Stories of God (Rainer Maria Rilke)

Posted: June 5, 2015 in fiction
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I know. I know, people who are as poor as I am have no business peeking into used bookshops, even if they are new in town, and even if it’s Memorial Day weekend and no other shops are open. So I did, and the owner was terribly friendly, so of course I did what I had sworn I would not do. I bought a couple of books. Less than a week later, I picked up a couple more because I feel guilty using a store’s wi-fi for an hour without spending any money there. Besides, circumstances in my life are demanding that I make some decisions with relation to my belief system, and when I saw the title of this book I knew intuitively that I needed to read it.

You see, I’ve been getting lonely on the weekends. The loneliness drove me to visit the local Mormon church, because this is the church I was raised in, and I needed to meet some friendly people. Mormons are always happy to welcome a member who is new to their town. No need to mention that after two months of living here and exploring these two towns, I didn’t feel exactly new any more. So I’ve been there two or three times, and so the bishop called me in to have a little getting-to-know-you chat. He seems friendly (I seem to have passed the age beyond which pastors no longer seem paternal), not really bothered by the whole gay thing. But a week or two ago he asked me back in, and the conversation, while not threatening, was more professional than friendly. The problem is this. Even though I haven’t thought about myself this way in quite some time, in their terms, I bear the priesthood of Melchizedek, the high priest of the Old Testament. Yet, as a single man not given to celibacy, I have done things that the church cannot abide. They say that it’s the premarital nature of the sex that’s a problem, not the gender of the actors involved, though I confess that I have some doubts on that score. Not having premeditated a plan for this conversation, naturally I panicked. Long painful pauses, some random stammering. We agreed not to withdraw my church membership immediately, but we’re going to continue to have these little chats from time to time.

So I’ve spent these almost-two weeks trying to understand myself. What I do and don’t believe seems too big a topic for me to tackle all at once, so I’ve gone at the situation from a different angle. Why am I reluctant to take the active role in terminating my alliance with this church? The only answer I’ve been able to accept is sentiment. It’s not the doctrine; most of it, especially the stuff central and unique to them, seems like bollocks. If there is any sort of trajectory to my life, any overall moral lesson, it has been that no one is going to save me. Either I do it myself or it doesn’t get done. Most people are kind, and many of them want to help, but if there is to be any meaningful transformation in my life (aka salvation) it has to come from me. No one else is going to do it. Partially because I don’t like being helped, and partially because they all have their own shit to deal with. Like Rilke’s God, who sort of accidentally created humanity. He had gathered up the clay and was shaping it, but other problems kept coming up, like a baby bird who had lost its parents, so he stopped looking and let his hands carry on without him. God’s hands finish the first man and drop him down onto the earth while God’s eyes and attention are elsewhere. According to Rilke, God is still looking for a complete and perfect man, unsuccessfully since the dawn of time.

“And that is why it is urgently necessary that God should learn what man really is like. Let us rejoice that there are those who tell him . . .”

The good lady was not yet rejoicing.

“And who might they be, if you please?”

“Simply the children, and now and again, too, the people who paint, write poems, build . . .”

“Build what, churches?”

“Yes, and other things too – build in general . . .”

As I was saying, sentiment. I feel a great deal of nostalgia for the person I once was, for the boy who could see life as simple, like the German einfach, one-fold, singular. He was kind of narrow, but he was sweet and happy, innocent. Rilke’s stories are written with children in mind, and I believe that part of the attraction this book held for me is in my need to reconcile the man I have become with the overgrown boy I held onto being for too long. Another important aspect of this sentiment is my desire for my parents’ approval. I forfeited that when I told them that I’m gay, and I’ve been regaining it insomuch as I can convince them that I am still the same person I’ve always been. Around them, I am as little different as possible. Okay, in truth, I’m not very different at all, but I’ve always been careful only to show them one side of me, and it’s not the side of my character that is actually most prominent. I worry that if I voluntarily withdraw my church membership, my parents will never forgive me. There are also the many friends who have worked so hard to keep me in this church. It’s been the best way I know to honor their love for me, by continuing to belong to an organization that brings them so much personal fulfillment. The Mormon church does a lot of good things for people and meets many physical and emotional needs; just not mine.

Christians (including Mormons) are apt to say that the only way to truly find oneself is in God. You give God everything you have and deny yourself of all ungodliness, and God returns to you all of the things that are really you and gives you a sense of complete identity. This follows the implications of Paul’s epistles, that who we really are is an obedient spirit wrapped up in an envelope of sinful flesh. Good desires come from our true selves, while evil desires come from the physical body, which is not really us. Mormons teach that the body and spirit together form the human soul, but they tend to cling to this holy spirit/evil flesh dichotomy, and I don’t believe in it. I lived that way for a long time, and it’s like I was living half a life. I kept wanting to destroy parts of myself, important, significant parts that shape my character. I hid several aspects of my real self from my conscious self in my labors for divine approval. Now I try to accept whatever aspect of my self is revealed to me. I don’t have that surface happiness any more, but nor do I have the hidden self-hatred. I am becoming simpler, a more unified self, while my view of the world is becoming more complex, more multiple.

The thing I keep running aground on, in terms of faith, is not a belief in God itself, it’s all the add-ons. You believe in God, so you must also believe that you’re a sinful creature in need of Jesus’ blood to save you from hellfire. You believe in God, so you must also believe that Joseph Smith was led by an angel to recover a religious document remarkably similar to the Bible, engraved on golden sheets, preserved by God in a hole in the ground for fourteen hundred years. You believe in God, so you must also believe that God sent his messenger Gibreel to communicate his final message to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) fifteen hundred years ago. You believe in God, so you must believe the world is a mirage, a symbol of spiritual truths not yet directly revealed to us. You believe in God, so you must believe that homosexuality is evil, which means that God built you for either celibacy or damnation, though most days you can’t tell the difference between the two. It’s all this other rubbish that seems absurd; the simple idea of a God doesn’t.

And this, I think, is one of the real strengths of Rilke’s book. He presents us with a God unencumbered by sanctimonious rubbish. His God gets distracted, forgets things, misunderstands, and reveals himself in the least likely places. I suppose you could say that this version of God is too limited, that God should be infinite, infinitely beyond our comprehension, all-seeing/all-knowing/all-powerful. Such a God is easy for people to worship (most people – I don’t know if I have a reverent bone in my body), but hard to love. To love, you have to be able to draw something close to you. Rilke’s God is harder to worship, but easier to love. And my need to love is stronger than my need to venerate.

In “A Story Told to the Dark,” Rilke introduces a ‘fallen woman,’ someone who left her husband for the love of an artist and now raises her illegitimate child alone. Her childhood friend comes to visit her, and she explains to him how she has come to love God:

“As a child – did I love God? I don’t believe so. Why, I never even – it would have seemed to me insane presumption – that isn’t the right word – like the worst sin, to think: He is. As though I had thereby compelled him to be in me, in that weak child with the absurdly long arms, in our poor apartment where everything was imitation and false, from the bronze wall-plaques of papier mâché to the wine in the bottles that bore such expensive labels. And later – ” Klara made a parrying gesture with her hands, and her eyes closed tighter, as though she feared to see something dreadful through the lids – “why, I would have had to drive him out of me if he had been living in me then. But I knew nothing about him. I had quite forgotten him. I had forgotten everything. – Not until I came to Florence, when for the first time in my life I saw, heard, felt, realized and simultaneously learned to be thankful for all those things, did I think of him again. There were traces of him everywhere. In all the pictures I found bits of his smile, the bells were still alive with his voice, and on the statues I recognized the imprints of his hands.”

“And you found him there?”

Klara looked at the doctor with large, happy eyes: “I felt that he was – at some time once was . . . why should I have felt more? That was already more than enough.”

The doctor got up and went to the window. From it one could see a stretch of field and the little old village church of Schwabing, and above it the sky, no longer quite untouched by evening. Suddenly Doctor Lassmann asked, without turning round:

“And now?”

Receiving no answer, he came quietly back.

“Now – ” Klara faltered as he stood before her, and then raised her eyes full to his face, “now I sometimes think: He will be.”

I can cope with this idea, of God as the Arthurian legend, the once and future king. I know that I should try to stick with the Rilke here, but this idea of his has reminded me of another book, that expresses a similar attitude toward God but more familiarly (for me):

“Vengeance on a dumb brute!” cried Starbuck, “that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.”

“Hark ye yet again, – the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ‘tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who’s over me? Truth hath no confines. […]”

If Melville is right, and Moby Dick is just a mask through which Ahab can strike at God, then Rilke is also right, and Klara can learn to love God through her aesthetic sense. And as I think about my life since coming out, this appreciation of the beauty in art and nature has actually been sharpened. Without realizing it, I have been loving God through the mask of creation this whole time. If reverence is only to be found in genuflecting, using only the right terms and metaphors, and fostering a lively sense of my own nothingness, then yes, I am a failure. But if reverence can be found in the sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, at sunlight on long grass or wind through freshly-leaved trees, or a series of statues in a French park or the paintings of an old Dutch master, then there is indeed hope for me yet.

Perhaps this is what I need to fix clearly in my mind before my next little chat with the bishop: his church, while it can offer me some measure of human love and support, in the long run it cannot offer me hope. If I fall back into the habit of believing them, my future will ultimately be one of despair. Hope and peace are in the woods, in the art galleries, in the libraries, in the love of a good man. And that is where I will find my faith as well.

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Comments
  1. cathcarter says:

    I was much struck by “You believe in God, so you must also believe…” There are all these social functions which are stuck onto faith: making people behave well (whatever we take that to mean), justifying it when we don’t behave well, reifying cultural identities and boundaries by excluding certain people and things, exerting control over other people (which seems to be one of the most universal desires there is–to edit other people’s metaphorical as well as literal drafts.) And you (and Rilke) are, I think, right: those are all things which get associated with faith, but have nothing really to do with faith itself. Have you read Rilke’s “Book of Hours”? If not, I’ve a spare copy I can send you, if you’ll send me a snail-mail address.

    Meanwhile, there’s also Alice Walker, before she got all nuts (long quote warning.)

    “[Shug] say, My first step from the old white man was trees. Then air. Then birds. Then other people. But one day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.

    “Shug! I say.

    “Oh, she say. God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ’em you enjoys ’em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going, and praise God by liking what you like.

    “God don’t think it dirty? I ast.

    “Naw, she say. God made it. Listen, God love everything you love? and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration.

    “You saying God vain? I ast.

    “Naw, she say. Not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.

    “What it do when it pissed off? I ast.

    “Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.

    “Yeah? I say.

    “Yeah, she say. It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.

    “You mean it want to be loved, just like the bible say.

    “Yes, Celie, she say. Everything want to be loved. Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?

    “Well, us talk and talk bout God, but I’m still adrift. Trying to chase that old white man out of my head. I been so busy thinking bout him I never truly notice nothing God make. Not a blade of corn (how it do that?) not the color purple (where it come from?). Not the little wildflowers. Nothing. Now that my eyes opening, I feels like a fool. Next to any little scrub of a bush in my yard, Mr. ____s evil sort of shrink. But not altogether. Still, it is like Shug say, You have to git man off your eyeball, before you can see anything a’tall.

    “Man corrupt everything, say Shug. He on your box of grits, in your head, and all over the radio. He try to make you think he everywhere.

    “Soon as you think he everywhere, you think he God. But he ain’t. Whenever you trying to pray, and man plop himself on the other end of it, tell him to git lost, say Shug. Conjure up flowers, wind,water, a big rock.

    “But this hard work, let me tell you. He been there so long, he don’t want to budge. He threaten lightening, floods and earthquakes. Us fight. I hardly pray at all. Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it.”

    • theoccasionalman says:

      This is my first Rilke prose – I’d be delighted to read more. I know this is a terrible admission to make, having graduated from Western’s lit program, but I haven’t yet read Alice Walker. I read Hurston and Morrison instead. I’ve read a few short essays and stories, but only isolated pieces and not a whole novel. I do love long excerpts, though, as my posts tend to reveal, and this is a good one, relevant to my situation. I’m still working on accepting the idea that God/the world is interested in my happiness, and my prayers do often end in attack. But I don’t like attacking, so “I hardly pray at all.”

  2. So… the 2 things you said that resonate in my mind are these:

    “The thing I keep running aground on, in terms of faith, is not a belief in God itself, it’s all the add-ons.” …and… “Hope and peace are in the woods, in the art galleries, in the libraries, in the love of a good man. And that is where I will find my faith as well.”

    It sounds like you’re saying you do believe in God, just not in the human socio-organizational constructs around him. Great! You can dump the add-ons, or at least approach them with the grave skepticism they deserve.

    And… you find God in the woods (etc) and especially in the deep connection of human love. Beautiful! These statements are quintessentially aligned with the person I’ve come to know and love in you. I hope you will continue to become that person’s best friend and advocate.

    You seem to be struggling with the parental aspect, quite understandably. It’s a primary (and painful) facet of the human condition, right? We all have to take that journey, in our own way.

    Ultimately, you might have to choose which is more important, your own wholeness & integrity, or the approval of people who you have never trusted enough to show your real self to them. Yes, you will present them a challenge they will not want to face. Their response is their choice, not yours.

    I so love the man you have become by listening to yourself. Don’t stop now, dear friend. You are almost home.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      Yes, parent issues. I’m still trying to figure out how to love them. I feel like after thirty-five years of practice, I ought to have this question sorted by now. When I have time to think about things, I usually choose my integrity/sanity over other people’s comfort, but when the choice takes me by surprise, I tend to blend in. I’m working at it, though. 🙂 In a tarot reading this week, for Current Obstacles I drew the card for imagination and fantasy, so I’m trying to be more realistic about myself and others.

      I love you too. Thanks for the encouragement.

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