Tenth Elegy: a Rilke poem and thoughts on Christian suffering

This October is ten years since my mom died, without warning, in the middle of the night. It’s easily the most significant thing that’s ever happened to me — but to say that is to speak as if it’s an event that happened once and is over. A couple weeks ago I read a poem that seized me by the throat. It’s the beginning of the Tenth Elegy, from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies,” in a beautiful translation by Stephen Mitchell.

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,
let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.
Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart
fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,
or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face
make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise
and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights
of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you,
inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself
in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen,
one season in our inner year–, not only a season
in time–, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.

I won’t try to draw out everything that is here, because it would take more than a blog post, and I don’t think I’m equal to the task. There is even more in the twelve poems making up the sequence. But this is the part I’ve been reading over and over.

Here is Rilke in the grip of some kind of vision of blessedness, though he’d shaken off most of the doctrines of traditional Christianity. But this beatific vision is one with its roots in the soil of this life. On earth, our insight into the reason for the angels’ song, our insight into the vision of reality that makes our existence worth having, is unavoidably paired with grief. We suffer violence in loving — not because of the unpredictability of the passions or fickle emotions, but precisely because we are capable of loving so truly and so eternally. Our hearts are eternal, but on earth there’s no running away from death, and grief is our fitting response.

Suffering is love experienced in a dying world. Though Rilke has spent years of his life wanting to escape his suffering, to look past it and hope that it won’t last forever, somehow he now envisions suffering as his key to eternal joy. In that time outside time, when he has emerged to see the truth, let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of his heart fail to sound on the string — when that time comes, he will wish he had wept more.

This is startling stuff, at least compared to a common image of Heaven where our suffering is wiped away like tears from our cheeks, like it never happened, like our hearts on earth are blotted out.

But if suffering is the symptom of love, in some way, it is not the enemy.

A few years ago, I read David Bentley Hart’s book on God and the problem of evil, and I remember his arguments against the tendencies in some Christian theologies to sanctify suffering as something good or God-directed in its own right (as opposed to something intrinsically evil and unacceptable). And I agree with him to a point, although I question (not just according to his arguments, but in general) to what extent our world is thinkable without decay and death. On the other hand, I’ve read non-Christian philosophies that would argue that death is no enemy at all: neutral, natural, the shadow that lets us see the light.

I don’t think this is what Rilke is saying. At any rate, it’s not what I’m saying.

What I think the poem says is that, in the sphere of the “violent insight,” suffering is a form of love. And in the higher sphere, that suffering, insofar as it is really love, will be our joy.

This is because suffering that is transformed by love enriches our heart even as it darkens and deepens it.

I started to become aware of the Christian theology of suffering when I was in my late teens. I won’t rehearse all the ways suffering is more at home in the Catholic than the evangelical tradition. But suffering understood as a theological category, a means of grace, a quasi-sacrament cemented by its frequent association with reception of the Blessed Sacrament — all of these are venerable and ancient Christian ways of thinking, however “morbid” they seemed to me from the perspective of contemporary American evangelicalism.

I was introduced to the idea that suffering was not just an accident of sinful existence, not just the painful but pointless fallout of life after the fall, but rather a kind of spiritual battleground. Or maybe a spiritual garden — but I want to stick with battleground as a metaphor, because I really think that what happens there, in the field of suffering and grief, is a matter of life and death.

There are so many “Christian” ways to alleviate our suffering that seem variously courageous or prudent — God has his reasons, and you can’t lose perspective, and I can tell how strong your faith is by how your loss didn’t steal it away. By the time it happened, when I was 15, I knew the answers and I knew how to earn the stamp of approval. I awarded it to myself. But I hadn’t learned to surrender; I had learned how to cope.

I am wary when Christians, in response to suffering, talk about God’s will and God’s designs on our hearts. It seems deceptively easy to decide to accept a difficult circumstance, a terrible circumstance, as something chosen and approved by God. Like magic, by the time we get through the conveyor belt of God’s plan, it will have purified our hearts and turned them into clearest glass.

Such blind trust in God’s providence is just as presumptuous as a total loss of faith — I call it blind because it is careless about the mystery of our own mind and will. We have a say in our redemption. If we do not tune our hearts carefully to his love, we ourselves may be burned up in the refining fire — and grief is something that warps very easily in our hands.

We will all suffer, but we may not always suffer well.

Suffering that is not transformed by love ends by crippling our hope and our faith, even as it hobbles the love that led to our suffering. We can recognize warped suffering easily in others, and sometimes we might focus on it unfairly, overlooking wrong suffering in ourselves. Or we might make the serious error of excusing it because “we don’t know their struggle.” Maybe we are really afraid that others will see our own wrong suffering and want to point it out to us. And that would be the worst thing: because a warped suffering is a suffering that has decided that the missing beloved is the only good in the world, and to be asked not to love that way any more would seem to break our hearts.

You can suffer wrongly for years with all the best intentions. I don’t claim to know how to make sure to suffer the right way the first time; maybe you can’t, and it all depends on when you are able to notice and repent of it.

This isn’t a conflict that you can think or reason your way out of. It’s a dangerous situation for someone like me, who has to think her way to her feelings, because the heart will keep on, the heart will grow in its way, and if you aren’t taking the time and courage to face it, it will form you without your knowledge.

At the bottom of this wrong suffering is a dangerous conceit. It says, silently but inexorably: I was betrayed. Because our hearts were made according to a divine scale, they retain the sense of justice that was ours in Eden. Goodness can’t be ignored; we respond to it in love; we respond to the earliest and deepest revelation of love in a way that resonates throughout the rest of our lives. I can’t ever look past my mother’s love or the loss of it. I can tell myself all the good answers, but my heart knows the truth and won’t be duped: I was betrayed.

It was years before I was able to say it out loud, and even then it was self-conscious, by myself in the dark, in hesitation that soon turned to fury. But I’d lived for years with the knowledge grown into my heart, my saddest secret: the knowledge that I lived in a world with the bottom fallen out, a world whose goodness was alluring, but ultimately bankrupt. My attitude was, despite all my rational protests, that of the bereaved mother in The Great Divorce: “I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son – not even God.” My heart said to God, I know what you say. But I know the truth.

Here comes the part that I don’t know the answer to.

Rilke prays that he could have grieved more, and grieved with purity and complete surrender. But what kind of surrender to evil will cure it?

I mentioned above the Christian theology of suffering. I haven’t read very deeply in it, maybe suspecting — unfairly I think — more sidestepping and dissembling, or maybe tired of hearing my own rationalizations echoed back at me. The only sense I can make of Christian suffering is the Cross. Its image (both iconographical and sacramental) states nothing, betrays nothing. Its reality, the event itself, says so much that it is not exhausted in book or altar.

A few months ago at Mass I suddenly heard the words of consecration differently: At the time he was betrayed and entered willingly into his Passion…

Willingly — like Rilke kneeling more deeply in his nights of anguish (or wishing he had). There may not have been a person with more grief for the world than Jesus Christ, and in a sense, he welcomed that grief, because he had a whole heart. He could kneel to accept ultimate suffering, the complete stripping of the world’s goodness to him, because he could already see Rilke’s vision. He could see the redeemed world — the world drawn according to God’s goodness — and most importantly, he could love it. As the perfect union of God and man, his suffering was his love, and his love had the power to overcome suffering.

The wistful thing about Rilke’s poem, though, is that he isn’t singing yet — he’s wishing he could, but still waiting for it.

This makes the last line of the poem even more lovely to me. Most of us have lived just long enough to realize that our sufferings, like our loves, make us who we are. Whether you suffer them well or badly, they are part of the landscape of your heart. But if, somehow, through the transcendent vision of the angels, that landscape could no longer be a source of dislocation and longing, but “place and settlement, foundation and soil and home,” then we might, after all, be able to go back to Eden.