Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘No One Lives His Life’
Introducing Anglican Pastor’s Lent with the Poets Series
Today is a day of new beginnings for all of us walking this Lenten journey. Ash Wednesday began the Lenten season yesterday and we’re focused on living into the disciplines we’ve undertaken for these next 40 days.
Today is also a new beginning for me as I join the Anglican Pastor team of writers. I’m really excited and honored to join the conversations that Canon Greg Goebel and Fr. Thomas McKenzie have begun here. I’ll be writing The Poetry of Faith blog on this site and I hope to introduce you to writers and theologians, many of whom are Anglicans, who inspire beauty and awe in Christian faith.
Beginning today, I’ll choose a poem each week that addresses or intersects with Lenten themes like repentance, prayer, and self-denial. I’ll choose poets who seek God because their poetry becomes an exercise in prayer. The ear of these poets is tuned toward heaven, to listen to the voice of God and his word of truth. With one word, one phrase, one line, poets spark reflection and prayer to listen more deeply for the Spirit of God in our lives. Poets are notoriously intolerant with facades, lies, and hubris, especially within themselves. They are often minor prophets, using lyrical verse to teach us the way of confession, repentance, and restoration. Poets can never replace Scripture, yet good poems are excellent companions to Scripture. They are lyrical commentaries on the Word of God. I hope you’ll visit the Poetry of Faith blog each week as we walk with the poets this Lent.
Today’s Poem: ‘No One Lives His Life’ by Rainer Maria Rilke
from Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, pg. 165.
No one lives his life.
Disguised since childhood,
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
We come of age as masks.
Our true face never speaks.
Somewhere there must be storehouses
where all these lives are laid away
like suits of armor or old carriages
or clothes hanging limply on the walls.
Maybe all paths lead there,
to the repository of unlived things.
Why this poem belongs in Lent
The Scripture readings appointed every Ash Wednesday are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about true fasting and repentance, contrasted from hypocritical actions for the sake of public acclaim. The Greek word for ‘hypocrite’ in Matthew 6 is a theatrical word meaning ‘play-actor.’ Lent is a season to confront and forsake the masks we use to ‘keep up appearances.’ Rilke’s terse words about our masks remind me of Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in the Gospels. Lent is the season to follow the pathway to ‘the repository of unlived things‘ for the sake of living in authenticity and humility before the Lord.
Meditating with Rilke’s poem
Though Rilke’s poem seems to begin with a negative tone ‘No one lives his life,’ there’s a positive affirmation of God’s creation of men and women in his image. Rilke indirectly affirms the beauty of that divine image when he laments its hiddenness, ‘Disguised since childhood.‘ Thus, these first two lines announce the call to authenticity, to live fully in the image of the Creator God who made us.
But we cannot live according to this image in our own strength. Though we bear the image of God, ‘we come of age as masks.’ Therein lies a history for each of us. Wearing masks is a false creation, a false self, a disguise that began ‘since childhood.’ Whereas God created us with his own hands, breathing his own life into us, the false self constructs its mask in a ‘haphazard assembly.’ Masks require manufacturing; they are man-made, not God-made. Men and women manufacture masks from the raw materials of ‘voices, fears, and little pleasures.’ Masks are constructed for survival and success. But the Christian is not concerned with survival. ‘For me to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ St. Paul said.
In the middle of the poem, Rilke laments that ‘Our true face never speaks.’ The barrage of ‘voices, fears, and little pleasures‘ has rendered our true face mute. How does our true face speak again? Only by the grace of Christ. We must ‘put on Christ.’ Christ is the ‘image of the invisible of the God’ who restores the glory of our ‘true face’ when he dwells within the human heart.
In the penultimate stanza, Rilke imagines a location of ‘storehouses where all these lives are laid away.’ But the remote location of this storehouse implies a journey: ‘maybe all paths lead there to the repository of unlived things.’ This journey is a journey of repentance. To enter this storehouse requires facing our own emptiness. Suits of armor, old carriages, and clothes hanging limply on the wall are images of emptiness. Yet they are object-symbols designed for human beings to embody.
Poets understand that their verse is pregnant with new meanings, meanings which readers, not the poet, will reveal. Whether Rilke imagined this ‘pathway’ intersecting with Lent is tangential to our purposes here. However, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Rilke saw these connections, because he composed these poems while learning the rhythms of monastic prayer in the Russian Orthodox Church.
Reading this poem as Christians on the Lenten journey, we are reminded that putting on armor or clothes in the New Testament has always meant putting on Christ. Putting on Christ requires the rejection of false masks we have worn, even when wearing those masks brings personal success. Jesus said, ‘Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’ Lose the mask, even if that mask brought success, and you will gain your life.
Rilke imagines the courageous soul who searches for the repository of ‘unlived things’ will discover a treasure. That treasure is not the glory of one’s self. That treasure is Christ living within the heart. That is what it means to live an authentic life. That is the calling of the Lenten journey.
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