In his book Letters to a Young Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and 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 will find them gradually, without noticing it, and live along some distant day into the answer.”
Life seems at times to be designed in a way contrary to this philosophy. There is not a lot of patience in our world for questions – we are fixated on the answers and on solutions – even when we have not yet arrived at them. Increasingly, I find that there are more questions in my heart than certitudes. Don’t get me wrong. I am not discouraged by the fact that there are often more questions than answers. It just is sometimes a very frustrating place to be when everything around screams, give us the answer. Even admitting that there are questions is a little bit scary. I mean in church-land, we do not have the best track record when it comes to questioning. As an institution we tend to value certitude over question. There are, of course, some corners of Christianity that are more certain than others, but on the whole we really do hold up a standard that is fairly absolute and those who walk outside of that garden of cocksure crocuses are usually discarded as dandelions.
Yet every fibre of my being tells me that the real place where the journey begins is when there are real questions and the courage to ask them. We are left sometimes on our journey with no answer to some of the most difficult questions. Rainer Marie Rilke seems comfortable to live in the question, to be patient with the idea that we do not need to know the answer right now. Last weekend we had dinner with friends, and we had a conversation about Poet Robert Frost. One of the poems that we chatted about was Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Here to is a infamous statement about the power of living in the moment, of allowing the question. In this little poem the reader is lead outside of the comfort zone of the house, the village, the society to the darkness and the starkness of the wilderness. And upon arriving, the reader finds it to be a place that is tranquil and beautiful. The cares, the concerns the certitude of society, the church, the world seems to be personified in the horse. This domesticated beast shakes a bell to stir us to ask if it is ok to be in that place. Then those most famous lines are offered that remind the reader that the journey is not static but there are many more places to visit before it ends. “And miles to go before I sleep.” For me, that speaks to Rilke’s assertion that we need to “Live the questions now… and live along some distant day into the answer.”
Where would we be if people were not content to live in the question and seek out the answers? Just think of all those whose influence we would not have had. So I encourage us all to live in and live through the questions.
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