Rilke on Mystery and Awe (1)

Happy New Year!

During 2015, I started a new habit: Once a day (give or take), I read a poem from famed German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. There were times when this practice really uplifted me and caused me to pause and wonder.

Rainer_Maria_Rilke,_1900

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1900, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As we begin 2016, I’m going to share my six favorite Rilke writings that relate to mystery and awe. The first is below, followed by a few of my thoughts.

If I cried out,
who in the hierarchies of angels
would hear me?

And if one of them should suddenly
take me to his heart,
I would perish in the power of his being.
For beauty is but the beginning of terror.
We can barely endure it
and are awed
when it declines to destroy us.

~Rainer Maria Rilke, from the First Duino Elegy

What most strikes me here is how intimacy with the beautiful – in this example, the angelic – can be so powerful that it brings with it a sense of terror. It is something that can be barely endured.

In this way, the poem demonstrates an historical understanding of awe as a powerful emotion that can be mixed with fear and dread. It clashes with the modern sense that awesomeness is pleasant, light, and commonplace, and reminds us that awe is much more than often appreciated.

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