Caution to the Wind

The Church has entered into the Season after Pentecost, the season in which the Pentecostal in me wants to pretend I am always present to. In reality, I am often far from an awareness of the ways that God's Spirit is at work. Instead, I am consumed by my own doing and undoing, running here and there, rarely stopping to welcome the Spirit I claim to possess.

In a poem that has always left me feeling unsettled at my lack of self-awareness, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes,

You mustn't worry, God. They say mine 
to all patient, unprotesting things.
They're like the wind that gusts through branches
and says my tree

They scarcely notice
how everything their hand reaches for
burns bright: they couldn't hold
even its outmost edge and not be singed. 

The first time I read this poem, I was enchanted by its first line. The poem's persona addresses God as though God were sitting off in some corner, stewing over some perceived affront.

This opening address, if it is to be read as a prayer, seems a million miles away from more familiar, solemn approaches to prayer and jolts me out of any sense of presumption. I'm used to something resembling, "Father God, Creator of heaven and earth," but this address sounds closer to a word of comfort offered to a distraught child.

Disoriented, I continue reading only to realize that the "they" the poet speaks of in the first line might well be a reference to me, the poem's reader. As it turns out, God is patient and unprotesting. I am flailing and inconsolable. Rather than being in control, as the persona's tone might fool me into thinking, I am gusting here and there, claiming to possess what I cannot grasp and, to make matters worse, believing myself.

As though equally oblivious, the persona persists in attempting to console God. The tone near the poem's conclusion doesn't seem to have changed from that of the first line:

God, don't lose your equanimity.
Even he who loves you and discerns your face
in darkness, when he trembles like a light
flickering beneath your breath--does not possess you.
And if at night someone takes hold of you
so fiercely that you must appear in his prayer:
You are the guest
who goes away again.

Perhaps it's the fact that we're fresh off of Pentecost Sunday, but I can't help but notice the poem's allusion to the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. At its most faithful on this day and in this season, the Church trembles like a light, flickering beneath God's breath. We cry aloud in some once-unknown language as though drunk, declaring God's praise.

And yet, if we are to remain faithful, we must stop short of uttering, in any language, the word "mine!" Whatever else this poem does, it prompts us to slow down, to lay aside presumption, to listen to a word of caution: Possessed even by the Holiest of Spirits, we do not yet possess the Spirit. (Could we even hope to hold the outmost edge and not be singed?)

Who can hold you, God? For you are yours,
no possessor's hand disturbs you:
just as the not yet fully ripened wine
turns sweeter and sweeter and is all its own.