Letters to a Young Poet
Ranier Maria Rilke
Worpswede, neat Bremen,
July 16th, 1903
SOME TEN days ago I left Paris, quite ill and tired, and journeyed into a great northerly plain whose breadth and stillness and sky are to make me well again. But I came into a long spell of rain that today for the first time shows signs of clearing a little over the restlessly wind-blown land; and I am using this first moment of brightness to greet you, dear sir.
Very dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you long unanswered, not that I had forgotten it — on the contrary: it was of the sort that one reads again,when one finds them among one’s correspondence, and I recognized you in it as though you bad been close at hand. It was the letter of May 2nd, and you surely remember it, When I read it, as now, in the great quiet of these distances, I am touched by your beautiful concern about life, more even than I had felt it in Paris, where everything resounds and dies away differently because of the too great noise that makes things vibrate. Here, where an immense country lies about me, over which the winds pass coming from the seas, here I feel that no human being anywhere can answer for you those questions and feelings that deep within them have a life of their own; for even the best err in words when they are meant to mean most delicate and almost in- expressible things. But I believe nevertheless that you will not have to remain without a solution if you will hold to objects that are similar to those from which my eyes now draw refreshment If you will cling to Nature, to the simple in Nature, to the little things that hardly anyone sees, and that can so unexpectedly become big and beyond measuring; if you have this love of inconsiderable things and seek quite simply, as one who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier, more coherent and somehow more conciliatory for you, not in your intellect, perhaps, which lags marveling behind, but in your inmost consciousness, waking and cognizance. You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can. dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is,to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you win then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
“Do anything that pleases you, and belong to me”
Barbara Brown Taylor
An Altar in the World (HarperOne:2009) pages 108-110
Earlier in my life, I thought there was one particular thing I was supposed to do with my life. I thought that God had a purpose for me and my main job was to discover what it was. This thought heated up while I was in seminary, where I attended classes and drank beer with other students who knew exactly what they would do when they graduated. Upon request most of them could deliver articulate accounts of their calls to ministry…
I did not have a single clue what I would do when I graduated. I did not even belong to a church. So I began asking God to tell me what I was supposed to do. What was my designated purpose on this earth? How could I discover the vocation that had my name on it? Since this was an important prayer, I searched for the right place to pray it. After a few lackluster attempts by the side of my bed and a few more in various cubbyholes around campus, I found a fire escape that hung precariously from the side of a deserted Victorian mansion next door to the Divinity School. That same night I crept over there after dark. …
The fire escape turned out to be an excellent place to pray. .. I went up there so many times in the weeks that followed that I no longer remember which night it was that God finally answered my prayer. I do not think it was right at the beginning,when I was still saying my prayers in words. I think it came later, when I had graduated to inchoate sounds. Up on that fire escape, I learned to pray the way a wolf howls. I learned to pray the way that Ella Fitzgerald sang scat.
Then one night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God what I was supposed to do with my life, God said, “Anything that pleases you.”
“What?” I said, resorting to words again. “What kind of an answer is that?”
“Do anything that pleases you,” the voice in my head said again, “and belong to me.”
At one level, that answer was no help at all. The ball was back in my court again, where God had left me all kinds of room to lob it wherever I wanted. I could be a priest or a circus worker. God really did not care. At another level, I was so relieved that I sledded down the stairs that night. Whatever I decided to do for a living, it was not what I did but how I did it that mattered. God had suggested an overall purpose, but was not going to supply the particulars for me. If I wanted a life of meaning, then I was going to have to apply the purpose for myself.
The Circle of Life in a Soup Bowl
Marietta – Brooklyn, New York
I’d always thought that my greatest satisfaction, food wise, would come from my son’s delight in my cooking. I was wrong. It came from my Mom.
My mother never budgeted and she never dieted, yet her chief complaints in life were about money and her weight. ‘I’m so fat, I can’t stand myself,’ she would say. My sister and I would protest. We both believed that my mother, while never skinny, was robustly magnificent even at the age of 72. ‘Non, non,’ she’d turn away with a click of the tongue in her rich, accented voice. ‘I’ve gained weight. And I eat nothing, I swear!’
There was no sense arguing with this statement because it was so far from the truth. Butter was slathered on baguettes, deserts indulged. My mother loved good food and felt comfortable showing it, even when she made it herself. (I must admit, she’d say with a short laugh. This is delicious.)
One day, before illness had taken root, Mom was trying on clothes from a recent raid at Marshall’s. ‘I don’t like this shirt – it shows my fleshes too much.’ Her tone was layered with complexities — flat annoyance mixed with understated braggadocio, like someone complaining of pants that made them look too skinny.
I’d never heard this expression “fleshes” before but figured it was a direct translation of a French expression for the folds of skin around bra-lines. Most women over the age of 40 know these fleshes. They are the badge of womanhood that many of us try to erase – but my Mom bore her fleshes with an Anna-Magnani-during-wartime kind of pride.
A few months later, illness robbed my mother of her appetite and her radiance. Veins surfaced on her hands, her clothes folded in around her … and her fleshes smoothed away. Watching her disappear I was at a loss, and tried frantically to tempt her with old favorites. But not even food from the most charming gourmet store appealed– not the whitefish salad mounded on a cream-cheesey bagel, not the Lindor’s truffles she’d once popped off by the dozen. Too salty, too sweet, or just bland.
When you’re sick, what’s called for is more than just food. What’s called for is nourishment from a rich but impalpable, soulful source.
Then the obvious came to me: Am I not Jewish? Do I not know how to make a fabulous chicken soup? It was my mother’s own intensely flavorful recipe, the one that nurtured us through bronchitis and flu, that was passed down to me — now brought back to her.
Mom ate with a relish I hadn’t seen in months. After finishing one bowl, she told me that it hit the spot and asked for more.
Deep down I knew that her appetite was fleeting, symbolic. But the soup did make good on the stereotypical promise: it gave her respite from illness, and also, in her generous response, healed my helplessness for one sublimely delicious moment.
Reflection—our vocation is the moment
Just as God’s redemptive act in becoming incarnate affirms that salvation is not an escape from creation but a restoration and fulfillment of it, so also the Christian life will not be an escape from creaturely life but a calling to it. The call to follow Christ leads not to any religious vocation removed from daily life, but instead it transforms the attitude and understanding one has of the situation in which one already is.
Luther on Vocation
Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota
(For complete essay go to http://lutheranentrepreneurs.com/uploads/Luther_on_Vocation.pdf)
Probably the most important work on this topic is Gustaf Wingren’s Luther on Vocation (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957 [Swedish original published 1942]). Wingren relates vocation to the comprehensive structures of Luther’s theology. Such a foundation allows for both a more complete understanding of Luther’s view of vocation and for a more profound relation to the Christian’s life in the world today…. Wingren’s interpretation moves along the following lines. Vocation belongs to our situation between baptism and the final resurrection—a situation in which there are two kingdoms (earth and heaven, in Luther’s terminology), two contending powers (God and the devil), two antagonistic components within the Christian person (the old self and the new self), and when Christians are involved in constant struggle. Vocation is our calling in our situation in life, through which we serve God’s creative work by being under the law. It is the place in which the person of faith chooses sides in the ongoing combat between God and Satan. The “old self” must bear vocation’s cross as long as life on earth lasts and the battle against the devil continues. After death there will be anew kingdom free from the cross, heaven will take the place of earth, and the “new self” will be raised from the dead.8 In this summary “vocation” refers to more than mere dedicated service in one’s occupation. It refers above all to the whole theater of personal, communal, and historical relationships in which one lives. The eschatological situation of struggle and ambiguity, the sense of the need for the Christian’s sinful self to be put to death within and by the demands of daily life in vocation, the choice involved in life lived in the freedom of being called by Christ, and the way in which this view holds creation and redemption together if it is to make any sense at all—these themes give a most promising basis for understanding Luther’s position. They should make it possible to include both his radical emphasis on Christian freedom and his insistence on the depth of human sinfulness, one or the other of which is often muted in discussions of vocation.
To the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less
A Keeper of the Word: Selected Writings of William Stringfellow (Eerdmans, 1994), 30-31.
“I had elected then [in my early student years] to pursue no career. To put it theologically, I died to the idea of career and to the whole typical array of mundane calculations, grandiose goals and appropriate schemes to reach them…. I do not say this haughtily; this was an aspect of my conversion to the gospel….
“[Later] my renunciation of ambition in favor of vocation became resolute; I suppose some would think, eccentric. When I began law studies, I consider that I had few, if any, romantic illusions about becoming a lawyer, and I most certainly did not indulge any fantasies that God had called me, by some specific instruction, to be an attorney or, for that matter, to be a member of any profession or any occupation. I had come to understand the meaning of vocation more simply and quite differently.
“I believed then, as I do now, that I am called in the Word of God … to the vocation of being human, nothing more and nothing less…. Within the scope of the calling to be merely but truly human, any work, including that of any profession, can be rendered a sacrament of that vocation. On the other hand, no profession, discipline or employment, as such, is a vocation.”
Patient Trust In Ourselves & The Slow Work Of God
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are all, quite naturally,
impatient in everything to reach the end
We should like to skip
the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being
on the way to something unknown,
and yet it is the law of all progress
that is made by passing through
some stages of instability-
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually –
let them grow,
let them shape themselves,
without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today
what time (that is to say, grace and
circumstances acting on your own good will)
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give God the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you
and accept the anxiety of
feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.