Over the past few months I have become fascinated with a little book by Rainer Maria Rilke called Letters to a Young Poet. A lot can (and has been) said about Rilke’s “rejection” of Christianity, most of which I am not able to really go into. But I will agree that you can’t read Rilke and ignore the Christian tradition that offered the backdrop against which he was able to create his own spiritual ideas (cf. Johannes Wich-Schwarz). I wonder how much he was actually able to escape God. While he rejects Christianity (particularly the rejection the concept of a transcendent God), his words regarding the immanence of God (pantheistic) challenge Enlightenment deism and are thought provoking for how the church can reclaim a theo-logic of the incarnation. Maybe more on this later.
For now, I want to consider some of Rilke’s thoughts on solitude with something I read from Bohoeffer’s in Life Together.
Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together, “the person who comes into a fellowship because he is running away from himself is misusing it for the sake of diversion, no matter how spiritual this diversion may appear” (76). For Bonhoeffer solitude and fellowship inform one another, give way to one another. He says, “both begin at the same time” (78).
The basic premise of Rilke’s Letter’s is that there is a young poet writing to Rilke, who is an established poet at this point in his life, about how to be a better poet. The occasion for the young poet (Mr. Kappus) to write letters is his continual rejection of being published. And so Rilke writes, “Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” (16). Rilke encourages Mr. Kappus to dive deep into his own life to find that which compels his to write, to ask “whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write” (16). This is the heart of Rilke’s concept of solitude. And the rest of the book is further expositions on this theme.
There is something about introspection and knowing yourself and knowing how you make sense of the world that I find so good. For Rilke solitude is about asking questions, and more than that it’s about learning to love and live those questions in the moment (27). Rilke hits the nail on the head for me in terms of offering words that express what I feel when I try to think about the big picture as if it was mine to decide what happens next for the whole world, which only leads me to exhaustion and despair. Rilke says, “Solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself-and for hours meeting no one—this one must be able to attain. To be solitary, the way one was solitary as a child, when the grownups went around involved with things that seemed important and big because they themselves looked so busy and because one comprehended nothing of their doings” (35). There is something comforting in the world according to a child, an awareness that there are ultimate concerns that I cannot quite make sense but am sure that there are others who can. It’s not about having all of the answers but about making sense of the world as genuinely as we can, portraying our experience. Of course, making sense of experience always depends on what ultimate categories one embraces. For me as a Christian it is making sense of a world in which I am somehow given the gift of personality and community in Jesus Christ as an icon of God. Thus, I can’t help but think of how Bonhoeffer says that it is reflection on the Word that affords us words of grace to speak to one another. Speaking grace comes as we know that we are known and loved by God.