Variation on a Theme by Rilke
(The Book of Hours, Book 1, Poem 1, Stanza 1)
by Denise Levertov
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 the 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.
My bookshelf also includes Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy (Riverhead Books, New York, 2005), so I decided I would look up the inspiration.
The Book of Hours, Book 1, Poem 1
by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
Da neigt sich die Stunde and rührt mich an
mit klaren, metallenem Schlag:
mir zittern die Sinne. Ich fühle: ich kann –
und ich fasse den plastischen Tag.
Nichts war noch vollendet, eh ich es erschaut
ein jedes Werden stand still.
Meine Blicke sind reif, und wie eine Braut
kommt jedem das Ding, das er will …
The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there's a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
One of the things that I like about this edition is that it has the German original on the facing page to the English translation and my two years of German in college feel useful. While I like these translations for the most part, what is missing in this translation that Levertov highlights in her poem is "ich kann" = "I can – I grasp and shape the day." Perhaps what rang true for me is that Levertov articulates calling: "it was I, a bell awakened, and what I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can."
This poem was a necessary antidote to some of the continued data analysis that I did this week. Letting the data speak: this graph represents placement and tenure in a given church, based on the 2008 directory of The American Baptist Churches of Massachusetts. So there are two men still serving churches as senior or solo pastors where they were called in 1976, there is one woman still serving a church where she was called in 1989. In 2002 there were twenty churches filled, all by men. In 2007 there were nine churches filled by men and two by women, and in 2008 there were ten churches filled, half by men and half by women. In this data set, seventeen percent of the senior or solo pastors are women.
I also spent time this week writing the essay for American Baptist Profile System: 3000 characters that must fit in no more than 37 lines that give churches a reason to set up an interview.
"What I heard was my whole self saying and singing what it knew: I can."
My prayer is today is one of thanksgiving for those people who affirm that calling for me in the various places where I am ministering, those who edited my profile essay, those who remind me to pray for myself and who pray for me, and for poems and poets who awaken me to the possible and to the "I can."