Marking The Crossroads

Andrew Sullivan —  Aug 12 2012 @ 11:05am


by Matthew Sitman 

In a review of the first English translation of Rilke's Letters to God, Micah Mattix points to the poet's unconventional understanding of Christianity:

In this second letter, written in 1922 in the guise of a factory worker and addressed to the deceased poet Emile Verhaeren, Rilke asks: "Who is this Christ that is meddling in everything?" For Rilke, Christ is holy to the extent that he embraced death and, therefore, life. He is an example of a life fully lived. "I cannot believe," the poet writes, "that the cross was meant to remain; rather, it was to mark the crossroads." People who worship Christ, Rilke writes, are "like dogs that do not comprehend the meaning of an index finger and think they have to snap at the hand."

For Rilke, "degraded Christianity" has wrongly disdained sex, which has resulted in its "distortion and repression." His own version of Christianity celebrates boundless sex as a form of participating in the mystery of one's own life. (This is a view, no doubt, that was at least a little convenient for a poet who, to put it delicately, maintained a number of complicated relationships with women.) He comically lauds in this letter the debauched popes "weighed down by illegitimate children, mistresses, and victims of murder." "Was there not more Christianity in them," Rilke asks, "than in the lightweight restorers of the Gospels; namely, something alive, unstoppable, transformed?"

At First Things, Matthew Scmitz provides the inevitable downer: "Of course, the greatest sinner is not half so 'alive, unstoppable, transformed' as the simplest saint." Here's a thought – perhaps the line between sinner and saint is far less distinct than we sometimes grasp. 

(Image by Flickr user tw3k)