From Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours, “The Book of Monastic Life,” I. 52 & 53:
My life bedecks itself no differently
from the deathbeds of the ancient czars.
It’s only their power I cannot claim.
I keep my own empires in the background
and manage them in silence.
Their prayer is always: Build,
use everything, build, so terror
may be turned into bigness and even beauty.
And, so that others do not see our fear,
let every kneeling and every pious gesture
be overarched with splendor-
domes, dazzling gold and blue.
And God said to me, Write:
Leave the cruelty to kings.
Without that angel barring the way to love
there would be no bridge for me
And God said to me, Paint:
Time is the canvas
stretched by my pain:
the watchful woman,
the wounds of Christ,
the city’s sad bacchanals,
the madness of kings.
And God said to me, Go forth:
For I am king of time.
But to you I am only the shadowy one
who knows with you your loneliness
and sees through your eyes.
He sees through my eyes
in all the ages.
It is a phrase heard in our churches and ad nauseam in our seminaries: “Imago Dei,” or “(made in) the image of God.” Like air conditioning and comfortable shoes, it is something that I take for granted most days of the week. “Yes, yes.” I smirk, “Please, tell me something that I don’t already know. I am not a beginner Christian; let’s get on with the more important issues at hand.”
I frequently want to skip ahead to the juicy stuff, whether that be process theology, a good trinitarian heresy debate, or perhaps getting onboard with a liberation theologian, wielding the strong arm of social justice.. We all want to make a difference, and it seems that we all want to appear rather smart while we do it.
As a naive and dare I say rather arrogant seminarian, all I wanted to do was fix the world. Not myself, not only my sphere of influence, but the whole, entire earth and all of its problems, and we had the audacity to believe that it could be done on such a grand scale and with great flair. We praised one another for having such “boldness,” and those who seemingly lacked our enthusiasm, we labeled as lazy or apathetic.
But there is a problem, because it seems that if we neglect the beginning things, if we forget we are created in the image of a Divine Creator, then we start to look like the poet in the first half of the verse. “My life bedecks itself no differently than the deathbeds of the ancient czars.”
If we lose the premise laid out in Genesis 1, then we might find ourselves beginning to take on a much more hedonistic image, no matter how “noble” we believe our causes to be. We become ravenous for power, prestige, and position. We might start to let envy and jealousy eat away at our souls and slowly destroy us.
If we forget that it is “God who made us and not we ourselves,” then we might just succumb to our worst fears. We might lose our grip on reality and begin to believe that our night terrors are daylight certainties. We might just forget the essence of who we are while we wear the masks of righteousness and false omniscience.
The “cure” for this crazy-making self-centeredness laid out by Rilke and so many others before and after him is simple: create, not just for self-serving purposes or for the need of our egos, but for the sake of Divine love.
Write love and leave the hate and fear-mongering to someone else. Paint love and make beauty out of the madness. Go forth, knowing that the creator whose image you bear knows your pain and your joy, knows your strength and your weakness. Go forth knowing that the eyes with which you see the world are the very eyes with which the Divine sees his beautiful creation.
I read Rilke and can’t help but wonder if embodying the Divine Image, creating beautiful things as the one who created us, might in fact be the greatest antidote to our greatest fear: fear itself.