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You, neighbor God
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)
From The Book of Hours, written 1899-1903, published 1905
Translated by Babette Deutsch (1941)
You, neighbor God, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe;
and I know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.
The wall is builded of your images.
They stand before you hiding you like names.
And when the light within me blazes high
that in my inmost soul I know you by,
the radiance is squandered on their frames.
And then my senses, which too soon grow lame,
exiled from you, must go their homeless ways.
Corinna Laughlin commentary

Rainer Maria Rilke was born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke in 1875 in Prague, in what was then known as Bohemia. He was a citizen of Europe, who traveled widely and lived in Germany, France, and Switzerland, and who wrote in both German and French. A significant figure in European literature of the 20th century, Rilke associated with some of the major artists of his time, including Rodin—as a young man Rilke served as a secretary to the great sculptor. Rilke was drafted into service in World War I, a traumatic experience for him. He died of leukemia at the young age of 51.
Rilke was raised by a devoutly Catholic mother, and though he did not practice his faith as an adult, faith in God was at the heart of his life and art. “You, neighbor God” is an early poem from Rilke’s first book, called The Book of Hours. These poems were inspired by Rilke’s extensive travels in Russia, and the poet takes on the persona of an old monk in several of the poems, including the one we just heard.
The first part of the poem is quite playful. It’s easy to picture the scene – as he knocks on the wall to check if an elderly neighbor needs anything—" I know: you are alone. And should you need a drink, no one is there to reach it to you.” Notice how the roles are reversed: here is the speaker offering to help God if God should need help in the night! But the tone shifts, as the speaker pleads for some indication of God’s presence. “Always I hearken. Give but a small sign. I am quite near.” God and the speaker are so close together, but there is a separation – one which, surprisingly, either of them could break through. “it would take merely a call from your lips or mine to break it down.”
The turning point of the poem is the line: “The wall is builded of your images.” The thin separation between the speaker and God is made of his images of God. Rilke is perhaps thinking here of the iconostasis which is often the most prominent feature in Orthodox churches. The images get in the way, Rilke says, hiding God – and when the internal light by which he knows God shines within him, that light is “squandered on the frames” of these images instead of illuminating God himself. The human senses are “exiled” from God, “homeless.”
As Catholics, we are firm believers in images. We surround ourselves with statues and images of saints, and even of God. Our use of images is firmly grounded in the theology of the Incarnation – as St. Paul said, Jesus “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
But the images we make can be limiting, and, yes, get in the way, like Rilke’s wall. I think of recent debates about images of Jesus, who, though he was, obviously, a person of color, is most often depicted with European features and skin color. If these are the only images of Christ we can imagine, they can distort our understanding of who Jesus is.
Images of the divine are an essential part of how we pray and worship as Catholics. But perhaps Rilke’s poem can invite us to think about the images of God we depend on. Are they helping us pray—or do they sometimes get in the way? The Bible invites us to think of God not in one way, but in many ways. Creator, Light, Rock, Stronghold, Husband, Mother, Rescuer, Father.  All these images reveal something of God to us—but of course, none of them says it all.





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Seattle, Washington  98104
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