In Celebration Rilke’s Birthday

Each year it strikes me that the birthdate of the Prague-born poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, December 4 (1875), falls near the beginning of Advent. It is an auspicious coincidence. To mark this day, here are two lines from an unpublished stanza he wrote in 1913, intended as part of what would become The Duino Elegies:

Unknowing, I am caught in wonder at
the heaven of my life.

Unknowing. The birth of wonder depends on it, and in a sense it is what matters most in our lives. We might sense “the treasure [we carry] in earthen vessels,” as the apostle Paul once put it, but a knowledge of this lies beyond us.

Wonder, though, is the path into the mystery that is the heart of our lives—the “heaven” within us, as Rilke put it. What the poet meant by this penetrates our mind little by little as we attend to it. It is a wisdom that penetrates slowly, beyond explanation. It longs to be discovered within the veil of the ordinary, which is where Advent hope always waits to find us.

The key to Rilke’s wisdom lies in the opening word, unknowing. It is an Advent word, to be sure, a deep note of truth against what seems capable of overwhelming us in this season: the frenzy of social obligations, stores and malls glittering with lights and crowded with weary shoppers, and a legion of Santa Clauses listening to children tell them of the things they want. In all this, the Advent tidings go unnoticed, but for that very reason we do well to begin, again, with a glad unknowing, one that reminds us to open ourselves in this season to what we cannot understand: that the Word became flesh and lived among us, heaven “touching earth,” as it were, in the form of a newborn, grace manifest in the vulnerability of this world. And, yes, heaven waiting to be disclosed in our own lives, in the midst of all that is ordinary and human, broken and depleted, within us.

Advent is a time of pausing, of learning to hope for what we cannot know. It is a season to practice the kind of unknowing that enables us to unburden ourselves from our too hasty certainties. Advent calls us to open our hearts, in wonder, at what is coming to pass in our midst—and, yes, within us: God among us, Immanuel. In this holy season, as the flickering candlelight of the first Advent candle begins to dance in our eyes, let us learn to be carried beyond the boundaries of what we know, and in unknowing stand in wonder at the “heaven of our lives.”


Mark S. Burrows, translator of Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet (Paraclete Poetry, 2016).

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