Tag Archives: Rainer Maria Rilke

Reading the Fine Print

As predictable as the change of seasons is the point in any given semester when students will approach me for the first time and ask for out of class help. Usually it’s after the first exam or paper has been returned. Students with dreams of an “A” dancing in their heads tend to make an appointment when their first major piece of graded work has a “C” or “D” on the top of it. I’m a user-friendly professor and am more than happy to meet with any student; when first approached, I usually raise the student’s eyebrows when I direct the student to be sure and bring the appropriate texts along for the appointment.

When Jane comes to my office, conversation begins with her saying something along the lines of “I don’t understand why I did so poorly—I’ve done all of the readings and haven’t missed any classes.” I know whether the latter claim is true already, and will be checking on the first claim shortly. First, however, I tell Jane that “whatever I suggest in terms of strategies or help is going to require more time and more work from you. If you’re looking for a way to do better in the class without working harder than you have been already, there is no such way.” This is undoubtedly a disappointment, since the reason Jane made the appointment was to get the “magic bullet” that will slay the dreaded “C” or “D” and make room for the “A” to which she believes she is entitled. Learning that there is no such magic bullet is never good news.

And it gets worse, as I next ask to see her texts. They look as if they had just been taken off the bookstore shelf—no dog-eared pages, no scribbled notes in the margin, no underlined passages, no highlighted texts—and Jane’s name isn’t even in it. Handing my heavily underlined, highlighted and annotated copy of the same text to Jane, I remark that “here’s problem number one. Your text should look like this.” I even go so far as to provide her with the key to my quirky markings, according to which I highlight in yellow the first time through, focusing the second time through primarily on the highlighted areas and underlining with a black pen those part that appear most crucial. Then after class I return a third time to write notes and comments from class discussion in the margins. Not only will following something like this procedure lock the material into the student’s memory by requiring something more than simply looking at words, but it will also condense the material for reviewing purposes when exam time comes.

I lost Jane’s attention as soon as she saw my copy of the text. Even though Jane doesn’t know what the colors and markings mean, she at least knows that they mean a lot of work. You mean I have to read more than once? That I have to read and think critically? That I have to read it again after class? You’ve got to be kidding! That’s going to take a lot of time and effort! And indeed it will. Jane has been introduced for the first time to the fine print in the life of learning—it’s hard. It requires building good reading and study habits. True education isn’t for lazy people and it isn’t for sissies. And it certainly isn’t for anyone who wants to cut corners, to get to a desired outcome without taking all of the necessary steps in between. Every one of them.

Mark’s gospel from last Sunday  includes a classic “fine print” experience. A young man (called a “certain ruler” in the Luke version of the story) approaches Jesus and asks “What shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” Jesus answers that the young man knows very well what to do—he should keep the commandments. Jesus lists a few for the guy, just in case he had forgotten them. But the young man replies “Teacher, all these I have done from my youth.” He’s not looking for a “good boy” pat on the head from Jesus; he’s already past the point of thinking that simply following the rules is good enough, or he wouldn’t have asked in the first place. The young man is looking for more. He’s thinks that he’s ready for the fine print.

We all know Jesus’ response—he reads him the fine print. “Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow me.” We also know the end of the story—“He was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” The fine print demanded the one thing the young man could not do. But what precedes Jesus’ reading of the fine print is even more interesting. Mark says that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This is a man who wants more, Jesus knows it, and Jesus loves him for it. But that damned fine print—the thing that you cannot do, that’s the thing that is required. And it will be something different for each of us. This story isn’t about the incompatibility of wealth and following Jesus at all. It’s about the fact that, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “ when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The God of love is not a cure for anything. The God of love is the greatest of all disturbers of the peace. “I did not come to bring peace but a sword,” and this is a sword that cuts deepest in those who are the most obsessed with knowing God.

This is a disturbing story because it absolutely runs roughshod over our idea that human dealings with God are transactional. “What do I need to do in order for X to happen, in order for Y not to happen, in order for Z not to die?” is the question we so often want answered, and this sort of question is always wrong when directed toward the transcendent. While on sabbatical I heard the poet Michael Dennis Browne speak of an insight that unexpectedly came to him as he mourned the tragic death of his younger sister, a woman for whom family and friends had gone hoarse with their prayers and petitions for healing. And she died anyways. What the hell is going on? Browne said “It came to me that this is not a God who intervenes, but one who indwells.” That changes everything, in ways I’m not sure I’m fully ready to think about yet. But the following from Rainer Maria Rilke gives me hope:

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.

Casual, easy, they move in the world

As though untouched.


But you take pleasure in the faces

Of those who know they thirst.

You cherish those

Who grip you for survival.


You are not dead yet, it’s not too late

To open your depths by plunging into them

And drink in the life

That reveals itself quietly there.

The Great Homesickness

Icard00577_fr[1] was the world’s most pathetic camper. One of the (alleged) rewards for 12-15 weeks of learning Bible verses throughout the winter was the privilege of attending BMA (Bible Memory Association) camp for a week in the summer; I earned this reward for what must have been 7-8 years running when I was young, starting when I was about eight years old. And I hated camp. If you use your imagination a bit, you can probably picture why camp for a bunch of fundamentalist-raised youngsters wasn’t particularly fabulous. Reveille at 6:00 in the morning, church before breakfast, Bible study in the morning, enforced nap time after lunch (I’m not kidding), “free time” for two or three hours in the afternoon which included same-sex swimming, paddle boats which invariably broke down in the middle of the lake, and horse riding (I was deathly afraid of horses). Devotions between supper and the evening worship service, during which we were required to hunker down somewhere with our Bibles by ourselves for half an hour, then evening service for a couple of hours, then taps and lights out by 9:45. What fun.

Truth be told, I would have hated any camp, Bible Memory Association or not. I suffered from debilitating and close-to-terminal homesickness. I usually went to camp with my brother and two or three cousins while my parents spent the week at a Bible conference about 75 miles away where my father was the featured speaker. I would much rather have stayed with them (with my mother, actually), but off to camp I went every year. summercamp6[1]I usually spent the first twenty-four hours crying or at least sniffling—I remember one year my camp dorm counselor, who was not much more than a kid himself, was assigned to spend the first afternoon of camp trying to console this skinny, curly-headed kid who wanted his mother. He probably asked for a raise after that. What I didn’t understand is why almost no one else was homesick. I usually saw two or three like-minded campers sniffling and with tears in their eyes the first day or so, but the vast majority of the upward of 200 campers not only seemed fine, but appeared positively thrilled to be away from their mothers. Go figure. To their credit, my non-homesick brother and cousins always managed to put up with me without calling me a pussy (or whatever good Baptist kids would have called someone like me). They just waited me out—I wasn’t going anywhere, after all.

I was deeply moved when I read the following lines in a 59452_rilke_rainer_maria[1]Rainer Maria Rilke poem not long ago:

I love you, gentlest of Ways,

Who ripened us as we wrestled with you.

You, the great homesickness we could never shake off.

You, the forest that always surrounded us.

“The great homesickness we could never shake off.” That’s one of the best names for God I’ve ever encountered. Homesickness cannot be cured by anything other than the presence of what you are homesick for. Sure, I was able to cope at camp and sort of enjoy myself at times, but there was always a gnawing emptiness, a low-grade disturbance, that I knew would not leave until I saw my parents’ car driving through the front gates of camp on Saturday morning. I never made the connection until I read the lines from Rilke, but the Psalmist is homesick when he writes

Whitetail-Deer-B-Female-Drinking-Water[1]As the deer pants for the water brooks,

So pants my soul for You, O God.

My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.

When shall I come and appear before God? 

And Rilke gets it exactly right in another poem when he writes:

I am orphanedwhen_the_sun_goes_down_2_by_muddrifter-d4k0oem[1]

each time the sun goes down.

I can feel cast out from everything.

That’s when I want you—

you knower of my emptiness,

you unspeaking partner to my sorrow—

that’s when I need you, God, like food.

Just as there were some campers who weren’t homesick for their mothers, I suppose there are some people who don’t thirst for the living God. But I do.

4381331510_7bc0c5f64f[1]I recall the Holy Week services at St. John’s Abbey during my sabbatical in Collegeville, MN few years ago. The Abbott’s Palm Sunday homily focused not on Judas, or on the donkey, or the Pharisees, or Pilate, or Peter’s denial, but on the first event in Mark’s telling of the Passion story—the woman who pours the costly oil on Jesus’ feet.imagesCABIQ119 The Abbott was trained as a chemist, so he spent a few minutes describing just why nard, a precious oil squeezed from the roots of the spikenard plant which grows only at the foot of the Himalayas, and alabaster, alabasterjar[1]the translucent stone from which the broken flask containing the nard was made, were so expensive. Not surprisingly, the disciples and others are appalled at the waste—the oil and the flask could have been sold for more than a laborer’s yearly wage. A lot of poor people could have been helped.

And they are right. But the woman knows something the onlookers don’t know. She recognizes Jesus in a way that others who had spent months and even years with him don’t. The Gospels tell us that the disciples were often confused about who Jesus wasluke7[1]. But by anointing Jesus, the woman is saying “I recognize you. I know you who you are. I’ve been homesick for you my whole life, and I’ve found you. I’m home.”

I yearn to belong to something, to be contained

in an all-embracing love that sees me

as a single thing.

I yearn to be held in the great hands of your heart—

oh let them take me now.

Into them I place these fragments, my life,

and you, God—spend them however you want.