Rilke, Advent and “the Slowing”

My life is not this steep hour
in which You see me hurrying so.”

Many of us know could claim these lines, taken from one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems, as a true confession, particularly in Advent.  For while we always seem to be leading hurried lives, rarely is this as true as it is in these often frantic weeks of December leading to Christmas.

But for this very reason Advent is a needed countercultural force, calling us to risk turning aside from this hurried pace in anticipation of the mystery that waits to find us. Of course, we know that this is rarely easy, even when we know it is the truth we most need to follow. Perhaps we’ve even heard someone quote the line from one of Rilke’s poems, “You must change your life,” but we sense how hard this is to do and how unlikely, given the stress in our lives.  

Rilke has become, for me, one of the trustworthy guides into what the late Gerald May simply called “the Slowing,” a theme that is at the heart of Advent. For we need to slow down to savor what this season is about, opening ourselves to the lure of its mystery. In one of Rilke’s letters, he suggests what this might entail in our lives: “To let every impression and every seed of a feeling realize itself on its own, in the dark, in the unconveyable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of your understanding, and to await with deep humility and patience the hour when a new clarity is born:  this alone is to live artistically, in understanding as in creation.” This is what we are made for, as the themes of Advent remind us.

May this call of “the slowing” guide us in this Advent, helping us create space in our lives to live more patiently, more generously, more attentively. To wait in the dark we face until a “new clarity” is born in our lives.

Poems of this sort remind us to seek to center ourselves, refusing to be “consumed” by the hurry of these weeks. They remind us, as Rilke went on to write in this letter to “a young poet,” to ‘let [our] judgments follow their quiet, undisturbed evolution, for this, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressured or hurried in any way.” Advent is a time for just this kind of slowing; of attending to what matters most; and, yes, of turning from our hurry and relinquishing our worry, at least a little, as we live into the mystery of mercy.

Mark S. Burrows

  1. Rainer Maria Rilke, Prayers of a Young Poet, translated by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press, 2016), 28.

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