Monasteries of the Heart

To What Can We Turn

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Every day this year I am reading a selection from “A Year With Rilke,” translated and edited by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows. One of the recent daily readings got me thinking. Here it is:

Oh, to what, then, can we turn
in our need?
Not to an angel. Not to a person.
Animals, perceptive as they are,
notice that we are not really at home
in this world of ours. Perhaps there is
a particular tree we see every day on the hillside,
or a street we have walked,
or the warped loyalty of habit
that does not abandon us.

Oh, and night, the night, when wind
hurls the universe at our faces.
for whom is night not there?
--from the First Duino Elegy

I spent a few years in near despair when no ray of light could break through. Where did I go to get through it? To what did I turn?

Rilke mentions “the warped loyalty of habit” as a solace. In retrospect, I think habit helped save me. For years I’ve had a habit or rising early and spending about 2 hours in solitude. I listen to chants, I read, I write—I come to own myself. I have to confess that there were days, weeks even when I could not even do this—the dark was too oppressive.
But when I could, the familiar habit helped. It was like putting one foot in front of another until I managed to find and turn on the light.

The other place I turned surprised me. “The Annunciation” by Henry Ossawa Tanner, a painting that hangs in my bedroom, kind of engulfed me. I would gaze at it in the morning and at night before retiring--an angel of light appearing to a young girl with an invitation that would shatter her world. She just sits there on the edge of her bed looking the blinding light straight in the eye and taking it in. I admired the openness, the receptivity, the acceptance of “no matter what.” I think if the house caught on fire the one possession I would grab, is “The Annunciation.” And, in a sense, my house was burning.

Finally, as Rilke tells us, it is night itself to which we turn in times of darkness. There is no way out but through. As the poet Mary Oliver writes, "Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift."