2017 Book Review: Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Sometimes I think books find you at just the right moment, right when you need them and when you’re fully prepared to feel and embody every word. Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, was exactly that.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

After finishing Rilke’s collection of poetry, I shut the book and started compiling a list of all of the ways Rilke’s ideas provided roots for the work of modern spiritual scholars, like Richard Rohr. Rohr’s Immortal Diamond was hugely influential to the development of my personal spirituality and understanding of God, which I wrote about last year, and the guiding idea for Rohr’s book was stated very simply: “[The] discovery of our True Self is also at the same time a discovery of God.” I would argue that Rilke’s Love Poems To God worked at artfully depicting the exact same thing. 

The poets have scattered you.
A storm ripped through the stammering.
I want to gather you up again
in a vessel that makes you glad. 

I wander in the thousand winds
that you are churning,
and bring back everything I find.

The blind man needed you as a cup.
The servant concealed you.
The beggar held you out as I passed.

You see, I am on who likes to look for things.

I am one who, barely noticed,
like a shepherd,
comes up from behind …
One who dreams of making complete,
and in that way completes himself.
— (Rilke, Book of Hours, 117)

Rilke asserts that God is “scattered”, “churning” in a “thousand winds”, incarnated and concealed in “things”. So the speaker wanders, gathers, and brings back “everything I find”. To find and “complete” God is not a passive or static journey, but an active search and broad exploration, notably outside of a specific church or text. 

The last two lines really bring Rohr and Rilke together: “One who dreams of making complete, / and in that way completes himself.” In our journey to complete God, we complete ourselves. 

All who seek you
test you.
And those who find you
bind you to image and gesture.

I would rather sense you
as the earth senses you. 
In my ripening
what you are.
— (Rilke, Book of Hours, 169)

Rilke does not wish to bind God to one imagined body or interpretation and instead seeks a God that is sensed and as that understanding blooms, his own sense of self “ripens”. 

God as spirit needs fully realized, actualized bodies and minds to exist, to come into being.

I want to unfold. 
Let no place in me hold itself closed, 
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
— (Rilke, Book of Hours, 67)

Rilke reminds us to stay open, to never fold, and open our hearts and minds to others, and that to stay “closed” is to be “false” and not accessible to God. 

And finally, one of Rilke’s shorter poems that will stay with me forever:

I live my life in widening circles
that reach across the world. 
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?
— (Rilke, Book of Hours, 45)

I am evolving, moving, never static, and as my life builds and widens, so does my understanding of God. I will never be content with one religious interpretation of God, one book’s attempt to circle God for “thousands of years”, but will instead give myself over to many circles, ever-widening the full breadth of a complete God and a full sense of self, and never fearing the many variations I may encounter, as a “falcon, storm, or a great song”. 


Pamela Craig

Pamela Craig is the founder and editor of GirlSense and NonSense. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @PamelaJ_Craig.