BELIEF: Transformation by Christian Wiman

Meditation of a Modern Believer

Transformation by Christian Wiman

From My Bright Abyss

Truly being here is glorious. Even you knew it,
you girls who seems to be lost, to go under –, in the filthiest
streets of the city, festering there, or wide open
for garbage. For each of you had an hour, or perhaps
not even an hour, a barely measureable time
between two moments –, when you were granted a sense
of being. Everything. Your veins flowed with being.
But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor
neither confirms nor envies. We want to display it,
to make it visible, though even the most visible happiness
can’t reveal itself to us until we transform it, within.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, The Seventh Duino Elegy)

All right: but what does it mean to transform these moments of intense inward understanding of the world and experience?  I think it can only mean that we carry them with us back into the welter of our lives, that we return to them not as refugees from experience, but as devotees of it, that we come to understand our moments (or moment, maybe there was only one, will ever be only one) of clear-spirited existence in terms of all the life that is so obviously not, and vice versa.

The art critic Edgar Wind once accused Rilke of having “an emotionally untainted sense of form,” meaning that he made these perfect artifacts that seemed to be about experiences he had never completely had.  The very perfection of the form depended upon the detachment of the artist, but according to Wind, you could always feel that detachment within the perfection.  The form wasn’t compromised – it was perfect – but the feeling was.

Well, it is certainly possible to have an emotionally untainted (i.e., solitary) sense of spiritual experience, even to come to value spiritual experience precisely for this fact: it removes you from the chaos of ordinary consciousness, from the needs and demands of other people, from the dirty business of human love.  But there is a death in this.  Solitude is an integral part of any vital spiritual life, but spiritual experience that is solely solitary inevitably leads to despair.

But I don’t want to lose Rilke’s main point in the Seventh Duino Elegy, which is that spiritual experiences must be transformed within us, that there is hard work of inwardness to do, of consciousness, before those experiences become available to the rest of our lives.  And I don’t want to suggest that he himself failed at this.  First of all, we can judge no one other than ourselves in this regard, and second, late in his life Rilke wrote this, in a letter to Ilse Jake:

The comprehensible slips away, is transformed; instead of possession one learns relationship, and there arises a namelessness that must begin once more in our relations with God if we are to be complete and without evasion.  The experience of feeling him recedes behind an infinite delight in everything that can be felt; all attributes are taken away from God, who is no longer sayable, and fall back into creation, into love and death.

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