From Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer
Here, another prayer from Rilke’s Book of Hours allows these intuitions to crystallize into poetic images. Once more Rilke starts out with the polarity of noise and silence. This time it is the crowd of contradictions in our life that fills the palace of our heart with a riotous feast of fools. It is impossible, of course, to eliminate contradictions altogether from our life. Life itself is contradictory. But we can reconcile contradictions in the great primordial symbols, like the symbol of the heart itself. When we succeed in this, a great silence begins to reign, serenely festive and gentle. And in the middle of that silence stands God, as guest, as silent core of our soliloquies, as temporal center of a circle whose periphery goes beyond time.
Whoever reconciles the many contradictions of his life,
gratefully gathering them into one symbol,
expels the noisy crowd from his abode
and in a different kind of festive mood
receives you as his guest on gentle evenings.
You are the Other in his solitude,
a silent center for his conversations with himself,
and every circle drawn around you
makes his compass span beyond the rim of time.
When our heart rests in the Source of all meaning, it can encompass all meaning. Meaning, in this sense, is not something that can be put in words. Meaning is not something that can be looked up in a book, like a definition. Meaning is not something that can be grasped, held, stored away. Meaning is not something.… Maybe we should stop the sentence there. Meaning is no thing. It is more like the light in which we see things. Another psalm calls out to God in the thirst of the heart: “With you is the fountain of life, and in your light we see light,” (Psalm 36:9). In thirsting for the fullness of life, our heart thirsts for the light that lets us see life’s meaning. When we find meaning, we know it because our heart finds rest. It is always through our heart that we find meaning. Just as our eyes respond to light and our ears to sound, so our heart responds to meaning. The organ for meaning is the heart.
This suggests a religious vocabulary based on experience, based on the way we experience the world today. And our religious experience begins that our heart is restless. A world of things can never fully satisfy its restless quest. Only that no-thing beyond all things that we call meaning gives us rest when we glimpse it. The quest of the human heart for meaning is the heartbeat of every religion.
Poetry gets this point across more convincingly because it appeals to a deep self-understanding of the human heart. Let me, therefore, quote once more one of Rilke’s prayers. Here the poet gives free reign to his imagination. He envisions flamboyant gestures by which he would celebrate God’s limitless Presence if he lived in a world of unlimited possibilities. But then in the last stanza he hesitates and, on second thought, comes up with an image that reaches deeper.
If I had grown up in a different world
where days are light and hours slender,
I would have planned a festival for you.
And there my hands would never hold you as they
do now, when I told you fearfully and hard.
There, daringly I would have squandered you,
you limitless Presence.
Like a ball I would have tossed you
into the billowing joys
so that someone leaping,
hands lifted high towards your falling,
Should catch you,
you Thing of Things.
I would have let you flash like a sword blade.
In a ring of pure gold
I would have given your fire its setting
to hold it over the whitest hand.
I would have painted you: not on a screen
but on the very sky from verge to verge
like a giant would fashion you, so would I
have fashioned you: a mountain, a blaze,
a whirlwind rising from desert sands—
it may have happened: I found you
My friends are far away.
I hardly hear their laughter any more,
and you, you have fallen out of the nest.
You are a fledgling with yellow claws
and big eyes, and it hurts to see you so.
(My hand is far too broad for you.)
And I take with my fingers a drop from the spring.
I strain to see if you will take it with gaping beak.
I feel your heart throbbing and my own heart, too,
and both from fright.
All ways of being religious start from the heart and end with the heart. The restlessness of the heart leads from the misery of being alienated (often in the midst of pleasure) to the joy of being together with self, with all, with God (often in the midst of suffering). “Together” is the word that marks the goal of the religious quest. To find meaning means finding how all belongs together and to find one’s place in that universal belonging. And that means finding the heart. T. S. Eliot says:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
When I discover that in my heart of hearts God is closer to me than I am to myself, then I have come home. When the thirsting heart discovers the fountain of life in its own unfathomable depth, then we “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
In prayer the heart drinks from the fountain of meaning. In this sense, prayer is the heart of religion. We shall have to explore what that means. We shall need to examine the practical implications of what we merely touched upon in these remarks about the heart. But this much should be clear so far: when we speak of the heart, we mean wholeness, fullness – the fullness of our being alive, the fullness implied by gratefulness and by prayerfulness.