with the light there – it’s a different sort of light than I’ve ever felt anywhere else; a shadowed light. Prague slipped into my soul and took up residence, carved out a little space in me, and has become my favorite city. (This is no small feat, because people who know me know that I don’t choose favorites, that my answers are always “yes and no” or “both/and” or “it depends; it’s all contextual”, but Prague, of all the cities through which I’ve walked, is easily my favorite.) 

So, sometimes, I’m just in the mood for something Prague-ish, and I’ll fall into a book, or sink into a painting, or take up some tangible trinket and run my fingers over it again and again like a holy relic. It was in the midst of one of these moods that now take me, when searching for Prague writers, that I met Rilke again; we started talking over tea. We kept talking long after the tea was gone, walking out into a chilly afternoon, beneath the dark trees that sleep by the springs behind my house.

It was Candlemas; we talked about the shifting seasons, the change in light, the lives of trees existing as one single breath, about Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We talked of darkness and daylight, of love, and sadness, and loss. We talked of Prague, of poetry, of God. We kept returning to God. 

“God is so perfect,” one of us said to the other, “in Aquinas and in Augustine. God has such clarity in Michelangelo, in Titian. It doesn’t seem like God at all.”

I’ve been thinking about that. So has Rilke. Somewhere around Ash Wednesday, our prayers, our meditations, comingled. Rilke began. I followed. We prayed to a different God than so many of the people round about us. We prayed to a dark God.

Oh, I’ll admit, at times, my God is bright – is the sun-god, wrapped in shining raiment, riding a fiery chariot across the azure sky; is, at times, the harnesser of fiery steeds, the luminous bringer of light. But this, only in flashes. My God goes walking in a garden by starlight, in the cool of the evenings; in the dimness of night, my God moves from shadow to shadow. My God is dark.

But when I said this, the artists departed from me, saying, “We cannot paint a dark God.”

A hundred roots that drink in silence
Yet still it is – my God is not impassive, unyielding, unmoved.  My God is in pain – mourns every sorrow, weeps over sadness, tends to every cry.  My God has been broken, knows remorse, regret, despair.  My God is dark.

But when I said this, the philosophers departed from me, saying, “We cannot postulate a dark God.”

Yet still it is – my God is not fulfilled, not finished, not complete.  My God longs to create beauty, feels the need to redeem creation, yearns for the day when all shall be put right.  My God is even now still growing, spreading deep beneath the surface of things – pushing down beneath the darkness, the roots of all creation encompassing the black, still soil.  My God is dark.

But when I said this, the theologians departed from me, saying, “We cannot systematize a dark God.”

Yet Rilke, Rilke stayed with me. I said, “Will you depart from me also?” He said:

I have many brothers robed in cassocks
in southern cloisters sheltered by bay trees.
I know the Madonnas they make – so human;
            And often I dream
of early Titians
where God
is bright as an ardent flame.

But when I peer down,
into the chasm of myself:
My God is dark,
like a knot of
a hundred roots that drink in silence.

I know that I rise out of this activity,
but more
I do not know, because my branches
are stilled by silence, stirred but faintly
by the wind.

~Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Prayers (The Book of Hours)

Sebastian Faust is an avowed heretic, armchair theologian, and a self-styled canary in the coal mine of pop culture. He lives in Nashville with his dog Watson, a service animal trained in sniffing out hipsters. You can't follow Sebastian on Twitter because he doesn't understand technology.

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  1. The photograph of the tree roots helped me envision a deep and dark God that is rooted deep within humanity and isn't afraid of the chasms in the sweet souls of us.

    You. Thank you. That is not all ( not for along time)