Put out my eyes and I can see you still;
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Upon my blood I then will carry you.
This poem by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) offers an interesting insight and meditation on the understanding of our sinfulness and our desperate need for Christ.
Pope Pius XII said, “The sin of the 20th century is the loss of the sense of sin.” It may be safe to say that, today, most people no longer understand what sin is; instead, they are completely numb to it. And, yet, it pervades all aspects of our lives. It’s the disease we refuse to cure.
Sometimes religious life is criticized as a retreat or an avoidance of the world. I agree with this in some sense. We, as consecrated religious, do try to turn away from evil and sin to become holy. But by our vows we not only turn from evil; we also “renounce certain things of undoubted value” (Constitution 189 § II). A question to be asked, then, is: What are we religious left with? God.
We, as human beings, are afraid to be alone. Why? Because we are forced to face ourselves in our solitude. The Holy Father, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Verbum Domini, says, “Man’s sin is the refusal to listen or to hear.” Instead of claiming that religious life is an escape from something, it may just be that we really escape when we are consumed by the world.
In our “escape” from the world, religious are confronted with themselves, and we are forced to realize how inadequate, how broken, and how pathetic we are. This is one hundred percent necessary for any spiritual growth. We face the darkness within, so that Christ may destroy it and fill the void with His light.
Rilke’s poem expresses, in a way, this internal battle in the face of sin. When we sit alone with God, and are honest, we come to see that everything we try to do alone is a failure. Worse than that, it causes destruction. We can be our own worst enemy.
Yet, no matter how off-course we may find ourselves, we can still see Christ. We can still reach out to him. We can still cry to Him because He is waiting for us.
This is what the religious life has to offer. It is a life full of joy growing from honesty. But, like anything good and worthwhile, there are many struggles. In order to be holy, as the saints declare, we must realize our nothingness and be purified by the Cross. When the world is crumbling around us, when we realize we are broken and destitute, what can we do?
Rilke’s poem reminds us that when there is nothing left, we can still drag ourselves to Him, we can still love in our brokenness. As the Psalmist writes, “What else do I have in heaven but you? Apart from you, I want nothing on earth.” (Psalm 73).
Image: Lian Neill, Broken Statue, Parthenon