Saturday, October 28, 2023

Rilke, and "the Church Somewhere In The East"


Sometimes a man stands up during supper 

and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking

because of a church 

that stands somewhere in the East. 

And his children say blessings on him 

as if he were dead. 

And another man, 

who remains inside his own house, 

dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,

so that his children

have to go far out into the world

toward that same church

which he forgot.

 Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)

Sometime in the 1980's, someone gave me a collection of Rilke translated by Robert Bly, and I have carried it with me for all these years.  I find Bly is still my favorite translator of the German mystical poet. In graduate school I did a performance with synthesizer based on this beautiful poem, and a series I called "Landscapes from Rilke". 

Yesterday the poem popped into my head.   I had been thinking, while driving around on seemingly endless errands, that I have become too resigned, I have perhaps traded too much "mature realism" for the spiritual quest that used to animate my art and life.  In my previous post I have been thinking about Pilgrimage,  which can be a metaphor a well as a physical movement.  

Rilke's poem is about the call that can come to seek a deeper life.  To become a "source - eror". Not all people are called, but for some of those who do hear the sound of distant bells, the "church that lies somewhere in the east" may be a monastery, for others, a studio, or an orphanage, or a university, a ticket to a distant land, or a trail that leads into the silent cathedral of a canyon or a forest.   Sometimes the seemingly unmarked trail to that church can feel like delusion,  or great loss........there are not always "road signs" or certainties along the way.  Usually there are not, and always the unexpected occurs when we enter that liminal zone of Pilgrimage.  

What I love about this poem is the profound connectivity Rilke implies.  The man or woman  who "keeps on walking" is one who heeds the call of that spiritual calling because he feels he no longer has any other choice. He realizes that nothing else will matter if he remains. 

He is willing to abandon the life he has been leading, but not himself. Such was the legendary  beginning of Siddartha's quest to become the Buddha, leaving behind his responsibilities as a prince, father and husband, the quest that led to the birth of Buddhism.  Was it wrong to leave behind those responsibilities and the loved ones who depended upon him?  Yes.  Was it right to leave those responsibilities and the loved ones who depended upon him to pursue what became the birth of Buddhism?  Yes.  Morality is layered, and sometimes the answer in both cases is yes, and yes. 

The one who remains in Rilke's poem, "in the dishes and the glasses", who does not leave when called, is neither right or wrong. He has chosen to remain, to find meaning in the love and duties of family and social responsibility.  His labors (and domestic pleasures) have resulted in the lives and sustenance of his children.     But his choice to not take the spiritual journey to that "church somewhere in the east" at some point in his life, to forget, to close the door, leaves a residue that ghosts within the house of his life.   Thus, his children, or perhaps his grand children,  are left with a hidden destiny, which is  to fulfill the quest that  he did not.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

"At the River" in Late October: Estes, Jung, and Pilgrimage


"Then in the Arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul, and memories,  and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River. Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of those rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. "

Norman MacLean, "A River Runs Through It"
A quote that stays with me,  from the beautiful book by Norman MacLean that became an equally beautiful movie in the 90's.  I often think of it, increasingly with age, and perhaps especially, as Samhain and the Veils thin away.  What an exquisite and elegant metaphor for the depthless and unfathomable River we have our brief dwellings in.

Perhaps he speaks of what storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estes *  called "Rio Abajo Rio, the "river beneath the river of the world". 
That stays with me as well, and arises especially when I feel the dryness of my life overtaking me.  She  speaks of the River of Story, its universal waters flowing beneath the surfaces of all things.   In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves *** she writes,
"Each woman has potential access to Rio Abajo Rio, this river beneath the river. She arrives there through deep meditation, dance, writing, painting, prayer making, singing, drumming, active imagination, or any activity which requires an intense altered consciousness. A woman arrives in this world-between worlds through yearning and by seeking something she can see just out of the corner of her eye. She arrives there by deeply creative acts, through intentional solitude, and by practice of any of the arts. And even with these well-crafted practices, much of what occurs in this ineffable world remains forever mysterious to us, for it breaks physical laws and rational laws as we know them."*

Whether tapping, if only briefly, the wellsprings of El Rio in grief, creativity, meditation, or through the sudden psychic upwelling that can happen when the so-called ego cracks and splinters, I think it is ultimately a blessing, an opportunity given,  when the waters are revealed, for they re-member the greater life.  I didn't say that was always easy, or comfortable. 

 And sometimes the river of story has a voice that sounds like a roar, sometimes it sounds like a whisper.  

Estes, who is a Jungian psychologist, believes that to simply experience this "great river of being" is not enough: one must also instinctively participate in some way, find some way to open a pathway, a well spring, for others to follow.  She writes:
"...[W]hat Jung called 'the moral obligation' to live out and to express what one has learned in the descent or ascent to the wild Self. This moral obligation he speaks of means to live what we perceive, be it found in the psychic Elysian fields, the isles of the dead, the bone deserts of the psyche, the face of the mountain, the rock of the sea, the lush underworld - anyplace where La Que Sabe breathes upon us, changing us. Our work is to show we have been breathed upon - to show it, give it out, sing it out, to live out in the topside world what we have received through our sudden knowings, from body, from dreams and journeys of all sorts."

Beautiful.  Here's something I myself wrote about that quote, some  12 years ago:

"I respectfully submit that this is so for any creative person, this work of the SEER, residing within each of us. The River beneath the River of the World."

True.  Reading that, at this time when I am questioning everything and especially myself,  it pleases me that I wrote that.  It shows me a bit of who I was then.  And also, things change, we change, the rivers of the world move us along. Sometimes it's time to retire, to just be.  I think this is a hard time for Seers, as virtual reality seems to be replacing them.   It's a hard time to know what is real any more.  Recently a young, educated woman told me that gender, and indeed everything, is just "narrative".  That left me speechless.  And I realized that this isn't my world any more. I don't know where my world went, but it is apparently gone.  I need to explore that more in the next post.  

There is a scene from the 2021 award winning movie NOMADLAND where the heroine, Fern, having become a nomad,  meets a fellow traveler living in an old motorhome.  The elderly woman tells the newly nomadic heroine about a place she visited where she saw the swallows return, thousands of them.  She confides that she has stage 4 cancer, and she's not willing to spend her final years in clinics and chemo labs.  Shortly after that she drives off, lightening her load with a "give away" of items from her motorhome.  Later in the movie Fern receives a text from her:  a video of swallows flying over a river.  
That little story, those swallows flying over a fast running river, that stuck with me, it (appropriately for the season, again) haunts me.  A river runs through it.  And the swallows are the hearts desire.   

I wish, like the aged often used to do in India, I wish sometimes I could divest myself of all the very real responsibilities and meaningless work-for-money I still wake each morning to do.  Like the woman in the old motorhome, I wish I could just lighten the load, give it away, and go.  On Pilgrimage.  Maybe, like her quest to see the swallows again,  the road itself might tell me where my Pilgrimage will lead me.  

"Rio Abajo Rio", the River Beneath the River of the World calls to me these days, and I need to jump into its waters. As we approach Samhain, the sweet Dark calls as well.   Pilgrimage, the intention to travel within the liminality of Pilgrimage,  is actually what I think the aged are called to do.  I would give myself the advice I would give a friend, who made the shocking comment to me recently that "This isn't my world any more".  That comment haunts me most of all.  It won't leave me.

The advice I would give her, and myself, as we both realize this isn't our world anymore, is to go.  On Pilgrimage.         Go to the Ganges.  Climb slowly the Sacred Mountain of Kilamajaro, or Babaquiviri.  Go to where the Swallows return.  Walk the Camino to Compostella, where souls are composted, or travel on, to Finisterre, to Lands End, where the Ocean waits.  Or some where else as yet unknown, maybe, the Pilgrimage is more within than without.  .  Just let it be the Pilgrimage.

"The Hidden Sea" (2010)

* (p.30, below)
** (p.96, below)
*** Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype
Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs, Hardcover, 560 pages, Random House Publishing Group, 1992