Variation On A Theme By Rilke
by Denise Levertov
(The Book of Hours, Book I, Poem 1, Stanza 1)
A certain day became a presence to me;
there it was, confronting me — a sky, air, light:
a being. And before it started to descend
from the height of noon, it leaned over
and struck my shoulder as if with
the flat of a sword, granting me
honor and a task. The day’s blow
rang out, metallic — or it was I, a bell awakened,
and what I heard was my whole self
saying and singing what it knew: I can.
For weeks, this poem has been nagging me, tugging at the corners of my memory. There was something about a bell, a sharp awakening, but the poet would not come, nor would the actual words. I stood in front on my poetry collection once or twice, hoping that the right book would beckon, would, like the poem itself says, strike my shoulder and say, here am I.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, I worried it, gnawed Google with different versions of the bell and got some interesting sidelines, but no poem. Until today, until the moment the possession was broken and suddenly I remembered, it was Denise Levertov and within seconds, I had it. I had been struck on the shoulder, awakened from the sleep of unconscious possessions, from the voices that clouded my seeing and hearing and being. The demon had been named and the cloud lifted.
I had fallen into a complex, a quanta of energy organized around the particular theme of how I function in the world. Or don’t. We all are susceptible to complexes, unconscious and autonomous thoughts, beliefs and behaviors that take over our conscious mind. We are no longer in control of reality, we see the world and ourselves through the lens of the complex and it usually isn’t pretty.
It is our nature to form complexes; the evolution of human development exists to become aware and related to the unconscious forces that would rule us as the first peoples were ruled by Nature itself. We no longer live in the world populated by tree, thunder and rain spirits, benevolent or malevolent. We inhabit instead, a world that is explainable through physics, chemistry, biology, or so we think.
In reality, there is much we do not know, see or understand that exists without our awareness. The gift of being human is that we can, with hard work and perseverance, come into contact with that source of being and find there the energy that fuels our creativity. There are many words for this work: psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, therapy, counseling, mentoring, and spiritual direction, to name a few. Each one understands that another is required to help us see what we cannot see, simply because we are embedded in the woods of the complex. Awareness comes surely when we have grappled with the demons ourselves of course, but we cannot wrestle with what we do not know.
And that, of course, is the point of all the work, energy and training that those of us who engage in the above professions seek to illuminate. We are called to name the monsters under the bed, the illusions of knights in shining armor, the whispers of failure or inflation that beset all of us. It is a delicate task to name the fears and desires and denials. Yet, when we are able to name what assails a soul, there is an opportunity for hearing that fulsome and authentic ringing of a whole self singing: I can.
This is the irrational season
When love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
There’d have been no room for the child.
What a multitude of miracles we may have missed throughout our lives, filled as we are, with good reasons for doing or not doing. There is a certain elegance about those lines, “had Mary been filled with reason” that strike at the core of our human experience. We want to know, to make order and sense, to tidy the world into boxes that will not tumble or fall. In an effort to stay safe in the familiar, we populate our inner life with shoulds, oughts and musts, or, in some cases, must nots.
This is all true. Yet there is a deeper wisdom to be gleaned from these words. Had Mary been filled with reason, that is, filled with the conscious effort to order the world, there would not have been space for Logos, the ordering spirit of the divine. That is a powerful image for those of us who seek to understand the movements of the holy in our lives. And by the holy, I am not speaking of the gods and goddesses we have named that clothe the ineffable, but of the numinous mystery itself.
I am reminded of the statue of Shiva Nataraja, the Hindu Lord of the Dance, dancing on the back of a supine human. All along, we are looking at our human concerns, belly button gazing at the lint of life lived small, when above us, around us, dances the divine magnificent presence. When we fill our minds with the effort to understand what is not explicable, we close off the opportunity to experience the miracle of being awakened to a new state of awareness. The reason is simple: we are terrified of taking up the mandate of what the holy calls us to become.
It wasn’t easy for a young woman to submit her will to that of the unknowable, to risk being transformed from an adolescent into a woman who would bear the burden of birthing a life destined to death. Forget the resurrection, at that moment of saying yes to the irrational, the unreasonable, she was saying yes to the process of being transformed, broken and broken open. Madonna and Mater Dolorosa, Virgin and Weeping Mother, what immeasurable joy and suffering are there contained!
There are a million reasons to deny the call of the holy, of our unique destinies-loss of family, reputation, safety, loss of our familiar and comforting spot in the world. There is no good reason to submit to the mystery that would ask the world of us, take it away and then give it back transformed. Except that, to follow reason only robs us of the unique gift living our lives imbued with the Spirit of our lives. So much more can be said about Mary, about this poem, about the masculine and feminine worlds. But for now, hush, listen and perhaps the lily will bend to your ear and whisper the words meant only for you.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
I have spoken these lines, penned by poet, philosopher, farmer and social activist, Wendell Berry, in Solstice celebrations at the church where I ministered for thirteen years. Every year, the doors would open into the candle lit sanctuary. People would come in from the usually snowy and frozen night, take a seat in a pew next to a friend or a stranger and wait. Some sweet slow music would start, the quiet would deepen, and I would read these words to enter into the darkest time of the year together.
How I loved the rhythm of that night: poetry, prose readings, songs interspersed with meditations that culminated in the sudden lighting of the church, dancing into the social hall where we shared food and drink, more music and dancing to mark the turning of the wheel. We went dark, stayed dark and in that darkness, began to bask in the light of fellowship and community.
Jung reminded us that rituals exist to hold and mediate the direct experience of the numinous. The structure of the evening held the millennial experience of the mystery of light returning in the midst of the darkest night. I no longer minister in a church, instead I sit with people as together we enter into dark spaces, resisting the temptation to bring too much light and consciousness too soon.
There are spaces and places we must go that require deep and dark patience and a hand to hold while we sit and wait. Of course, we all know that the dark night of the soul or the night sea journey is traversed alone. Like Jacob, we struggle with the mighty angel all night, not knowing we are fighting for our true and proper name, our destiny.
But before we get strong enough to face that unknown, we need the simple presence of the Other. The one who will sit as we struggle to name and accept the many hurts and wounds of life, the one who will reflect back to us the strength to stay in the dark long enough to receive its gold. I am always so moved by Jung’s dictum that the shadow holds 80% gold. The dark does hold the scary and unknown aspects of ourselves, but when we can see them, albeit dimly, we find also the luminosity of that which we have rejected.
The kind of work we do, depth and analytical psychologists, archetypal pattern analysts, psychoanalysts and others, can be called a companioning in the dark. Not lost, not disoriented, but rather tethered to the trust that the dark holds its own mysterious beauty and richness. This is especially true this time of year, as the darkness comes earlier and earlier in the day and the nights get longer and longer. The expectations of the holidays, tensions and memories, hope and loss all are enveloped in the dark. When we sit in it long enough, the inner light emerges and we can enter into a new day. And the beauty of this moment is that we are not alone.
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
In my early twenties, I had the good fortune of finding these words by TS Eliot from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. They became the compass by which I made decisions. I fell in love with the permission to change my mind at a moment’s notice. I realized that whatever decision I made, I could change my mind and nothing terrible would happen. The possibilities were endless.
Go to Texas to nurture a new relationship. Sure! Oh, well, actually no, my friends think it’s a bad idea, I get a refund and he drives home alone from the airport. The next day, I go to the airport anyway, buy a new ticket and spend the summer in Texas.
I always think about that summer romance, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world and I almost did. That phrase helped me take a risk, I knew that I could always buy another ticket back East if it didn’t work out between us. That relationship did not last past August but that experience allowed me to make vital decisions about my life which I ‘knew’ were reversible. I have been married for 34 years to someone I said ‘Yes’ to thinking that if it didn’t work out, I could always make another decision. There was always a way out.
But, that’s not the way it works. Endless possibilities belong to youth, to those still trying to find the thread that leads to their destiny. At some point in time, we are no longer able to reverse a decision in a minute, the stakes become higher, the price to be paid becomes exponential, affecting not only our selves but those we love. And so the decisions are no longer external – Paris, Rome or Madrid, but internal. To change our attitude to our life, to change the relationship to our past, to our inner complexes, is a decision which cannot be revised or reversed. We persevere in becoming conscious of what has driven us, we choose to stay the course in awareness, knowing that to consistently give up and try something new will bring us only the same old same old.
That knowledge was hard won. There are no endless possibilities at my stage of life, and in fact, there weren’t any endless possibilities then either. There was just more energy and time available to experiment, experience and express. I live with the knowledge that where I am now is the fruit of all that I have done and been and I get to reap that harvest.
That is the work of archetypal pattern analysis, to recognize the mandates of life, to know what belongs to which season and to determine whether we are stuck or thriving. To live whole and balanced lives, we fully inhabit the spirit of our time, we learn to live with the many deceptions and disillusions of life, in ourselves and in others. It is hard work to live the reality of our lives at any age. That kind of clarity allows us to relax a bit, knowing we are exactly where and who we are supposed to be. The paradox is that when we really get to know, accept and embrace all of our perfect imperfections, we navigate life more easily, knowing what must be done minute by minute. Which is, of course, the only way to live.
Dr. Silvia Behrend is a Certified Pattern Analyst, educator and mentor