Rilke and Sarajevo

One of my favorite poems is by Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet. I was first introduced to the poem about ten years ago, it has stuck with me ever since. Rilke conveys immense depth in a relatively short and simple poem. Because of the theme of faith despite doubt and pain, I continually think on this poem almost as a prayer.

Indeed, the world is full of both beauty and terror. Sarajevo today has immense beauty – both beauty in the small things which those individuals who are new to the country will notice, and beauty in the hidden depths only known to those with long histories here. Sarajevo today also bears the markings of past terror – the shell holes in the buildings, the memorials, the social/political/economic issues. As a class, it seems we have struggled with how to conceptualize this city in a way that recognizes both the beauty and the pain, but still reveres that which is important and true to the place.
When we visited a family counseling agency in Sarajevo, we learned about the organization’s mission and the staff’s perspectives on their work.  When I asked how the staff perceived the impact of the war on the families in Bosnia, one staff person said that the war kept families together. Families relied on each other. Though Rilke’s poem discusses a Higher Power, his words “Don’t let yourself lose me” seem particularly apt – holding on to family.
Rilke’s words remind me that the world is immense, and that despite the pain, there can be faith in that which is meaningful to us.  Here’s the poem, and you can read about Rilke here.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.These are words we dimly hear:You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.


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