a tolerance for impermanance


an excerpt from a poem by Rilke…

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

When I read Rilke, my legs go weak and I need to reach out and hold onto a piece of furniture.  He seems to be one of those poets whose poems I would hang around my neck if the logistics were not so unsettling.  Books go with tweed; but the chain would have to be too big and it would not work with my outfits.  Accessories are so important to a good ensemble.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

I love the overlap between the Buddhist and Christian philosophies around impermanence and detachment (respectively) which these lines from Rilke’s poem (in its entirety below) so beautifully exposes.

It is tempting to use these lines to push through a season of terror in order to get to the beauty again, but that seems not to be my experience.  In my life the beauty and the terror happen in moments and not in months. The beauty of the way the light hits my mother’s brandy decanter is supplanted by the terror of not remembering what Brandy tastes like and how it was so different from Armagnac. The beauty of the satisfaction of holding a mug I threw in the monastery – my favorite mug – the one that so fits my hands…is supplanted by seeing the floating lavender blossoms swimming over the black russian tea and remembering that no longer (at least for now) can I smell the lavender in the tea which used to so fill me with joy when the sun had not yet risen and the candle was my only reminder that light is a God-metaphore.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Last night, I was speaking with friends in the chapel.  I was joking about the church’s longing for permanence with its stone buildings.  But inside it seemed not so funny.  I laughed the way one laughs when a spoken word cannot be withdrawn to relieve the pain in the room which its speaking has just unleashed.

We all want permanence, at least when things are nice. And “nice” is the right word here too, since its insipid qualities get at the underlying weakness in the idea – like scaffolding infested with termites.

We humans want things to be count-on-able and yet they are not.  Neither the beauty nor the terror. We want (or at least I want) to cement safety, beauty and protection into my life and use the church, the Bible, the creeds, the heavy stone altars and their liturgies to madly fill in the cracks in the foundations of my need for control.

To just keep going is the thing.  And the notion that “no feeling is final” is a gateway drug to the kind of tolerance for uncertainty with which I want to become comfortable.  Because, if I can make a union with uncertainty and find peace within that union, then, and only then, can I see that a flash of pain need only become a pool of suffering if I nurse my own dissatisfaction over the pain; while missing entirely the reality that a flash of beauty just appeared, and left, while I was busy sucking on the wizened breast of my own annoyance.

The entire poem…

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing. Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
Book of Hours, I 59

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.