Saturday, April 3, 2010

Being A Dwelling Place, Not a Gesture

I heartily recommend The Glenstal Book of Readings for the Seasons (2008, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN). For each of the seasons of the Church Year, including the weekdays of Advent, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, there is a wealth of wisdom and inspiration. Today's selection for Holy Saturday, The Triumph of the Cross, by Rainer Maria Rilke, fairly took my breath away! It's taken from Rilke's book, published in London in 1986: Rodin and Other Prose Poems, which I tried to locate it, without success, on Amazon.

As best as I can determine, the context for Rilke's remarks is a discussion of the meaning of the cross and how the "Christian interpretation", or, perhaps, one very prevalent Christian view of the cross, is in looking to the past or to the beyond, using the cross as a sort of "brand-mark". The cross, he maintains, is "after all, only a crossroads." Rilke says that Jesus intended the tree of life as "a loftier tree, on which we could ripen better" as "warm, happy fruit at the top of it." Instead, he holds, Christianity has become so enmeshed and continuously preoccupied with the cross itself that we fail to see that Jesus' aim in dying upon it was "to lift us up into God more purely.

Just as the Old Testament, at practically any place we read it, points us to God, who "stands at the end towards which it points", so the cross of Christ means to do the same. Nevertheless, says Rilke, "the people here have been like dogs that do not understand the pointing finger and think that they are meant to snap at the hand. Instead of setting out from the place of the crossroads...from this place of the cross, Christianity has settled down there and claims that it is living there in Christ...

Then, the sentence which took my breath away: "...there never is room in anyone who points the way, who is a gesture, and not a dwelling-place..."  Rilke believes that spending your life pointing, either back to the cross or towards some nebulous Beyond, prevents you from living, from seeing that the life itself, creation, and the people around us, that "setting out from the place of the crossroads", is the only real way into the Heart of God through the Risen Jesus. We are, Rilke reminds us, "surrounded here by tasks and expectations and future prospects!...The right use is the thing, to take a good hold of this life, with warm affection and wonder, as our sole possession in the meantime..."  Think of Francis of Assisi on his deathbed, singing his Canticle of the Sun:

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord! All praise is yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing. 
To you, alone, Most High, do they belong. No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce your name.
Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, 
who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor! 
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.
Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; 
in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air, and clouds and storms, and all the weather, 
through which you give your creatures sustenance.
Be praised, My Lord, through Sister Water; she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire, through whom you brighten the night. 
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.
Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth, who feeds us and rules us, 
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.
Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of you; 
through those who endure sickness and trial. 
Happy those who endure in peace, for by you, Most High, they will be crowned.
Be praised, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no living person can escape. 
Woe to those who die in mortal sin! Happy those she finds doing your most holy will. 
The second death can do no harm to them.
Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve him with great humility.

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