Give Me Your Hand | August 28, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton
The opening words are from poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It is said that Rilke had a very painful childhood…full of what we would today call “trauma”. His mother locked him in the attic for long periods of time and his sensitive nature was assaulted when he was sent to military school. In this poem, Rilke says that God speaks to each of us as he makes us and then walks with us. This is an important message that it seems Rilke may have learned through his own experiences of pain and trauma…that we are not alone. This can give us a lot of hope at a time when we may not have any hope.
I speak with many people who are experiencing the lack of hope. Many attribute it to their relationships, money problems, work stress, yet I think there is often also an element of existential, cosmic or societal despair that adds to this feeling. And often the individual has, like Rilke, experienced trauma in their life (indeed most of us have). But some trauma sticks and enters our daily experience in a way that makes it difficult to function and certainly difficult to grow. One individual comes to mind who was experiencing moments of feeling “frozen”. Feeling “frozen” often means that we are not experiencing “flight or fight” but an inability to move forward that results in a feeling of “no way out” of a situation…a time when there is no hope for the future, at least in that moment. This is a terrifying experience that I would guess Rilke went through while being locked in the attic by his mother and perhaps again later in his life. It is also an experience that has been and continues to be felt by those without power, perhaps most notably children, but also any person who has been stripped of any power…any ability to effect change in their own life. Throughout history and also as seen in the experience of many of my clients, it is faith in the guidance and companionship of our creator that has provided some thread of hope for the future. But this thread of hope has also come from our ancestors who were able to summon a power and a hope from deep within to combat the “vicissitudes” of life and to sustain and even to grow “in wisdom and in stature” (one of Howard Thurman’s Disciplines of the Spirit). One of these ancestors who had grown in wisdom and stature was Alice Walker who wrote,
We are not the first to suffer, rebel, fight, love and die.
The grace with which we embrace life, in spite of the pain, the sorrows,
is always a measure of what has gone before.
This statement acknowledges our common experience as human beings…throughout history. Walker speaks of “grace” …something that we all hope to develop in our lifetimes…a reflection of the grace shown us by our creator and by all life, if we are able to live that long. And she says that it is this grace that is a measure of what we have gleaned from those ancestors. Connecting with them is very important. It helps us anchor our identity…and our roots…the place where we also draw sustenance from the “ground of our being”. Our ancestors can also be constant companions to our days, reminding us of the strength of working together…building coalitions and communities in order to overcome our present reality and to transform it.
And of course, this means that we connect with our contemporaries as well…those walking the way with us. Among them we will find those with gifts and strengths that compliment our own. I see this within our own “Beloved Community”. We gather in person and via zoom in order to bring our strengths together. This helps us to move forward with the work of transformation…as individuals, as communities, as a nation, as people living in at this “brink of time”. This is the power that we feel when we are together. A reminder from Sister Sledge…
Rilke says that it is our task to go to the limits of our longing and to embody our creator’s (and perhaps our ancestor’s) spirit and intent. He calls us to flare up like a flame in order to make big shadows our creator…the spirit of life can move in. To me, this is a fair description of life. We are unable to orchestrate our lives single-handedly…there is mystery in life…in each moment, but we can prepare the soil, so to speak. We can “keep fresh before us the moments of our high resolve”…the flame…in order for our creator…the spirit of life to have the freedom to move. This is, I think, the essence of creativity…of art. It is any pursuit, the outcome of which is a mystery…is undetermined. It is a process that forces us to “let go” of our preconceived notions and judgments in order to be open to life…open to experiencing both the beauty and the terror. Rilke reminds us that no feeling is final…just as the “contradictions of life are not final”. If I didn’t believe this, I would not be a minister at this church and I would not be a psychotherapist either. Rilke cautions us to keep going. And this can certainly be a challenge, but Rilke says, don’t let yourself lose me. This means that it is up to us to keep that connection with our creator…with the all-pervading presence of life in which we live and breathe and have our being…with the presence that walked with us silently out of the night when we were born. It is up to us to hold on to that thread…that life-giving connection…that root of our being. All our senses must join in this experience; our vision, our hearing, our touch, our taste, our intuition…we must use everything at our disposal to hold on.
Rilke says that if we hold on, then we will realize that we are…in each moment a part of life. We will become aware of life! We will be able to experience the now as we keep going to the limits of our longing. We will notice that this life…this moment is what we have right now. He says that we will know it by its seriousness. That’s it, isn’t it? Gandhi said that we are to live each day as if we were to die tomorrow and to learn as if we were to live forever. It is serious but it is also creative and joyful!
Reminders of that joy are everywhere when we are fully present…fully aware of life. The last line of the poem speaks to a powerful experience of this awareness that I have everyday…when I take a walk with my dear friend (and grandson), Freddy. Rilke says, Give me your hand…the same words spoken by Freddy at the outset of our walk. Freddy says simply “hand” and holds out his tiny hand for me. His hand is so small that he struggles to get a safe and secure fit with my comparably larger hand. He stops often along the way to adjust our grip. He is deeply aware of the seriousness (and joy!) of life. He understands that connection can be a matter of life and death and that he must stay connected. And this connection does not form itself…it needs to be adjusted as we go…we must look for an appropriate fit between our needs…our longings and the needs and longings of others. What is certain is that we are not alone…we are in this together…as long as we hold each other’s hand.